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On Hillsborough and How We Ascribe Value to Certain Lives

A few thoughts on The 96 and seeing the full human person.

A Vigil Is Held For The 96 Victims Of Hillsborough Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The thing about home is that it’s supposed to be safe. The paths and street corners become route and the faces intimately known so as to insure us from the idea of threats. Everything doesn’t just feel normal, it is. And the thing about home is that even if it’s imperfect or there are places you may not want to always go or people that you’ve run into that you don’t want to run into again, it’s still the place that nurtured you and gave you a place to lay your head and your first kiss and first heart break and people to put you back together after falling apart. So when someone tells you that the place you grew up is “ghetto” or asks you how you survive or recoils in shock when you mention its name, it cuts to the center of us all. Because I am a reflection of home. And they’ve recoiled at a reflection of me.

Growing up in our little corner of Los Angeles - Hawthorne: home to great weather, Gyasi Zardes, and Russell Westbrook - I never would have known we were poor. Don’t get me wrong, I knew we weren’t rich: what kid on any of ABC’s TGIF slate of sitcoms - besides maybe Shawn Hunter - was responsible for getting their siblings home from school starting at the age of 10, while Mom and Dad were both working graveyard? Our homes were apartments and not houses and, besides, none of the few houses in our neighborhoods looked like the ones on TV. But while I would later understand my parents’ constant anxiety, the need for my mother to take that second and, eventually, third job to keep the lights on, we never went hungry - our freezer always stocked by the latch-key kid essentials of Tottino’s Pizza Rolls, frozen taquitos, and microwaveable dinners.

But when I began working in upper middle class neighborhoods and was asked where I’d come from and the reaction was that I’d somehow made it out of a disaster area, it clung to me. And I wondered openly about how these people viewed me. Or my family. Or my friends. Because never far from the label of “ghetto” are the attendant features of poverty and violence. Never far from the label of “hood” is the expectation that I would be the same. Never far from the label of “inner city” is the pernicious belief that we somehow welcome the negative effects of poverty and are authors to our own violence. Never far is the thought that we brought this onto ourselves.

Liverpool in 1989 was coming off of an incredibly difficult decade. While most of the UK was beset by the difficult economic conditions that emerged in the 70s, any kind of return to normal seemed to bypass the City during the 80s. At various times, the City’s unemployment hovered at twice the national average. Whatever the rest of the country dealt with, Liverpool residents dealt with in more pronounced and incredibly intimate ways.

This is where I tell you, then, about how poverty and crime are inextricably linked. And that because of that link, some people invested in addressing crime via enforcement instead of through the lens of systemic factors (e.g.: lack of employment, reduced access to social services, reduced access to public services like transit, etc.) feed the lie that those who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods somehow deserve the reality they exist in. That it is a lack of desire or skill or because of some indelible moral failing. They see the people as solely responsible for their condition and abdicate the real consequences of, say, advocating for policies that would only serve to keep the poor in their current state and drive others into poverty.

Hawthorne’s own dynamics were similar to Liverpool’s. Whereas Liverpool had the dock and shipping as their lifeline, Hawthorne’s was centered around aerospace. A small municipal airport was a 5 minute bike ride from my family’s first apartment. Even closer was the now-defunct McDonnell-Douglas plant, standing across Prairie Ave, up against Memorial Park. Every time we walked down the alley to Jim’s - home of the best seasoned fries in the world - I saw that shuttered plant.

And as jobs go, people go. And as people go, businesses used to seeing customers stand empty. The cycle begun by things out of the hands of most residents. The ones that want to stay. The ones that have to stay. The ones left to pick up the pieces of broken policy. Of broken promises. Of broken communities. And, it seems, for the contemporary Hawthornes and Liverpools in America, another cycle is cresting, looking to swallow up these communities now. Always.

In 1989, 96 Liverpool fans went to a match and never returned. The popular coverage of the time - and the narrative that loomed over their names like a shadow - was that they deserved it. Violent Liverpool Fans. Put differently: they asked for it. Like the poverty and crime in Liverpool, it was built in to them. It was only a matter of time.

Never mind that it was clear the people in authority had abdicated their responsibilities. Never mind that people tasked with protecting people refused to do so. Never mind that people tasked with prolonging life failed abjectly in this case. Never mind.

In 1992, Los Angeles was on fire after four police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. Lives were lost in the uprising. I remember the sirens blaring that night, as I looked confused at the television that wasn’t airing the normal after school cartoons. I remember the panic in my mother’s voice over the phone as she told us to keep the doors locked and don’t answer for anyone - that she’d get home when the streets were clear. I remember that people at the time told us we deserved it, too.

Never mind.

The dead don’t have a voice. They cannot speak for themselves. And so the burden of honoring their memory falls on the shoulders of the people that survive. For the 96, many of those people are parents of now dead children. Children who’d been maligned. Children who’d been talked about as merely a statistic. Children who were used to further the slander against an entire community. A perverse twist on the way a dead man was once used as a prop for a feature film, these children were used as props in the mouths of politicians and media pundits who knew not one iota the full lives these people lived.

I think about those lives. What was 10 year-old Jon-Paul Gilhooley’s favorite book? What albums would 15 year-old Victoria Jane Hicks listen to while doing homework? What hikes were left on 18 year-old James Gary Aspinall’s Must-Do List?

I think about the full lives The 96 were denied not only on that day, but on every day since as they were reduced to mere props. I think about who it is we allow ourselves to grieve fully. Who it is we allow to see fully. Who it is we recognize as one of our own. The poor. The incarcerated. The stranger. For nearly 30 years, The 96 were robbed of their full humanity.

Tribute as a medium exists to provide a proper and full portrait of a person or people that we might appreciate. We continue to pay tribute to The 96 now to restore their voice, the fullness of their lives, and the hope that we might honor their memory by refusing to accept the flimsy caricatures that framed them in the aftermath. We pay tribute to reclaim their fullness and to reclaim our neighbor. We pay tribute to rebuild our community.

Justice for The 96. Today. Always.

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