Sunday, November 25, 2007


Amadou Cisse will not have his life stages recorded by a documentary interview film for the reason that he is dead. But he is part of a pattern; he’s even a type. The good boy from another part of the planet who escapes from the evil of his own Third World circumstances only to be ended by the evil of our supposedly civilized place. This is politically complicated by the color of Amadou’s skin, which was black. One of my seminary’s maintenance staff was also murdered some months ago. He was also black but I don’t think he was killed on the campus, so he’s not coming up in the stories. The campus in some minds is a “cluster” of seminaries and university and to other minds just the quadrangles of the U of Chicago buildings. Amadou was shot in the chest just south of the Midway, a sort of grassy moat along the south edge which means to some that he was “off-campus” and to others that he was “on-campus.”

Surveillance cameras captured a photo of a pale car with two red doors on the driver’s side. Descriptions of the shooter tell his height and weight and what he was wearing -- but not his color. He dropped his gun. This is assumed to be the third in a cluster of shootings: one at 12:33AM at 6045 Woodlawn (Meadville/Lombard, my seminary, is at 57th and Woodlawn.) where a man was shot at; the next at 1:15AM when two women were actually robbed at 924 E. 57th; and the death of Cisse at 6120 S. Ellis at 1:26 AM. The gun is recovered and so is the car, which was -- of course -- stolen beforehand and abandoned afterwards. Could any car be more recognizable? Why steal such a car in order to commit a crime unless one were not rational?

A counter-indication to grouping the shootings is that there were multiple men in the second incident, but the surveillance camera may not have picked up other men if they stayed in the car. On the other hand, if it took five men to rob two women, why were the first and third incidents a lone shooter unless he were some sort of maverick or unrelated? Was it a gang initiation? Was there a competition?

What would be more shocking than a U of Chicago student shot to death? Why, if the shooter were a U of Chicago student! But this is unlikely. (Unless the victim were a thesis advisor. For those who have never tried to get a thesis accepted, this is a sardonic joke. But Amadou’s thesis had just passed. No motive there.) The shootings were just after midnight on a Sunday, which is a very dangerous time in a drug-saturated ghetto, because the addicts who have been partying since Friday are now out of money, not high enough to feel good but not yet crashed enough to be paralyzed. If the two women who were robbed were also students, they probably can provide a lot of information. If not, especially if they were black, they may choose to be non-committal because the very characteristics that make Cisse of special concern to the university, his brilliance and his foreign-student status, would make him “other” enough for South Side ghetto women to think of him as “other,” maybe a person who shouldn’t have been there anyway. Remember the reaction to O.J.’s trial.

What if the shooter were white? It would immediately be a “hate-crime.” Especially if a noose were involved instead of a gun. A noose is now a marker for racism.

Cisse was Senegalese, one of the parts of Africa heavily raided for the slave trade, and so his physical type -- dark, rounded and sturdy -- is almost what Americans think of as typical of African-Americans until we began to see so many photos of tall, thin Somalis with oval faces (often fashion models) and then all those basketball players who must surely have Watusi genes. He was Islam, the kind of gentle, patient, philosophical Islam that has a parallel in quiet, enduring, Bible-based Christianity -- but the news is shying off from mentioning his religion. Rather they emphasize the suffering of his family which has lost members in the unstable African nation. Cisse was nearly thirty, had just finished his Ph.D., and would have been returning soon, but if he had been killed there it would be one death among many of the kind. The main culture of Senegal, Islam, encourages acceptance of tragedy as God’s inscrutable will. Ours does not. Ours is preoccupied with deservingness. Thus there was less outcry when the Meadville maintenance man was killed.

When I was there (1978 - 1982, with my third year mostly in Connecticut) three incidents registered strongly with me. One was a handsome young black man wearing a Harvard sweatshirt who had figured out that many of the huge old houses were offices downstairs, where visitors went in and out all day, and student housing upstairs, where the occupants rarely bothered to lock their doors. He raided Fleck House easily, partly because of his color and partly because of that sweatshirt -- two signals for liberals. He got Peter’s inherited and cherished pocket watch, but he got nothing of mine because Mike kept going into my room “to shut off the radio since I wasn’t there” so I reflexively locked the door even if I were going only down to the kitchen.

The second incident came when a series of attacks on women had aroused feminist ire. (U of C officials seemed to just assume it was the price women paid and anyway, what could they do?) Since it was time for parents and prospective students to visit and possibly consider enrollment, the women managed to get the local crime records, made stencils, and spray-painted the legend “a woman was attacked on this spot” or even “someone was killed on this spot.” That in itself was not so shocking as the fact that these statements were seemingly everywhere. All day the U of C maintenance staff, wearing heavy rubber gloves, scrubbed with caustics to remove the paint, which lingered as pale smudges. The lesson was clear: this is a violent place but we don’t admit that.

The third is fuzzy but more shocking. As I remember it, woman student living off-campus was shot to death as she struggled to unlock the door to her apartment building. It may have been a personal killing, which is somehow more acceptable, implying some sort of cause in the form of a grievance.

People die all the time, but we want to know why and how, so we can figure out how not to die ourselves and how to protect those we value. There’s a crazy comic strip in the Great Falls Tribune that’s meant to balance Doonesbury with right-wing ideas. Yesterday it was a quote from Bill Buckley that went something like this: “Liberals believe everyone has a right to freedom of thought -- but then they are shocked that anyone should think differently than they do.”

The idea that education makes people invulnerable is a conviction that universities do not want overturned. It seems as though impoverished, drug-addled people don’t think at all. They are equal opportunity destroyers. Which is not to say we should destroy them, though we are pleased to destroy their “habitat” through gentrification. Meadville has been offered a new location in that gentrified sector. Maybe they ought to reflect on the assumptions of ghetto dwellers.


Peter said...

Isn't the area around the University of Chicago really rough and dangerous?

prairie mary said...

QUITE. Endlessly studied by students, constantly drawn into relationship with various aspects of the Hyde Park community, and still never quite "solved."

The seminaries ponder the idea of the "city as wilderness." But that's about as far as they go.

Prairie Mary