"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." — Martin Luther King, Jr.
Your blues, author BeBe Moore Campbell famously wrote, ain't like mine.
I've occasionally borrowed that phrase to explain how bigotry as experienced by majority and minority is not the same: the one has access to levers of power enabling it to express its hatred in public policy, the other has access only to fists and words. But there are times that observation is simultaneously true, and irrelevant. This is one of them.
There is, after all, a certain egalitarian outrageousness in what happened to 18-year-old Brian Milligan. Getting hit in the back of the head with a chunk of concrete is getting hit in the back of the head with a chunk of concrete, whether you are Jew or Muslim, gay or straight, black or white.
That's reportedly what happened to Milligan the night of Aug. 18, after he walked his girlfriend to her home in their gritty Buffalo, NY., neighborhood. Milligan had headphones on, so he didn't even hear it coming. A mob of 10 to 12 black males then stomped and kicked him and hit him with more concrete — all in the head and face, says his father, Brian, Sr., 41.
As they struck him, they taunted him. "You white motherf-----, we told you stay away from here. These are our streets. We told you stay away from our women."
Brian, you see, is white. His girlfriend Nicola Fletcher, 18, is African-American. That difference in melanin has, they say, been a source of daily friction with a gang of black men in their neighborhood for months. She's been shot with paint balls, they've both been repeatedly cursed and taunted. "They would hit on her right in front of me," says Milligan. "They would call her baby and all that."
Now there's this. Brian Sr. says when he got to the hospital, he didn't even recognize his son. "I seen a mess. I seen somebody laying there dead."
Not quite, but close. Brian Jr. had a gash on his head that required seven staples to close. He had bleeding and swelling in his brain. His jaw and one tooth were broken. His sense of smell is gone. He has no memory of the beating.
According to media reports, blacks in the neighborhood have been conspicuous in their refusal to cooperate with investigators. While a black anti-crime group has been trying to help bring the criminals to justice, Brian Sr. says other blacks have chosen silence. "I don't know if it's that they're scared or they don't care. That's a coin I just don't want to toss up in the air."
Nor do I. So let me just say this: Assuming the facts are as we have been told, this demands prosecution as a hate crime. What happened to Brian Milligan is an offense against civil society. We should all be outraged.
I loathe bigotry in all its forms, but I have a special problem with bigotry as practiced by those who, by dint of their own history, should know better. When Jews hate Muslims for their religion, when gays scorn straights for their sexual orientation, when blacks beat a white teenager for the color of his skin, it suggests people too dense to understand the moral of their own story, the meaning of their own passages. The minority is no more righteous in its hate than the majority is.
Brian, Sr., an unemployed construction worker facing a mountain of medical bills, is asking for help. A special savings account (No. 483023966528) has been set up for Brian at Bank of America under his mother's name: Leslie Ann Milligan.
And yes, Brian and Nicola are still together. He credits her with nudging him to get his GED. "She loves me. And I love her. That's more than anything. That sums it all up."
Somebody thought they had a right to tell this kid where he could go and who he could see. They kicked his head in because he is.
And that's a sadly familiar song. It is a blues we've heard too many times before.
Editor's Note: For those who might wish to contribute to Brian's fund by mail, Bank of America's address is 6041 Transit Rd., Depew, NY, 14043.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.