Phyllis Chesler Interviews Carol Gould

carol gould

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Washington Must Unite in Grief
Last uploaded : Tuesday 1st Aug 2006 at 18:13
Contributed by : The Editor


A fortnight ago I received an email responding to an article I had written about the decline in social standards in Britain. The annoyed correspondent told me to ‘piss off back to America.’ Well, despite a crippling illness I did exactly that last week.

Yesterday, after a sweltering few days in New York experiencing everything that is larger-than-life about America, I came to Washington and passed the spot where Alan Senitt was murdered just three weeks ago. Despite my illness and the heat that makes one feel that one will expire at any moment, I was determined to pay my respects. I walked up the quiet, tree-lined Georgetown street where he spent his last moments and the silence was palpable. Even the birds and cicadas were not chirping, the heat so intense.

With a friend I had just attended a Sunday service at Christ Church. That congregation is enduring its own sorrows: its much-loved Rector, Stuart Kenworthy, was called up in the autumn of his years to fulfil National Guard duty in Iraq. The Associate Rector, Rita Steadman, had struggled through a difficult birth of a son whose illness landed him in Children’s Hospital in Intensive Care. There was a pall of sadness amongst the worshippers.

This was the same church in which four-hundred local people had assembled shortly after the Senitt murder to try to make sense of the July 9th crime, when his throat was cut and his female companion traumatised for life by assault and by his horrific death unfolding in front of her eyes. At that highly-charged meeting, a local Police Inspector, Andy Solberg, had made a comment suggesting that it was not common to see black people in Georgetown. In fact, one of Washington’s most historic churches, the African Baptist, was located a short distance from the scene of the murder. Solberg was demoted and yesterday attended a church service to apologise to the local black community.

The import of Solberg’s comment had spread like wildfire across Washington, and after scores of homicides and violent crimes in July, tensions seem to be running high. He was identified as a racist and his duties were revised.

The Mayor of Washington, Anthony Williams, has instituted a 10PM curfew and has demanded the installation of surveillance cameras across the capital city despite a hue and cry from civil rights activists. Needless to say the capture by British police of the murderers of Jamie Bulger, the murderer of a London student and the foiled July 21 bombers are attributable to the omnipresence of video cameras across the UK.

But let us look now at the tensions in the black and white communities of Washington. When I left New York, an horrific crime had just taken place. A white eighteen-year-old had wandered from a party in Manhattan, allegedly riddled with drink. Whilst waiting at the Car Pound for her companion’s vehicle to be released by recalcitrant policemen unwilling to allow two intoxicated people to drive away, she strolled off into the night and was found the next day murdered, having been abducted by a black man. Apparently she had ‘phoned a friend to say she was being followed and that was the last anyone heard from her. It was front-page news in New York.

In Washington, the anger of the black community stems from the fact that crimes against white people make the front pages whilst the very high number of crimes against blacks is inside-page material. This is true. Well-known Washington activist Chris Crowder, an African-American, was cruelly murdered in his wheelchair and his companion seriously wounded in the same month as Alan Senitt, but the story only made an inside page.

Washington is an uncomfortable mix of immensely wealthy and influential white people surrounded by ghetto-entrapped and disaffected African-Americans. Last year I was taken aback by the astonishing arrogance of some Washingtonians, in sharp contrast with the infectious warmth encountered in New York and the charm and grace of Philadelphia. On one occasion, a woman on an Amtrak, whose luggage tag indicated she resided in Georgetown, refused to talk to a female passenger when she apologised for squashing her in a crowded coach. She pointedly informed the woman that under no circumstances did she want to talk to either of us and that she would refuse to speak to the passenger if we continued to ‘bother’ her. She continued to chat to her female companion, also an American version of a Sloane Ranger. On another occasion I was in pain from a leg problem and accidentally banged my cane into the door of a giant SUV outside Washington’s Union Station. The driver, talking on a cellphone, rolled down the window and bellowed ‘You had just better stop whacking my car or I’ll whack you, lady.’ I barked back ‘I am sorry, I am disabled.’ He : ‘I don’t care what the f^^^k you are, stop whacking my car.’ When some friends attended the Washington Opera Gala they related the story of a fierce-looking group of well-heeled movers and shakers who ordered them to leave their table or else; they had stopped there to re-load a camera and to get some relief from the heat in the outdoor marquee.

I relate these anecdotes because Alan Senitt was the sort of caring young man who would have brought a breath of fresh air to Washington had he lived beyond the tragically brief fortnight he spent here. He did not come from an affluent or influential family; his parents, humble and hard-working, are the essence of the Jewish experience. His adorable brother and sister, trying to keep up a brave front at the funeral and memorial service I attended, do not ride in limousines or carry flashy Platinum cards. Oddly enough, when I mentioned my deep shock about Alan Senitt’s death to a London colleague she said ,’Oh , he was a high-flyer heading for a fall.’ WRONG. He was, like me, the descendant of European immigrants who very likely suffered the indignities of Jew-baiting that was so common both here in the USA and in the UK before social revolutions brought change.

Many believe the black revolution also quenched some of the fires of Jew-baiting. As the African-American playwright Sarah Jones notes in her brilliant one-woman show ‘Bridge and Tunnel,’ American Jews looking for a home as recently as the 1950s would be greeted by signs saying ‘No Jews allowed.’

The young men and woman who killed Alan and attempted to rape his companion on that tree-lined lane in Georgetown destroyed the lives of many more than the victims. I wish the anger of the Washington community would go away, that discussions about a long-serving police officer’s off-the-cuff remarks would cease and that he not be perceived as ‘racist.’ Solberg also came from humble and persecuted roots. There is a problem in the huge divide between haves and have-nots in America’s cities, and it needs to be addressed with candour and without intimidation and name-calling. When I was in South Africa in 1997, the former Prime Minister FW deKlerk told my group that he feared the resurgence of the fascist Right. If a man as gifted in community relations as Andy Solberg can be made the focus of the news, rather than the tragedy that unfolded on 9th July because accused murderer Christopher Piper’s gang allegedly wanted to ‘go out tonight and cut somebody,’ America will get nowhere in the century-old race debate.

What must be feared most is a resurgence of the Klan-esque Right, an extreme reaction by whites who also feel marginalised. In May 2006 a British Cabinet Minister went door-to-door in the historic East End of London. To her astonishment white voters said they would be leaning towards the BNP, the neo-Nazi party. Her findings were twisted by the liberal media as a manifestation of her own misguided agenda, but what she was trying to do was alert the nation to a 'great divide.'

Whether his face was on the front or inside pages, Alan Senitt, a larger-than-life British youth who was already a legend when I took over the reins of B’nai B’rith Youth Organisation in London in 1999, is a precious life snuffed out in a gruesome and cruel slaying that will haunt many of us forever. His parents will be bereft for the rest of their days and his siblings will never see him share their joyous rites of passage. His female companion will be scarred for life and a community shaken.

As I write this I think twice about going out for fresh air. There is an atmosphere of unease in Washington. Indeed, in London I no longer wander out to mail a letter at midnight. Knife crime in Britain by angry inner-city youths against middle-class victims has become an epidemic. In Britain we have to add to this lethal cocktail of violence the large Muslim community, whose angry youth voice their sentiments on the MPACUK website. As the Middle East explodes in turmoil it is possible the scourge of world conflict is affecting the young.

But if one good thing cam come from the Alan Senitt tragedy, perhaps the troubled youth of Washington can look to his short but hugely productive life as an inspiration. His hard work and determination out of a humble background from another persecuted minority is a model to promote in this troubled community.

As Washington struggles with an epidemic of crime that swept Alan Senitt away in its wake, one can only hope that its leaders find a way to reverse this road to urban turmoil. Boys who cut throats for the fun of it are in a world I cannot begin to fathom. Alan was working for reconciliation between peoples who had come to distrust and even loathe each other. Had he lived he might have even mentored lads who otherwise turned to the kind of crime that ended his life. It is up to Washington’s leaders to continue the kind of work he would have championed.

May his memory endure for a blessing.

Carol Gould
Washington, DC
31 July 2006

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