race

Psycho-Killer? The origins of Colin Ferguson's hate

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In the weeks since the December 7 Long Island Railroad massacre, scores of commentators have cited the diversity of gunman Colin Ferguson's grievances against Caucasians, Chinese, "Uncle Tom Negroes" and "so-called civil rights leaders" to argue that he is a deranged loner. And he is. But none of the reports took into account the most compelling explanation for his malevolent worldview: the dangerous political subculture in which he was steeped. No one, it seems, is willing to entertain even the possibility that Ferguson's delusions were fed by the politics of Crown Heights, Tawana Brawley, the Central Park jogger, the Korean boycott and other cases--a politics of paranoia and rage about white and Asian racist conspiracies that has dominated New York City's black media.

Notes found on Ferguson after the slayings repeat, with an eerie fidelity, the catechism of diverse hatreds taught in recent years by many civil rights leaders, among them Colin Moore, a black Brooklyn lawyer who was a militant defense attorney in the Central Park, Korean boycott and Crown Heights cases. Two days after the Long Island Railroad massacre, Moore revealed in an essay in Newsday that Ferguson had in fact approached him in 1991, seeking help in a discrimination case against Adelphi University. Ferguson had professed admiration for Moore's handling of the Central Park case (in which he had charged that the jogger's injuries were trumped-up and that her sex life was to blame). Ferguson "felt we had a lot in common," Moore reported.

Yet for the next seven days, the flood of commentary about the massacre rolled on without a single reference to Moore's astonishing report--a remarkable act of collective denial by the media. If Ferguson had been white and had, say, sought help from an attorney for David Duke, we would have heard about it endlessly. Pundits certainly had much to say about the culpability of the militant pro-life movement when an anti-abortion activist killed a doctor at a Florida clinic last year. And when New York's other railroad gunman, Bernhard Goetz, shot four black teenagers in 1984, there was plenty of talk about the "climate of racism" and "white backlash" around Goetz, even though, provoked by four black teens, he hadn't fired indiscriminately at the nonwhite passengers in his subway car. Black activists also cited Goetz's demagogic attorney, Barry Slotnik, as proof that even tormented loners like Goetz aren't really alone in their rageisolated from the rest of us in some respects, perhaps, but also bound more intimately to our subconscious hatreds and fears than we care to admit.

So why not give similar attention to Ferguson's apparent susceptibility to the delusions of omnipresent white conspiracy that have made their way into black protest politics? Why not consider the influence of rhetoric that freely vilifies members of other groups, elevates rage into a virtue and speaks of fighting the power "by any means necessary"?

New York's most militant black leaders have traded freely in that sort of currency. As the black boycotters of Korean stores called the shopkeepers "yellow monkeys" and their customers "Uncle Toms," attorney Moore prolonged the ugliness by thwarting Mayor David Dinkins's attempts at negotiation. For years, Moore has been spitting hatred at whites, Asians and certain blacks--twice in Ferguson's own Flatbush neighborhood.

"No matter what Colin says, he never looks at an issue as anything but a racial war," says Melissa Pressley, an East Flatbush activist who worked on Moore's first losing City Council campaign in 1991, but eventually became disillusioned with his tactics. While the targets of Moore's wrath are racially varied, no one dismisses him as an "equal-opportunity hater," as pundits did Ferguson. Somehow, everyone understands that a seething resentment of whites is the core around which his subsidiary hatreds revolve.

The same goes for the militant black protest politics that transcends Moore's participation and is often as delusional as anything Ferguson conceived. Were the Central Park jogger's wounds really trumped-up, as Moore claimed? Did New York Attorney General Robert Abrams really masturbate over photos of Tawana Brawley, as her advisers claimed? Did Irish Republican Army rituals really guide Brawley's supposed abduction?

And was it reasonable for black talk radio host Clayton Riley, referring to several white journalists by name during the mayoral campaign, to admonish his listeners to remember Colin Powell's maxim: "Find the enemy, isolate it and kill it"? In a Village Voice column two months ago, Nat Hentoff wrote an open letter to wlib owner Percy Sutton, asking whether he had considered what might happen if a deranged listener took Riley's comments literally. Sutton never replied, and Dinkins appeared for ten minutes every Monday morning on Riley's show throughout the controversy.

By accepting such behavior as normal, by continuing to accord Sutton respect and to call the Brawley advisers and Moore "civil rights leaders," reporters and columnists confer a kind of legitimacy on the fantasies of loners like Ferguson and Goetz. That's why there is something phony, even desperate, about the chorus insisting that Ferguson is utterly isolated in his derangement.

Finally, though, the game is up. Moore has offered to represent Fergusonat Ferguson's request and, Moore claims, at the behest of unnamed members of the black community. "Whether they agree or disagree with what Mr. Ferguson did," Moore said, "they would like to see that he has proper representation." Whether they agree or disagree? And still, no one dares call Moore delusional, for to do that would be to implicate black activism in Ferguson's rage.

There is extraordinary denial at work here. When Louis Farrakhan mentioned Ferguson at a New York rally on December 18, his audience erupted in an ovation that seemed to startle Farrakhan himself. That recalled the Central Park jogger and the Reginald Denny cases, which seemed open and shut until fantasists transformed the perpetrators into martyrs.

Incredibly, that same impulse to shift the racial blame is evident in the Ferguson case, and not only among Farrakhan's enthusiasts or in Moore's remarks. Instead of admitting forthrightly, as Michael Meyers of the New York Civil Rights Coalition does, that "Ferguson's crime was a race crime," mainstream columnists move seamlessly from saying we must not associate Ferguson with black activist histrionics to saying we must associate a few white politicians' post-massacre calls for the death penalty with a general white racist backlashand they see no contradiction.

Instead of suggesting that some black activists might benefit from a little soul-searching, columnists seem almost eager to expunge race from the discussion. In New York, many local commentators look for signs of a white backlash that hasn't occurred. The entire discussion is skewed by a virtual taboo against talking about what Moore's involvement in this case really means.

What it means is what the black poet Julius Lester wrote in The New Republic in October 1985, when Farrakhan addressed a rally in New York: "The time has come to stop making apologies for black America, to stop patronizing black America with that paternalistic brand of understanding which excuses and finds reasons for the obscenities of black hatred.... Farrakhan is subtly but surely creating an atmosphere in America where hatreds of all kinds will be easier to express openly, and one day, in some as yet unknown form, these hatreds will ride commuter trains into the suburbs. By then it will be too late for us all."

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