Alison Parker, a rookie news reporter at WDJB, the Roanoke, Va. CBS affiliate, had turned 24 just days before she was murdered on August 26. Her work partner, cameraman Adam Ward, was about to move to Charlotte, N.C. because his fiancé, a producer at WDJB, had a new job.
Both Parker and Ward were described in superlative terms by their bosses, she as a “star” who lit up the screen and had a limitless future, he as a capable and thorough cameraman, dedicated to his jobs. By now, most have still photographs or footage of them being murdered on camera as Parker was interviewing Vicki Gardner, who led the local chamber of commerce. She was shot in the back, and has survived.
These on-air murders are about as grisly as they come, and there can be no explanation, except insanity, to account for them. What was wrong with Bryce Williams, whose real name was Vester Flanagan? Why did he stalk and then kill two of his former colleagues? He’d sued his former employer for racial discrimination and had his claim rebuffed. Still, he maintained a sense of outrage because he felt he was treated unfairly.
You probably have never heard of Lonnie Gilchrist, a Wharton MBA, who was dismissed, he said, because of racism. He walked into the Merrill Lynch office in Boston and shot his boss, George Cook, saying, “No billionaire is going to ruin my life.” He worked on commission, and according to many, was treated more like an office boy than a professional.
Charles Ogletree, now a Harvard Law professor, defended him in 1988-89, along with two other attorneys. Gilchrist pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, and his lawyers used “racial rage” as one of the reasons that Gilchrist killed Cook. The jury took five days and nearly 30 hours, and deadlocked before reaching a conclusion. The case might have been a slam-dunk, but the jury obviously found at least some merit in the racial rage defense.
Nobody deserves to be massacred at any stage of their life. The folks at Mother Emanuel AME Church had their lives cut short. The little children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newton, Conn. had full lives ahead of them. Anyone who picks up a gun and decides to fire at a group of people publicly has clearly taken leave of their senses.
Yet, there is a difference in the way crazed people are discussed in the media. Vester Flanagan was immediately described as angry and crazed, a judgment the media did not rush to when Dylann Roof, the shooter at Mother Emmanuel in Charleston and Adam Lanza, the shooter at Sandy Hook, embarked on insane massacre activity.
Can race be a factor? What happens when mental illness collides with racial rage?
The man who shot Alison Parker and Adam Ward either experienced or perceived racial slights. The station manager Jeff Marks said Flanagan was “a man with a lot of anger.” If even a fraction of the slights Flanagan said he’d experienced were true, he had a right to be angry. Watermelon jokes? Monkey slurs? In the 21st century? Come on people.
Some of us can turn the slur around or ignore it. White folks might find this funny and some African Americans might find themselves profoundly offended. Those who already feel beleaguered might feel so offended that they’d respond angrily enough to be labeled “hostile” by a human resource manager.
Lonnie Gilchrist was also labeled an “angry” man. One of his bosses said he got so angry at criticism that he reacted with such an outburst that “we were very frightened.” How much stereotyping goes into labeling some Black men as frightening? Do they have to be taller? Larger? Or, simply blacker? Descriptions of Flanagan as an angry Black man need to be contextualized. Some describe him as an arrogant man with a chip on his shoulder. Some of those terms are subjective.
How many African Americans have been described as “angry” when they simply attempt to hold their own in a mostly White space? One coworker said Flanagan was angry because he responded crisply when she described him as “too quiet.” I guess if he laughed aloud he may have been considered “too boisterous.”
Even as we mourn Alison Parker and Adam Ward, we have to ask why their murderer snapped. We have to ask why there are so many “angry Black men.” They don’t all scream, they don’t all shout, they don’t all shoot; most let their corrosive anger swallow them from inside. Many of those outwardly functioning Black men die a decade earlier than their White counterparts because of the anger they’ve internalized.
What happens to a dream deferred, wrote Langston Hughes? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Does it fester like a sore and then run. Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or, does it explode?
Lonnie Gilchrist exploded. Flangan exploded. We can call them deranged, disturbed, or simply angry. Yet, we do ourselves a disservice if we fail to examine race as one source of their explosion.
Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist based in Washington, DC. She can be reached at www.juliannemalveaux.com