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Friday, October 15, 2010

Class Lines on the Front Lines, part 2: The Citizens Strike Back!

A couple of weeks ago, I looked at an AP article about the class divide in Laramie, WY from the time of Shepard's murder and how it overplayed a narrative of class antagonism to the point of absolute absurdity.  In their attempt to capture the "feeling" of the social divide in Laramie, the reporters resorted to using tropes that distorted West Laramie's character and had no basis in reality.  The reaction to that AP article, mostly from West Laramie residents, is really quite interesting.  On the one hand, they (rightly) try to attack the article as inaccurate, using their own personal experience as Laramie residents to shore up their claims.  On the other hand, after observing both hate protests and their counter-protesters for the last year or so, I have to ask: how effective is this approach for neutralizing prejudice?  I'll save that for a later post, but let's look at a couple of Laramie responses after the jump! 

Now that I'll tell ya, here in Laramie there is a difference and there always has been.  What it is is a class distinction.  It's about the well-educated and the ones that are not.  And the educated don't understand why the ones that are not don't get educated.  (17)
Marge Murray, in The Laramie Project (2000)
SHANNON:  ...Matthew had money.  Shit, he had better clothes than I did.  Matthew was a little rich bitch. 
JEN:  You shouldn't call him a rich bitch though, that's not right. (60). 
Friends of Aaron McKinney, in The Laramie Project (2000)

The AP article revealed a connection between this narrative of class difference and the robbery motive.  It demonstrated how some people in the community were connecting class inequity and the robbery motive together, and one of those was Stephen Mead Johnson in The Laramie Project. It also made a connection between robbery, poverty, and West Laramie.

As we can see in the quotes above, class difference does make a brief appearance in TLP, but there's never any real connection between class, poverty, and West Laramie.  That's a problem more of the reporters than it ever is with Tectonic Theater. The problem with the AP's story is that it saddled this narrative of class distinction onto a specific geographic location where it doesn't belong.

The first reactions to the AP story started showing up in the Boomerang on October 22nd, just days after the AP story ran and smothered within in several pages of outrage over the Phelps's funeral protest.  Two different people with West Laramie ties wrote back to the paper to express their displeasure under the subheads "Laramie putdown" and "Asinine article."  Both of these responses come from West Laramie residents, and, interestingly enough, when they refute the AP article, they hit on the same inaccuracies but attack  the class narrative from two very different directions.

Both of the letters go to the heart of the inaccurate portrayal of East and West Laramie.  For instance, they each mention the idea of oak trees on campus in opposition to the sun-baked, treeless lots on the west side:
As for the oak-lined streets that some people are lucky enough to walk down here in Laramie, I guess some people don't know it's too cold here for them to grow.  Most of the trees around here are cottonwood, pine, ash, and birch trees.  Which is what most of the trees west of the tracks are.  ("Putdown," par. 3) 
(I've already pointed out that there are actually a couple sad, pathetic little oak trees next to Old Main on the campus, but that's entirely beside the point.  She's still right.)  The letter-writer of "Asinine article" had a much more pointed formulation:
As a resident of the "Poverty stricken west side," I would challenge those writers to pay my house taxes and rake the leaves from the nonexistent trees. (par. 1) 
I'm sorry, but this one actually thrills me.  What a sharp, pointed way to tackle both of those inaccuracies.  Touche

But the similarity basically stops there.  "Putdown" contradicts the AP narrative by building up a counter-narrative of her childhood growing up west of the tracks.  As she points out,
I have a lot of good memories growing up there.  Playing baseball, hide-and-seek, bike rides with the kids roam around the west side... it was really hard to grow up on the 'poor' side of town and get to do the same things as they did on the rich side of town. (par. 2) 
She also uses her personal experience to question the redneck stereotype the reporters invoked: "I don't remember having fires in the yard so we could roast marshmellows or drink beer.  That was saved for a campfire in the mountains" (par. 4).  She therefore concludes that her memories demonstrate that there's no difference between growing up in east or west Laramie: "what makes the difference is the love you are raised with, and the discipline you are taught and teach yourself" (par. 5).  For "Putdown," the difference exists, but it has nothing to do with east versus west.  Instead, it's about upbringing and personal character. 

When "Asinine" tackles the AP concept of West Laramie, however, she doesn't use personal experience so much as she tries to break down the AP's formulation of the class divide.  After calling the AP article "almost laughable in its inaccuracy" (par.1), she immediately launches into a full frontal assault on class division:
I'm willing to bet some of our students are "stuffing fajitas, flipping burgers and making beds to make ends meet.  What a pompous statement inferring these jobs are unworthy.  I have  questions.  What happened to the ranchers' cattle?  Were they all rustled?  Do the salesmen, mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, city workers, barbers, etc., who have no college degrees, position themselves on the extreme rich...  or extreme poor categories?  (par. 1)
"Asinine" is going to the heart of what she believes is the misunderstanding: they don't understand that Wyoming's social divide looks very different than most places (although it has exactly the same results).  So does our definition of "good" vs. "demeaning" labor.  As she points out above, class lines are highly flexible things, and in her area, it's often about self-ownership and skill.  Ranchers and farmers may not have a ton of money in their bank account from time to time, but their deeded land, livestock, and equipment makes them extremely "rich" on paper.  Business owners have a similar respect in town because they own their own labor, and most highly skilled jobs which earn a comfortable learning are respected whether they're college educated or not. A lot of that is because a certified skill in a trade is something you own, and it can't be taken away from you.  It's nothing unusual for a smart, ambitious kid to want to take up welding or become an electrician, and his or her parents would be thrilled. 

So, in short, "Asinine" is pointing out that the AP's attempt to link education and social status doesn't really exist in reality because our strange economy forces a different idea of "success" than in a lot of places.  And in turn, she shows us that trying to push that binary opposition between east and west Laramie doesn't make any sense.

I applaud both of these writers, mostly because they were bold enough to step forward in defense of their community and because they did it without reverting to denigrating to the upper classes or west Laramie.  They want to build the community rather than further the divide so melodramatically painted by the AP.  As "Asinine" points out, "Matthew's murder shocked and hurt everyone in this community, without exception...  We cannot bring him back, but we can memorialize Matthew's brief life by stopping prejudice and allowing everyone to feel welcome in our town" (par. 3).  Okay, so McKinney came from the west side.  But he was born and raised in what eventually became one of the ritziest parts of Laramie, just west of the mouth of Telephone Canyon.  If you insist on linking location with the Shepard tragedy, Aaron Mckinney is just a much a part of east Laramie as he is the west.  But in reality, that distinction is irrational to begin with, isn't it?

And yet, while I approve these ladies' passion and good rhetorical skills, I have my doubts.  You see, part of me feels like merely debunking the forensic truth behind the West Laramie prejudice won't make it go away; rather, I feel like that showing their assertions are without merit merely reinforces the legitimacy of the assumptions that those prejudices are built on.  "Asinine," in her own way, does a very good job of showing how their formulation of class difference doesn't work in Laramie.  Both she and "Putdown" formulate passionate, specific rebuttals.  But is that enough to neutralize the bias?  I really don't think so, and I'll explain why in one last post.

Letters to the Editor.  The Laramie Daily Boomerang 22 Oct 1998: 4+.  Print.

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