From Nelson to Quardious

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R.L. Nave

Every January, for several years during the mid- to late-1980s, my mother and I would bundle ourselves up for the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day March through downtown St. Louis. What I imagine were thousands of us wore T-shirts and ball caps bearing likenesses of our heroes like Dr. King and Malcolm X. We adorned our hats and jackets with buttons featuring famous quotations from the civil-rights legends.

We sang "We Shall Overcome" and "Kumbaya." We chanted slogans from the movement that defined the day:

"End Apartheid!"

"Divest now!"

Back then, I had only a vague idea of what either of those concepts meant except that they had to do with South Africa. Thanks in small part to the divestment movement and some Westerners' decision to boycott corporations doing business with the white-supremacist government of South Africa, apartheid did at last end. Then, in 1994, the majority-black nation elected Nelson Mandela its first black president.

Eventually, mom and I stopped attending the MLK marches. I got older, became a teenager, interested in teenage things. I got into teenage mischief, like the rest of my adolescent peers.

I like to tell myself that I wasn't on a trajectory to become a hardened criminal. But who knows? In the hands of a zealous business owner or prosecutor looking to make example of a young punk, I could have easily wound up in front of a youth-court judge.

Would it matter if all kids have (insert the name of any youthful indiscretion we've all been guilty of)? Probably not. And if it came to that, rest assured that some middle-aged person would shake his or her head in shame and wonder where my parents were, as if I didn't have the good sense to do dirt outside of the view of my mother and father. If Facebook were around back then, there might even be a meme of my shameful mug next to Dr. King or Mandela's photo. "Is this what they fought for?," Internet posts would say.

It didn't come to that. I never wound up in the back of a police squad car, never got a criminal record—it should be noted that I was also fortunate to have parents with the resources to keep me out of any kind of serious trouble—and I went on to graduate from college. Today, I have a career doing what I love for a living. Only through providence and dumb luck was this possible—not because I was smarter, a harder worker or came from a better family than anybody else.

Quardious Thomas (see this week's cover story, "Killing Quardious Thomas," starting on page 16) wasn't so lucky. He did get caught—once by the police for burglarizing a home last year and again on July 12 for breaking into a truck.

Based on my conversations with people who were close to him, he was bright, gregarious, and had a loving, strong family network of relatives and close friends. After his arrest, Thomas seemed to be getting his life back on track. He finished his high-school equivalency and would have started college this fall had he not been shot and killed this summer by a homeowner for allegedly breaking into cars.

So much for second chances. Thanks in part to the many second chances I received, I had the opportunity to travel through southern and eastern Africa a few years ago. I spent part of the trip in Soweto, the famous township near Johannesburg that is a symbol of South Africa's hope and its hopelessness, its poverty and its prosperity.

Being there, I felt the same thing I feel driving along U.S. 49, near where the Emmett Till murder episode played out, or when I visit Montgomery, Ala., one of the cradles of the Civil Rights Movement—the inescapable power of history and place.

In Johannesburg, I walked the same streets as Hector Pieterson, the boy who became the first casualty of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, when students protested the government's plan to force them to learn in Afrikaans, the language of their white oppressors. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel laureate, lives near the bed-and-breakfast where I stayed.

Naturally, I visited the home on Vilikazi Street where Nelson Mandela lived before he went to prison on Robben Island for conspiring to sabotage the national power grid. Now a museum, the matchbox house bears bullet holes and Molotov cocktail scorches, scars from the struggle against tyranny. One of the rooms contains glass showcases displaying a pair of Mandela's boots and a belt American championship boxer Sugar Ray Leonard gave him. The kitchen contains coal stove and a metallic dustbin cover, which legend has it Mandela used to shield himself from bullets. In one of the bedrooms, a bed is covered with a blanket made from Jackal pelts.

Even freedom fighters need warmth. We prefer to wrap ourselves in the whitewashed version of Mandela as a gentle, as peaceful leader who told his fellow countrymen to turn the other cheek, to embrace reconciliation. Let us not forget that as a young man, Mandela's government believed him to be a very dangerous criminal. (President Ronald Reagan even had Mandela's African National Congress designated a terrorist organization.)

As far as I can tell, Quardious Thomas was no freedom fighter, but unlike Mandela, who died last week at the age of 95, or myself, Thomas doesn't get the rest of his life to become a different man than he was at age 20.

Rest in peace, Madiba.

Rest in peace, Quardious.

Comments

js1976 9 months, 1 week ago

"After his arrest, Thomas seemed to be getting his life back on track."

RL, this event has obviously struck a nerve with you, and there is nothing wrong with that. Im sure though that most would agree when I say actions speak louder than words. You can speak to whomever you want, if the kid was breaking into cars again then his life wasn't getting back on track. He was inside of the victims car, and I'm sure he wasn't there with noble intentions.

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donnaladd 9 months, 1 week ago

But, js, that also does not mean he should have been executed, and the man who did it not even be thoroughly investigated.

And without that, we cannot know if he was actually breaking into cars; it's circumstantial at best, and that is not justification for an execution, at least in the United States.

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js1976 9 months, 1 week ago

I didn't state that he should have been executed, but he obiviously was not getting his life back on track. In regards to the proof, the kid was shot in the vehicle and found in the vechicle. I'm not sure what additional proof you need.

Does that mean he deserved execution? Hard to say without actually being in the shoes of the victim.

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ryannave 9 months, 1 week ago

While working on the pieces, there was a thought in the back of my mind. And that was where this idea comes from that's so pervasive in American culture that the crimes against property are punishable by death? It's certainly not enshrined in the U.S. Constitution or in state law, unless you're arguing the Castle Doctrine, and we've seen how problematic that can be. It's not even in keeping with the biblical idea of an eye-for-an-eye. I'm open to hearing peoples' thoughts on this.

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js1976 9 months, 1 week ago

RL, I will give you my thoughts on this. If someone is breaking into one of my vehicles, he or she will be met with a firearm. What happens after that is up to them. Would I walk outside and open fire, no. Unless they were trying to enter my dwelling, which in this case I would shoot first.

However, I don't live in an area plagued with property crimes so it's difficult for me to judge someone who has possibly had this happen numerous times in the past. Someone that is probably being placed in a financial burden to repair the damage done by thieves taking or damaging their property.

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multiculturegirl37 9 months, 1 week ago

I don't know when property crimes became punishable with death but it's becoming all to common for my taste. Shoplifters being shot down at stores unarmed purse snatchers being gunned down, my question would be why? I know it's someone's stuff but honestly it's just stuff that criminal is still a person. That's the bottom line though we are at a point where we don't see people who commit crimes, especially if they have black/brown skin as people. They are thugs, animals, or monsters but not people. Yet they are people-often children.

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tomhead1978 9 months, 1 week ago

R.L., multiculturegirl37: YES. "Mess with my stuff and you get shot" is such a common sentiment in the metro area (and in much of the rest of the country), and it's all based on the idea that property is worth more than some people—hard to separate that idea from the similar and more historically explicated one that some people are property. I wouldn't trade my life or the life of anyone I care about for a damn car window, and I question the values of anybody who would.

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SusanM 9 months ago

Being able to kill someone for stealing—or just appearing to be about to steal—something is not good for society and it is not good for us as individuals.

A functioning society decides together, through laws and regulations, what the appropriate punishment is for different types of crimes. At the very least, individuals should not be able to mete out punishments that exceed those allowed to the state. It should be easy for us all to agree to that.

But those who want to be able to murder other people because they are pissed off that the person has wronged them in some way, however minor, should at least consider the many ways that the "Castle Doctrine" and "Stand Your Ground" and similar laws can be abused. They should at least give a passing thought to the fact that their own child, brother, friend, might have a drunken moment, or just a stupid one, and decide to grab something out of an unlocked car and end up shot to death for it.

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