Next 4th of July, leave the guns at home

I used to love fireworks. When I was a kid, especially, I loved watching them on the 4th of July or sometimes other occasions like New Years Eve. I loved setting them off — smoke bombs, snakes, firecrackers and bottle rockets were personal favorites. I’m lucky to have all my fingers (no kidding) and fortunate not to have burned anything down.

A lot of places where I lived while growing up, fireworks weren’t even legal, but that was little impediment, since they were always legal somewhere else, often as close as a neighboring state just across a river or a few miles up the road. And my parents, while not huge fans of things that went boom, didn’t get too shook up about them (as long as I went to a vacant lot or such to blow things up).

Over time, fireworks lost a lot of their allure. Occasionally I might still go to a backyard cookout to watch a homeowners association burn up some cash or, more often, just watch Boston, New York and Washington DC try to out-celebrate one another on TV.

And then, of course, were the neighbors. When we lived in Colorado, we could always count on a few of our neighbors to spend much of July 4th drinking, then setting off fireworks in the parking lot outside our condo. Now we live in Iowa, in a town where fireworks are legal to sell around Independence Day, and legal to set off during certain dates and hours. What this means in practice is that there may be explosions at any time, night or day, 365 days a year, and the 4th of July is like a Baghdad during the “shock and awe” campaign.

Wolf Blitzer might feel right at home here, but one of our cats is very nervous, and we’re just annoyed. We are not, mind you, so annoyed that we’ve called the cops on anybody disturbing our peace, much less pulled a gun on them.

Such was not the case this past week in Aurora, Colorado.

The weather in suburban Denver on the night of July 4th was not conducive to public fireworks viewing, so one family returned home early to fix something to eat and let the kids set off some fireworks at their apartment complex. Another adult couple returned home while this was going on and a confrontation ensued because one party’s dog was nervous around fireworks.

It got worse. Raised voices and shouted obscenities between a couple adult women. A man got involved. A head butt and a drink thrown. Another adult male arrives. A punch to the face. A shot to the chest. One man dead, another arrested for second degree murder.

Happy birthday, America.

The man who by his own admission pulled the trigger was an officer with the Colorado Department of Corrections. His girlfriend was also. Both openly carried handguns into the argument on July 4th.

Oh, and both of the corrections officers are white.

The victim was black.

You can read all about this all-too-familiar tragedy any number of places. The Denver Fox affiliate had pretty good coverage which included a link to the arrest affidavit. Local newspapers such as The Aurora Sentinel are also covering the story.

Two other recent news items have generated quite a lot of discussion around the issue of race in America. One story involved Nike’s decision not to release athletic shoes decorated with the so-called Betsy Ross flag. The other story centered around Disney’s decision to cast a black actress to play the lead character in a live action production of The Little Mermaid.

Do we really need to remind anybody that the thirteen-star flag was a symbol, just one of many during the American Revolution, and the little mermaid was an animated character depicting a mythical creature?

Why is anyone upset about this?

Is anybody bothered that some folks have adopted the revolutionary era “Don’t Tread on Me” flag as a symbol for whatever it is they feel is endangered? Should we argue about whether Santa Claus is white or Bert and Ernie are gay?

That stuff isn’t real but here’s something that is: Yet again an apparently unarmed black person was killed doing something that shouldn’t have gotten anybody hurt. A white couple was more concerned about their dog’s nervousness around fireworks than they were about going armed into a confrontation with a black woman and two kids.

And here’s something else that’s real: The victim knew that he was in mortal danger at any time for doing anything — or nothing — that might make some white person nervous. On June 25th, the victim, Jaharie Wheeler, posted on his Facebook page an excerpt of a TED Talk by Baratunde Thurston about this exact reality.

Ten years ago, I thought that Chris Rock’s piece “How not to get your ass kicked by the police” was hilarious. I had no idea — because I didn’t have to know — that this is deadly serious stuff.

Fireworks and nervous pets didn’t cause this tragedy, whatever the headline might suggest. I’d bet any amount of money that somebody out there will try to blame the victims. They shouldn’t have been shooting fireworks. They shouldn’t have put up a fight. It’s all deflection.

The victim’s crime was being born black. His crime was fighting back against a white man who had assaulted his girlfriend in front of their kids. His crime was not calling the police who might well have sided with the off-duty corrections officers.

Maybe it’s time for another Chris Rock tutorial: How not to get your neighbor shot.

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