Loughner, Lovelle Mixon, and Our Quest for Narratives

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by Julianne Hing

I'm a reporter and blogger over at the race and politics news site Colorlines.com covering immigration, criminal justice and education for my little corner of the Internet. It's what I'll spend most of this week talking about with you. That, and the Arizona shootings this weekend.

For today I'll start off by saying that I think there's a possibility that some terrible events are also at the end of the day, senseless, unspeakable tragedies. Sometimes the political lessons are all around, but the tragedy itself is unexplainable.

Two years ago I went to a funeral for a man named Lovelle Mixon, who killed four Oakland police officers. Mark Dunakin, John Hege, Ervin Romans, and Daniel Sakai were the names of the men Mixon killed. It was the deadliest shooting involving California law enforcement in over 40 years. The day he died, Mixon was pulled over by Hege and Dunakin when he stepped out of his car and fired at the two officers before fleeing to his sister's apartment, where police officers found him two hours later. It was there that Mixon shot SWAT officers Romans and Sakai with an AK-47 before other SWAT officers killed Mixon. Commentators said Mixon went on a "murderous rampage."

Mixon had violated the terms of his parole and feared going back to prison, his family said. Three weeks before he died Mixon had skipped out on a visit with his parole officer who he said had stood him up on prior appointments. But his agenda was still fuzzy. "This is a strange one," Oakland police Capt. Steve Tull told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. "We don't know what his motivation is." Tull said Mixon, who had a record of prior convictions, would have gotten another six months in jail for violating his parole.

The services were publicly listed and I went there to cover it for Colorlines, but it was a painful event to witness, notable to me for the total absence of any of the open expressions of loss or mourning I expected. Except for Mixon's veil-draped casket at the front of the cramped, sunlit hall, it was actually hard to immediately tell that it was a funeral. At the back doors cousins greeted friends and family members warmly. It seemed like a family reunion for the Mixons. His widow Amara sat in the front row, stoic and tired looking, accompanied by other members of the Mixon family. There were few tears; the tissue boxes were passed around to quiet a congested, sneezing mourner. A set of multi-denominational leaders all took turns speaking and acknowledged in solemn terms Mixon's awful crimes but never tried to make sense of what happened. In the absence of any explanation for how five men lost their lives in the span of a few hours, there was a lot of God.

Losing a son to a police officer's bullet is not new for many in Oakland. At the services there was singing and there were solemn words pleading for God's mercy. But there was also a sense of resignation and confusion.

In the days following the shooting, the public reaction was unified in its condemnation of Mixon. With just a handful of biographical details to complete their portraits, people decided who Mixon was. He was a cop killer, a monster. Unhinged at the very least, everyone agreed. Though not to his family he wasn't.

Of course there are very different racial dynamics at play; Mixon was an undereducated poor black man with a criminal record. Loughner, a 22-year-old white man living in an Arizona desert town, may have been immersed in the politics of white nationalist groups.
  
We want a narrative so badly. All I've got right now is that we should watch our language closely, be mindful and respectful. The public officials and commentators who need to remember that most may not. But I think we already know the lessons Loughner's shooting can offer. We already know political discourse in this country has reached a crazed, ear-splitting pitch.

I was taken with K_Commenter's words in TNC's morning post on Loughner:

I like to hope, deep in the hidden, optimist corners of my soul, that facing this reality will at least make people think about what they say. It's one thing to employ rhetoric: even when violent or explicit, at a certain point words all just become so much white noise, and it's easy to say things that fit in with the world around you without actually thinking deeply of the real meaning.

But the real meaning of a lot of that rhetoric is horrific. I like to hope that confronting that reality in this way will at least, at the tiny least, result in some people stopping to think about what they say. Like a supervillain who suddenly realizes, on drowning half the world, that this wasn't at all what he wanted.

People seem to have settled on the idea that Loughner was mentally unstable. As proof we've got the incoherent YouTube ramblings, his expulsion from Pima Community College for disruptive behavior and suspicious video. People will keep searching for the strain of political extremism that will explain Loughner's shootings. It all may be a futile search for a neat explanation for what may be ultimately a totally unexplainable act of violence. 

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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