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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Down the Rabbit-Hole: Jackrabbit's Story, Part 4

You know, up until three years ago, I was extremely resistant to admit that the Shepard murder had any profound or lasting impact on my life. I'm not entirely sure even now why that was the case; I think maybe it was because how much the whole experience left me jaded and worn out. It probably also had to do with denial; it didn't hit home until I saw a TLP performance just how psychologically battered the whole mess had left me, and the less I thought about everything, the better.

But Matt's death, and the trials, did leave a lasting impact on me. Like it or not, the worldview I had inherited from my conservative parents and my farm-born grandparents was undergoing a sea change. In a lot of ways, I still consider myself more of a conservative on some things, but I was rapidly turning into a rabid egalitarian when it came to issues of human rights and tolerance. When I later became a believing, evangelical Christian, I took those lessons with me into my faith; I moved progressively away from the staunch, legalistic individualism of my Western American upbringing (and the Baptist Faith and Message) to something much more closely akin to Desmond Tutu's ubuntu theology.  I can't deny that these years following Matt's death have been a major influence for all of that.

For instance, during that spring semester of total hell, I felt compelled to do something that would have been completely unthinkable just a year before: I marched in a protest for gay rights in Cheyenne, WY with two friends of mine from my Political Theater class.   The protest was part of a larger program of activities for Equality Week, which kicked off with a march to the capitol on March 27th.  It was absolutely freezing that morning even though it was later in March, and I spent a lot of time before the march huddled under a storefront awning and stamping my feet to keep the circulation going in my toes. I felt very brave and political and progressive when we first started off down the street towards the capitol chanting our slogans, but when I saw a news camera, a terrible thought leaped into my head: if my father saw me on the six o'clock news, I was going to get my butt handed to me.  I marched the rest of the parade hiding behind a corpulent protester with my picket in front of my face, and I didn't feel like such a brave eighteen year-old anymore.

During that time the WBC protestors-- and Angel Action-- came and went. We all knew that Phelps would be back, but Romaine and her angels couldn't stay there forever; at some point we had to fend for ourselves. Phelps came back at the start of the proceedings against Aaron McKinney in the fall of 1999 and set up camp again outside the student union. The orange plastic pens reappeared, and I had to walk that narrow corridor past Phelps's cold, drowning eyes about four times a day to get to my Latin and English classes. I got used to gripping my arms around my books and looking the other way when I had to shoulder my way past their placards and the media cameras taking in the spectacle. 

I was working as an RA in the fall of 1999, and now I was in a position to watch the freshman students in my dorm struggle with the same shock and outrage I had felt upon seeing the protesters for the first time. Most of them had never seen anything like that except on the news. Some of them, bless them, even wanted to fight back. There was this one guy in particular (who I'll call "Bill") who really wanted to face off against Phelps. I passed him in the hall of our dorm one afternoon talking over something excitedly with another one of our residents.
"What have you got there?" I asked him. He waved a sheet in front of my face.
"I've been doing my research, I've been reading the Bible," this kid blustered. For "Bill," that was quite an accomplishment. "I've got it all right here. I can refute him." I looked at the paper he had-- a list of Bible verses.
"So, you're going to walk up to him behind that barricade and, what-- strike up a theological debate with him?" I asked, a little incredulous. "Like that will do any good." "Bill" rolled his eyes at his friend in frustration. I was a little annoyed that he was treating me like I was the one who didn't get it.  I'd been putting up with this crap for over a year and, what-- he was going to stroll in from out of state and tell me how to do things?     
"So you're just going to sit around and not do anything?" "Bill" said. "I can prove he's wrong..."
"But nobody who'll listen to you thinks he's right anyway," I countered. "What do you think you're going to accomplish? You can't change his mind. You're just playing into his hand. Just ignore the jerk." The kid gave me a disgusted look; I didn't have the patience to explain the last year of my life, so I handed him back his paper and left.
The funny thing, looking back, was that one of his refutations was Proverbs 29:9: "If a wise man contendeth with a foolish man, whether he rage or laugh, there is no rest." That's ironic.  To his credit, "Bill" kept up his high-minded, philosophical response to Phelps, but I think it came at a cost-- he was disorganized and distracted, and his grades suffered. At the time, I felt ashamed; "Bill" seemed so much braver than me. I was openly terrified of Phelps, but at least "Bill" had the guts (or the hubris-- I'm not sure which) to face off with him.

But, strangely, when the Aaron McKinney trial started up in earnest, there was no real conversation about it this time. When Matt was first beaten, everyone was talking; now, almost a year to the day from his death, nobody really wanted to discuss it at all. A few people talked a little bit about the "gay panic" defense and how stupid it was, but there were no serious debates about the issues. I have to wonder how much the media presence was responsible for that freeze over our minds, and how much of it was simply an inability to process everything. I don't think I can blame the press for all our reticence, after all, but they sure didn't help. 

The media were still there, of course, lurking around every corner, and they were getting smarter. When the McKinney trial first started, most of the reporters were down at the courthouse, so we felt pretty safe. Besides, we were learning how to live with them just like we were learning to live with the bloom of mosquitoes we had that year: if you can't get rid of the little bloodsuckers, just brush them off. At some point during the trial, I was on Sorority Row lugging my horn case back to the Fine Arts building when I an older guy in a long coat walking in my direction.
"What on earth are you carrying there, young lady?" he asked me cheerfully.
"It's a euphonium case," I said.
"A eu-what?" He asked, baffled.
"Think of a baby tuba," I replied, and we got into a lazy, cheerful conversation about the concert coming up and the campus in general. I could tell that the guy wasn't a local, but for some reason it never occurred to me why he was there. Finally, he opened up his trench coat and pulled out a large, fuzzy microphone. Oh, shit, I remember thinking. I just got suckered in by a reporter. I was so furious with myself.
"I hate to do this to you," he asked, almost apologetically, "but would you mind if I asked you a couple questions about the trial?" My mind started uttering a long stream of obscenities.
"Um," I said. "Sure, I guess." I wanted to run.
And that's how I ended up getting interviewed for NPR in the cold, holding an empty euphonium case and trying to desperately think of everything I didn't want to tell him. I swear that I have never performed so much self-censorship in my life. I'm pretty sure I was the only person he cajoled into talking to him that day, seeing as I gave him the worst interview he'd probably ever taken and he used the footage anyway. On the flip side of things, he represented his fellow media-people extremely well. He was the first national reporter I had seen who treated us students like actual human beings, and even though the interview left a sour taste in my mouth, he was a respectful, thoughtful fellow, and I liked him a lot nonetheless. I salute you, Mr. NPR reporter guy, whoever you were; thanks for proving to me that not every national media reporter covering the McKinney trial was a jerk. 

I didn't think much of the interview until I phoned home a week later. "By the way," my father said, "Bob said he heard you on NPR a couple of days ago." My father's friend Bob lived in another state, which was my first indication that I was on a national news report.  I started to panic a little.  Had I said anything that would make my father angry?
"Um, did he say anything about the interview?"  I asked.  I held my breath, hoping. 
"No, just that he heard you,"  Dad said.  I was so relieved. 
 I was a little more careful after that. As the Equality March had proven, the trial was starting to make me form opinions that wouldn't jive well with my family, and I didn't want to have to explain myself.

And how did things end, you might ask?  It was a bit of an anti-climax on my end.  After all the protests, the media, and the frustration, I just have this memory of riding in a friend's car when the news of the plea bargain was announced over the radio the day after they found McKinney guilty.  I remember breathing a huge sigh of relief when I heard that he wasn't going to be executed. My mind stopped for a moment, confused, and that's when I realized that I no longer believed in the death penalty. I had just caught myself in the middle of a major shift in my worldview, and it was a little disorienting. I didn't think that such deep-seated ideals could actually be changed, but here I was, grateful that Matt Shepard's murderer was going to be allowed to live. If anybody deserved death for what he did, it was McKinney; and yet, I knew that a death sentence wasn't going to solve anything. This community would never be allowed to heal if he were.  I listened later to the Shepards' statement about the plea deal, and there was no doubt in my mind that it was the right thing to do.

And that's the next major change Matt Shepard made in me: I discovered that I was against the death penalty. And that was the end, so to speak, of my personal experience with Matt Shepard's murder. The next part of this story is driven less by Matt himself as it is The Laramie Project-- and I suppose that shall be where the Jackrabbit eventually runs to next.

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