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Monday, September 20, 2010

Class Lines on the Font Lines: the 1998 Reporting, part 1

So, the reason I was so interested in chatting with Coyote about West Laramie that Friday when we walked along the green belt was because of what I had read in some back issues of the Laramie Boomerang from 1998.  I was surprised to find an AP article on the class divide in Laramie dated just a week after Matthew Shepard died.  The article was put out by a couple of AP staff writers and a Cheyenne reporter, and the Boomerang ran it to show how the drama was being reported in the national media coverage.
The piece was over-the-top, honestly, and laughably inaccurate as it overplayed the common tropes of class struggle.  According to the AP, upper-class Wyoming families are all close and loving (never mind that Shepard's father spent most of his childhood working on a different continent) and all lower-class families are virtual time bombs for criminal behavior (never mind that Henderson, not Shepard, was the Eagle scout).  West Laramie, apparently, is the complete opposite of east Laramie, according to the AP, and west Laramie is therefore a crime-ridden, poverty-strapped sewage pit.  And when West Laramie residents read this article back in 1998, some of them actually (and quite understandably) flipped out.

But, what really fascinated me was the way in which the AP reporters picked up on a narrative that, to be honest, has always resonated with me, but I was never really sure if that narrative was just part of my personal relationship to Laramie (because my family splits that same class divide) or if it was a larger narrative being played out in the community.  As it turns out, I wasn't making it up.  That narrative of class and privilege was one that was floating around even while the narrative of LGBT intolerance was being passed around, too.  I'd like to share a little of this article with you, and the Laramie reactions, to show you how that east-west Laramie split, still felt by my brother Coyote today, was making waves in Laramie back in 1998... 

The piece I'm talking about is  "Wyoming Town Wrestles with a Slaying in its Rich-Poor Midst," written by two AP staff writers, Todd Levan and Steven K. Paulson and with a hat tip to a Cheyenne writer, E.N. Smith. (Chances are good that all Smith did was chase down a couple of quotes and the rest of this thing is the work of the two AP writers, so don't get all indignant with him or her, please.)  The story was released to run in national papers on October 19, about a week after Matt died. 

To be honest, the article is so bad that it had me alternately gasping in shock and snickering uncontrollably-- both of which got me glares in Coe Library while I was on the microfilm machine.  These two reporters get so caught up in the mythology of class difference that the actual details of Laramie, Wyoming fuzz out wherever their grand narrative doesn't fit.  For instance, in their imagination, the buck fence isn't really a fence:  "But this was not a farm, no place for a scarecrow. The barricade was there to seal off a 14-room luxury house under construction" (par. 7).  I'm really interested that they're picking up on the same class issues with the fence that I did, but come on-- a "barricade?"  Really?  I also just love their description of the two sides of town:
On the east side is the University of Wyoming's ivy-clad main campus, where students drive sports cars or stroll and bike along oak-shaded sidewalks.

On the opposite side of town, a bridge spans railroad tracks to another reality, of treeless chocka-block trailer parks baking in the heavy sun, fenced-off half-acre lots, stray dogs picking for scraps among broken stoves, refrigerators and junked pickups.   (par. 12-13)
Oh, gag.  I'm trying to picture ivy anywhere on that campus, and I can't find it.  Actually, I don't even know if it'd grow in that much snow, but it makes for some nice symbolism, doesn't it-- the "ivy league" of Wyoming?  And, the trees especially are an interesting touch, guys.  As one letter to the editor pointed out, there are no oak-shaded sidewalks at UW because it's too damn cold for oak trees to grow.  There are white oaks on campus-- exactly four of them, if memory serves-- and they're planted on either side of the back of Old Main as a symbol for learning.  They're tiny and stunted from the cold, and their trunks have been about as big around as my leg since I was in high school.

The cottonwoods which line the UW campus, however, are just as prevalent in the wide streets of West Laramie as they are on campus.  In fact, in some places the cottonwoods are even bigger in the west side of town because there's been less construction.  And the only trailer parks I can think of fitting that description, to be blunt, aren't that far from campus. When  I think of treeless neighborhoods "baking in the heavy sun," I always think of the little chocka-block suburbanite townhomes stamped out on the north side to give the UW professionals someplace to live.   

Okay, so the framing narrative here is just terrible, and it's really skewing what Laramie (especially west Laramie) actually looks like.  At the same time, those class issues do exist, and they're issues that I tend to focus on when I think of Laramie, too.  The AP reporters even talk to a familiar figure for his take on Matt's murder and the class divide: 
"Sooner or later this was going to happen in Laramie," says the Rev. Stephen M. Johnson, leader of a Universal Unitarian congregation here. "This is going to happen again and again and again unless the have-nots of this town become part of the community again" (par. 5). 
Yes, that is the same Stephen Mead Johnson from The Laramie Project.  No, this isn't a matter of Johnson "changing his story" or playing up a different angle with Tectonic when they came asking about LGBT acceptance, I don't think.  This is just Johnson recognizing that, as with any tragedy, the different facets to the story that look different when you hold them into the light.  These AP reporters were interested in the facet of class difference, so that was probably the main thrust of this conversation-- and as a Unitarian, both of those stories, of class antagonism and of homophobia, are issues of social justice which his faith is interested in healing.

And, along with the class narrative comes another familiar story-- familiar now, at least, to those who have seen 10 Years Later-- the robbery motive:
Ralph Castro, director of the Drug and Alcohol Prevention Center in Laramie, believes the crime was more a robbery than an anti-gay assault. "There is always going to be people living near the poverty level in town, and others with high-profile jobs. I have no idea how we are going to prevent something like this from happening again. That's the million dollar question and something that everyone in Laramie, Wyoming, and the nation is asking."  (par. 41) 
Just like Johnson, Castro's position as a social worker puts him in a world that's going to focus on the class difference and the social divide more than others.  And I find it interesting that this article, just like I have tended to, links the class issue and the robbery narrative together as cause and effect.  When you look at Matt's murder through eyes colored by the social divide, it's the robbery that stands out in a sharp relief.  Look at this event from a different angle-- from Laramie's history of intolerance-- and the role of homophobia and its flawed tolerance culture shows up loud and clear.   While some might say that robbery was a main motive, I suppose I just see it as one facet of a much more complicated interplay of causes leading up to a horrific crime. 

But what takes the cake in this article are the last two paragraphs, listed here: 
During the past week, students at the University of Wyoming have held candlelight vigils. People have gathered at churches along Grand Avenue, the tree-lined avenue in front of the college, praying for reconciliation and atonement.

Few of the mourners, however, come from the rundown west side.
In reality, how many of those mourners would have come from the "rundown west side?"  Actually, if they're college students or campus employees, a lot.  Many of them, like my brother Coyote does now, lived in west Laramie instead of on-campus.  And that's because a lot of the students at UW are scraping by on student loans and looking for a place to live where the rent isn't ridiculously overinflated, or they're getting away from campus and want to live in a nice, quiet neighborhood, or (gasp) that's where they were born.  These reporters trying to divide with a scalpel two communities which are far more interlinked than they realize-- not east and west, but rich and poor, and often living side-by-side in the same neighborhoods. 

But in a weird sense, these two reporters aren't making any of this up.  This is, in fact, a common stereotype of west Laramie, as Coyote affirms, and it's one one which still does a lot of damage.  It's a narrative by which I have felt judged, too.  In a bizarre way, what they have reconstructed is a picture of Laramie as it often exists in our collective memory, one which doesn't actually exist on the ground but is extremely powerful nonetheless.  This story was so damaging because of its powerful truth-- not forensic truth, as Coyote will tell you, but story truth.  And that is the narrative that a few Laramie residents lashed out against in the Laramie Boomerang later that same week.  I'll share some of their reactions to this mythologizing in a later post.


Levan, Todd, and Steven K. Paulson, with E.N. Smith.  "Wyoming Town Wrestles with a Slaying in its Rich-Poor Midst."  AP State and Local Wire, 19 Oct 1998: n.p.  Web.

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