By Kay Whitlock
I’ve been lost for a while/I think I may be off by a million miles…
I asked directions back at the station/I had a feeling I could trust that guy
I was mistaken, now I got a feeling/That I’ll be driving down this highway till the day that I die
Still I don’t care even if I got to crawl/Till I ain’t got any knees at all
I’m gonna find my way/Back to the crossroads some day.
—Singer/songwriter Todd Snider, “Back to the Crossroads”
When I am filled with pain, and seeking change in my life but unclear, uncertain, or even ambivalent about new directions and possible choices, I spend time in quiet reflection and meditation. Then I head for The Crossroads.
I go to make an inchoate plea for insight, revelation, and guidance—what some folks would call a prayer. I go when the daylight language of “issues” and politics as usual sounds like meaningless gibberish and possesses such a profound aura of lifelessness that even zombies cannot arise and lurch toward us in its presence.
I am at The Crossroads now because I feel weary and so restricted and clogged in my thinking about the nature of justice and the relationship of structural violence to sudden explosions of violence in homes and communities.
In mythology and story—found in Greek, Yoruba, and so many other cultures—The Crossroads is a place, symbolic and actual, where different paths converge. The Crossroads is a place of meeting and farewell; of union, reunion, and parting. Best approached at midnight, The Crossroads is a matrix: a situation or environment in which the conscious self encounters the unconscious shadow; where the living encounter the dead; where choices are made and a particular direction must be selected.
I was already heading there when, in the midst of a road trip across Iowa with my partner and various members of her/our family to visit special places for the purpose of scattering the cremains of both of her parents who died last year, we heard about Orlando and the mass murder and mayhem on Latin Night at Pulse, an LGBT nightclub. The grief and love we were already feeling surged. As we all now know, forty-nine people were killed—mostly young queers and transgender people of color, Latinx and Black, and some a mix of both, mostly of Puerto Rican descent—and more than fifty were injured.
My partner, queer friends, and I have been rambling on endlessly, thinking about our own histories, seeking names, photographs, and details of lives. Orlando was something hardly any of my straight friends and family would really talk about. Most responded only briefly, if at all, with distancing and jarring abstractions having to do with issues and enemies and monsters. Only one person really responded with her whole heart.
Here were the limits of legal “equality” laid out in blood across the dance floor and in the bathrooms of Pulse, and in Orlando hospital rooms and surgeries, tended to by sudden mobilizations of nurses, doctors, and paramedics.
It could have happened to almost any queer—especially LGBTQ people of color—at any time over so many decades. Richard Kim and Veronica Bayetti Flores and others have written movingly about the meaning—sanctuary, community center, and lifeline—of bars and nightclubs to so many queers. My own queer self was forged partly in political arenas. But only in the early 1970s did I come to a celebration of my whole self in bars and nightclubs—especially in dance clubs—with names like Three Sisters (Six Tits to the Wind, as some of us called it), Hide ’n Seek, Rusty’s, Mademoiselle, The Duchess, Grand Central, and Ice Palace. There I learned to embrace and rejoice in my desire, fleshy, fully embodied, sensate, and utterly freeing, the life-affirming, unrestrained varieties of queer desire that the cautious, respectable framing of “gay rights” and “LGBT equality” always avoids.
That this tragedy involves homophobia, transphobia, and racism is clear. Perhaps also toxic masculinity. But none of that is the whole story. How do we make sense of Omar Mateen? He came of age in a society permeated with anti-LGBT culture wars and suspicion and animosity directed against people of color, immigrants, and Muslims. He knew a lot about violence (he physically abused his former wife, who described him as mentally unstable, and was known for making bigoted and “inflammatory” statements on various occasions), security and weaponry. He may have been gay or at least felt queer stirrings at some point, regardless of whether he was gay, felt compelled to enter a queer club—not just on any evening, but on Latino Night—and start shooting.
Almost instantly, police and mass media framed the shooter, twenty-nine-year-old Mateen, killed by police three hours after he entered Pulse, as a Muslim terrorist, possibly an immigrant, loyal to ISIS, the so-called Islamic State. Never mind that he was born in the United States. Never mind that he seems not to have been a religious Muslim or that pundits couldn’t agree on what kind of Muslim he really was. The FBI had once investigated Mateen and closed the file on him. Is that a failure? What are the limits of surveillance and control? Or are there any?
Apparently not. Even as it becomes increasingly clear that Mateen was not quite the credentialed ISIS-affiliated “radical Islamist jihadist” many have made him out to be, liberal LGBT advocacy groups place uncritical faith in the government’s Kafkaesque “terror watch list” wanting it strengthened via gun control legislation. And just to emphasize that the problem of mass violence is only the province of fanatics and extremists, they also ask for guns to be denied to those convicted of hate crimes. (Never mind that the thirty-odd years of having various federal and state hate crime laws have not produced any safety for anyone, especially the communities these laws are said to protect, but have expanded police violence.)
The hunt is on, as it always is, to pinpoint the presence of danger and evil in particular categories of people in order to exonerate ourselves.
The Obsession with Enemies
What happens to a society like the United States that—today as well as historically—focuses on enemy formation as an organizing principle for establishing safety? What does it mean when we emphasize containing, controlling, and crushing enemies—and then conflate the hunt for enemies with the search for justice?
What happens when almost all the proposed responses to enmity involve some combination of intensified surveillance, educational and cultural censorship, and formal/informal means of policing, punishment, and monitoring that primarily target communities we have already demonized?
Such questions haunt me. They show up constantly in my work, which is centered on revealing and challenging structural forms of violence—violence embedded in mainstream public/private institutional policies and practices, and in popular culture, in the United States. Structural violence: police brutality, militarism, the violence of institutionalized racism, and patriarchy that provides the template for what our society has come to call “hate violence.” The work takes me into places where the issues are fraught and framed by contested images, symbols, and stories of danger, enmity, fear, violence, and personal/collective pain and trauma—especially in fear-and-anger soaked moments of crisis and tragedy.
None of this hunt to locate the source of moral vacancy, violence, danger, and evil outside of ourselves is new; it is as old as settler colonialism, the genocide of Indigenous peoples, and chattel slavery. Michael Bronski and I talk about this at some length in Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics. In the late nineteenth century, European theories of “born criminals,” which quickly gained currency in the U.S., placed white, heterosexual men without a trace of readily identifiable physical or cognitive disability at the apex of virtue and civilization. “Born criminals,” by contrast, flagged as dangerous all people of color, anyone with discernible disabilities, certain white ethnic groups considered to still be primitive and atavistic, and gender nonconforming people. This mainstream theory morphed into eugenics, which sought to apply “sound scientific principles” of racism to the biological control of peoples thought to be dangerous to the civilized and moral (white, able-bodied, affluent) body politic.
Today, the hunt continues, through varied forms of racial and sexual profiling; through the widespread use of so-called “evidence-based predictive risk assessment” instruments in courts and correctional institutions; through the incessant compiling of ever more expanded lists of “criminals” and people on terror watch lists; through new variations of old “born criminal” and eugenic ideas that seek biologized ways to predict violence and danger. Our society’s obsession with human triage shows up in countless forms: shredding the social safety net; establishing systems of mass incarceration that morph into expansions of community-based forms of ongoing control and surveillance; the school-to-prison pipeline, and an apparently perpetual commitment to war.
But it is not possible to neatly sort out good and evil people into separate, distinct piles, because the capacity for both is found in all of us, and throughout all of our communities. There aren’t enough fences, walls, police, jails, prisons, surveillance technologies, drones, or ground troops to keep us “safe” from having, somehow, to live with one another and even ourselves.
Activist and scholar Rachael Kamel notes that so many Orlando commentaries focus on “how to separate the sheep from the goats. Was the shooter ‘really’ gay? Was he ‘really’ an Islamist (whatever that is)?...Here’s an idea: it will never be possible to separate human beings into the good ones and the bad ones, the ‘real’ Muslims (or Christians or Jews) and the violent ones, the real queers and the closet cases. We are all mixed up with one another...”
Back to the Crossroads
Efforts to create safety and community cohesion through strategies of control, containment, and domination of the fearful, despised, and subservient Other are destroying us. Proposed reforms only tinker with the machinery of domination, making cosmetic changes while leaving oppressive supremacist ideologies and systems in place. And in truth, the central structures of domination serve as the default architects and implementers of change. Solidarities are expressed in the moment, and they are important, sometimes even life-changing for those who participate. But on a societal basis, they don’t last. How can they? We have no national foundation for imagining justice as the radical creation of just social, economic, cultural, and ecological relationships within a context of wellbeing for all.
We have to create that foundation ourselves, together.
What would happen, Bronski and I ask in our book, if we disentangled justice from the framework of hate and vengeance and imagined justice in new ways? Here’s how we’ve imagined it, but others may take it into deeper and more expansive directions:
Justice: the evolving pursuit of trustworthy, respectful, and nonexploitative relationships, together with accountability for interrupting, preventing, and redressing violence, in its myriad forms, against individuals, peoples, communities, and ecologies.
That’s why I’m at The Crossroads at midnight. To depart from those who seek only punishment and revenge. To at last move wholeheartedly, without equivocation, toward a justice defined by radical, collective embrace of the neighbor.
The most popular bit of American Crossroads lore has it that the great Delta bluesman Robert Johnson went out one dark Mississippi night, in the moonlight, to trade his soul to the Devil for the ability to play the guitar like nobody else. In a society drenched in the white supremacist need to conflate darkness with Blackness, criminality, and evil, it’s not surprising that encounters here are said by those who speak only in daylight language to be meetings with The Devil.
That’s the penchant for racist drama, of course, a cautionary tale tailored to explain the magnificent artistry of a poor, exploited man of color who died way too young. I prefer to think he did indeed go to The Crossroads; he has a song about it. But it wasn’t the Devil he encountered. It was himself.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told the story somewhat differently in a sermon called “A Knock at Midnight” given less than a year before he was assassinated. Taking inspiration from a passage in the Gospel of Luke, he spoke to the role of the church in grappling with contemporary injustices and anxieties. A weary sojourner arrives at a friend’s house—The Crossroads—and this friend has nothing to “set before” the sojourner. So the friend goes to a neighbor and asks for bread in order to nourish the sojourner. The bread represents hope, love, and just social and economic relationship. But midnight is a dispiriting time, filled with paralyzing fears and great hypocrisies; it is a time and the temptation to relinquish hope for significant change is great.
The neighbor refuses to give the bread.
What a terrible time. Yet Dr. King reminds us, midnight is also a time when relentless persistence and strong patience in the face of great adversity and indifference can produce astonishing transformation. We must never consent to this indifference, which is located not only in some designated Other, but also, too often, in ourselves.
Real justice would mean working toward a society in which the dear friends killed in Orlando were still alive, still dancing, still with hopeful futures ahead in a society that values them. And the man who killed them might be among them, this time not with an assault rifle but a kind regard for himself and his neighbors.
About the Author
Kay Whitlock is a writer and activist who has been involved with racial, gender, queer, and economic justice movements since 1968. She is coauthor of Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics with Michael Bronski, the award-winning Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States with Joey L. Mogul and Andrea J. Ritchie, and cofounder and contributing editor for the weekly Criminal Injustice series at CriticalMassProgress.com. She lives in Missoula, Montana. Follow her on Twitter at @KayJWhitlock.