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Quite the World, Isn't It?

On the pervasive nature of hatred, guns, and violence

It almost feels like ancient history now, given what's happened since. In August, a troubled man by the name of Wade Michael Page walked into a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and opened fire. He killed six people and wounded three others before a policeman wounded him. Page then turned his gun on himself before he could be captured and questioned. There was no note or other message and authorities still don't know what moved Page to enter a place of peace with such violence, but focus immediately went to his white supremacist beliefs and the hate-filled music he performed.

Man, did that bring up memories. This is a piece I wrote in the new issue of Orange Coast magazine on the links between Page and Orange County, and the persistent nature of racial hatred. In writing it, I couldn't help but think of the slaughters that have happened both before and since Page's rampage here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Rampages that more often than not involved weapons bought legally.

And it's also worth noting that three days before this article went live on the internet, another gunman opened fire on the innocent after apparently murdering his sister and torching his neighborhood. Yet as a body politic, we do nothing. This is madness.

From my story:
The photos don’t portray Orange County at its finest. In some, you can see Wade Michael Page, his head shorn to stubble and his arms covered with tattoos, churning away on a guitar. Other skinheads stand next to him on stage, their chests and arms a mishmash of inked symbols, including what look to be a swastika and a Confederate flag. One picture is from a gig Page played in 2011, but others date back a decade, to when Page made Orange County—and its fringe hatecore music scene—his home.

It’s chilling to realize that the chunky guitarist in the photo would open fire at a Sikh temple outside Milwaukee last August, killing six people and wounding three others before, already wounded by an officer, taking his own life. But it’s more frightening to sense the sweep of time, and the persistent nature of hate and racism captured in those photos.

I first began writing about the hate movement a quarter century ago as a reporter for The Detroit News. Robert E. Miles, a former Klansman and one of the conceptual forces behind the modern white-supremacist movement, lived in Michigan. “Pastor Bob” preached a virulent religion known as Christian Identity in which Jews are seen as Satan’s soldiers, and God supposedly created blacks from mud to serve whites. Miles also once told me he saw himself as something akin to the Johnny Appleseed of white supremacy, sowing the seeds of racism wherever he went. He believed the white race would be preserved through “leaderless resistance”—by lone wolves primed to strike on their own, leaving no conspiratorial trails for prosecutors to follow. And the most fertile grounds, Miles believed, were prisons and the military.
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Virtual research, or how to visit Paris from my desk

So in writing Jones's Bones: The Search for an American Hero, I've been buried deeply in old maps and descriptions, and not so old photographs of where John Paul Jones lived and died in Paris, and where he was buried. A natural point of curiosity, of course, is what do these places look like now?

To the left is a photo of the buildings that were erected over the cemetery in which Jones was buried in 1792 - the row, including the hotel, across the street, to the right in the frame. The picture was taken in 1905 from the street corner, and accompanied reports from the U.S. Embassy in Paris to the State Department in Washington.

Here, to the left and through the magic of Google maps street view, is what it looks like today. All the buildings over the cemetery have been replaced. But the cafe on the corner, left foreground, is still a cafe, modernized a bit.

Obviously, looking at photos and Google maps street view isn't the same as being there, but it's an easy way to find out whether anything would be gained by visiting in person. In this case, other than a good meal, visiting the scene wouldn't give me any insights or perspectives - which I'm glad to discover without the expense of a trip to Paris.

Though that would be fun - I haven't been there in decades.
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On 38 Nooses and the invisible past

The Los Angeles Times this weekend carries my review of Scott W. Berg's fine new work, 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier's End, about the U.S. Army's legally sanctioned mass execution of men from the Dakota tribe in what is now Minnesota, and in the midst of the Civil War.

Readers of my books will recognize a certain sympathy for such overlooked moments of history. When I was telling my wife about Berg's book, she said it sounded like something I'd write. And it is -- this is a subject I would have loved to tackle. In fact, it overlaps slightly one of the chapters in my current project, Jones's Bones: The Search for an American Hero, which touches on the U.S. government's treatment of Native Americans in Alabama, Georgia and Florida some 40 years earlier (trust me, it all connects up).

The hanged men were participants in a flash war, an uprising, really, by the Dakota against racism and the white settlers encroaching on their land, and against the U.S. government failure to observe the treaties it had insisted on, including skipping a contractual payment. The uprising was quickly suppressed, and to the victors go the definition of what is a crime. From my review:
A hastily convened military tribunal lasting only six weeks found 303 warriors guilty of murder and sentenced them all to hang, based on sketchy evidence and a broad definition of culpability (warriors firing weapons in a military encounter were condemned as murderers with no evidence they hit a target, military or civilian), plus a firm belief by the whites that the region should be cleansed of its native inhabitants.

Because the sentences were from a military tribunal and not a civilian court, the president had to sign off on them. Lincoln appointed two men to review the verdicts and whittled the execution list to 39 warriors whom he believed had massacred whites. One was later reprieved, bringing the final list to 38.

And on the morning after Christmas 1862, in a public display of revenge, all 38 men were hanged in one single drop from a massive four-sided gallows erected in Mankato, about 85 miles southwest of St. Paul.

It was, Berg reports, the largest legally sanctioned execution in American history, a staggering event whose significance has been overshadowed by the Civil War even as it stands as a telling moment in America's westward expansion. Read More 
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On Lincoln, and the touchstones of history

I found a bit of history in my pocket the other day.

We have a couple of receptacles in the house to hold loose change for an eventual run to the credit union. One gets the silver (these are colors, not content) and the other gets the copper pennies. I pulled a small handful of coins from my pocket and, as I began separating them, noticed that one penny had a couple of wheat stalks on the back, curled around the inside edge of the coin. That meant the coin was at least as old as I am (the current Lincoln Memorial design was adopted in 1959). Flipping it over, I found the date – 1940, with the tell-tale “s” below the year meaning it was minted in San Francisco.

You don’t stumble across many coins that old in circulation these days. As coins go, this one’s not worth much to collectors (maybe a dime). The U.S. mint in San Francisco cranked out nearly 113 million pennies that year, so they aren't rare, and the one that cropped up in my change is far from mint-condition. The edges are slightly worn, and the front has a thin layer of shellac over it, as though it had been part of a display at some point.

Yet the coin represents more than a single cent. It is a touchstone to the past. The year this particular coin was minted, Hitler’s Nazi Germany – with Paris already in its control – began a nine-month bombing blitz of British cities. Americans, with vivid memories of the last European war just two decades earlier, wanted to remain neutral. President Roosevelt, fearing what the fall of England would mean for Europe, and the world, hatched his “lend-lease” program to aid the British without committing U.S. troops. That came just a few months after the U.S. Congress, fearful of fascist and communist infiltrators, enacted the 1940 Smith Act, the law that lies at the heart of my second book, The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy in Trial.

So this coin came into the world near the onset of a nearly all-encompassing global convulsion of violence. The world has changed since then. It's become more crowded, more polluted, more complicated in many ways. But it’s unchanged in that we as a species can’t seem to find a way to avoid killing each other in encounters personal, national, and tribal (be the bonds faith or blood).

Maybe that’s our curse, as a species, and as a nation. Over more than 235 years, we have rarely been at peace, from the "pacification" of the native tribes to fights with Mexico, to skirmishes in the Pacific to that massive war among ourselves. And that's just the first century. It's a staggering list to contemplate.

Of our most common four coins, three feature war presidents - the Lincoln penny, the Roosevelt dime, and the Washington quarter. Washington obviously was a general before the nation was founded, and even though he was the first president, it is as the hero of the revolution that we remember him. Jefferson, on the nickel, was part of the Revolution but is remembered mostly for his role in writing the Constitution and expanding the nation. But the bulk of the national medals - our coins - that we carry around are physical reminders of wars past.

And Lincoln, of course, came to a violent end, which means the most common coin in American currency bears the likeness of a murder victim.

It’s funny the kind of history you can find in the change in your pocket. Read More 
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A great idea for Detroit that I hope really happens

One of the most visible of Detroit's many wasted opportunities, I think, is Henry Ford's former office building in Highland Park, an island city surrounded by Detroit, where his ideas on the assembly line took root and revolutionized the industrial world. The building has been essentially unused for years, and I've thought for more than two decades now that the Albert Kahn-designed building would be the perfect anchor for a Detroit auto-tourism industry.

And now it might be happening.

Crain's Detroit reports that the local Woodward Avenue Action Association is negotiating to buy the building from owner National Equity Corp. From the story:
The association hopes to restore the building and eventually host public tours at the site as an automotive heritage welcome center, commemorating its important role in the automotive industry and in the region’s past, (association Executive Director Heather) Carmona said.

Other possibilities include incorporating mixed-use aspects by hosting tech start-ups from the site and/or turning parts of it into housing.

The site is why Woodward is a National Byway and All-American Road, Carmona said. It’s one of the most historically significant buildings on Woodward, and some would say, one of the top five historically significant buildings in the country.

“It’s literally our story … the story of the manufacturing economy, the $5 dollar day, middle class. It’s a historic resource and economic development opportunity that we cannot let slip away,” Carmona said.
I really hope this works out. Detroiters learned long ago not only to not count a chicken before it's hatched, but probably best to wait until it's fully fledged. Detroit's history is full of failed dreams and frustrated ambitions, and this could still wither and die.

But I hope not. Detroit has a lot of things going for it, and industrial history is high among them. Converting some of these decaying survivors of a great past won't save the modern city, but it can add another dimension to a broad, diverse sweep of positive steps. Read More 
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Detroit Public Library, here I come...

It feels like I just left Detroit after a whirlwind visit on the summer-end return trip to the West Coast, but here I come again.

The Detroit Public Library has invited me to talk about Detroit: A Biography at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, October 17, in the Friends Auditorium of the Main Library. It's free and open to the public (Marwil Books will be selling books for signing).

I'm looking forward to this for a lot of reasons, not the least of which were the hours I spent in the DPL's Burton Historical Collection looking through archives and records to help bring to life some of the myriad stories included in Detroit. The Main Library is a beautiful building between the Detroit Institute of Arts and Wayne State University, making it a prime component of Detroit's urban intellectual core. And it is a gem of a place, though, like much of Detroit, the library has been fighting some significant budget problems.

The evening should be fascinating. I'll talk a bit about the genesis of the book, why I wrote it, some broad conclusions about how the city got to be in the shape it's in, and then open it up for questions and discussion. That, to me, is usually the most fascinating part of any talk, hearing the stories of people directly connected to the historical things I write about. I invariably learn something new, pick up a sliver of nuance I missed before, and often discover things that I wish had included in the book. I look at the sessions as an organic "afterword" to the book, told in real time, and through living voices.

I hope to see my Michigan readers -- and I'm gratified by how many of you there are -- at the talk and signing.

Incidentally, the talk occurs on the eve of the annual North American Labor History Conference (program director Fran Shor helped set up the library talk; thanks, Fran) at Wayne State University, where I'll be part of three different events. I'll post more about those as it gets closer.

Oh, and if you want a Word copy of the library flyer pictured here for posting or sharing, email me through the link in the column to the right and I'll send one out to by return email. Read More 
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On Detroit, and changed white attitudes

Photo: Margaret Mercier-Martelle
The woman sat with a friend to my left as I stood last night discussing Detroit: A Biography at Saturn Booksellers in Gaylord, Michigan (a wonderful little store and a wonderful event). I talked about the propelling role that race and racism has played in the evolution of the city, and she raised her hand and offered, paraphrasing here, that the racist attitudes of white Detroiters toward their black neighbors have changed since the crucial days of the 1950s and 1960s, as Detroit careened toward collapse.

Not so, unfortunately, I responded. As I write in the book, racism among suburban whites is still a driving force in the region. The book quotes a Facebook discussion about Detroit, which I cite as evidence of the private sentiments of some whites. And I noted to the woman that suburban Southfield and Oak Park - once white-majority cities to which black middle class families had fled to escape Detroit's violence and the abysmal school system - are now majority black cities as whites once again ran away from growing numbers of black neighbors.

Which got me thinking last night as I drifted off to sleep: If people think this is a post-racial society, can we ever truly get there? If people believe the struggle for equality has been won, when all evidence points to the contrary, has the fight ended?

After I responded and turned to another questioner, the woman and her friend were heard to say that the Facebook example in the book was just one person, and that it was an outlier. Society has gotten better.

Maybe things have improved, but not enough, when black urban poverty is taken as a given, churches refuse to let blacks marry, and presidential politics comes shrouded in a racial mantle.

Some things to think about as we hit the I-75 freeway and head south for a couple of days in Detroit. Read More 
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Yesterday: Niagara Falls; Tonight: Reading in Gaylord, Michigan

Erie Canal bridges, Rochester, New York. Photo: Scott Martelle
Well, we've begun the slow trek back West, and after overnighting in Port Huron we're off to northern Michigan today for a 6:30 p.m. reading at Saturn Booksellers in Gaylord, Michigan (see the Events page). I've never visited the shop before (I recall only being in Gaylord once, more than 25 years ago, while working for The Detroit News) but where I'm very much looking forward to talking about Detroit: A Biography, because of the high recommendation my old friend Bryan Gruley gives the store.

We made a brief detour as we drove west from Rochester, New York, through southern Ontario, and stopped in at Niagara Falls, which I haven't visited in more than a decade. It never fails to impress with the sheer volume of water that tumbles over the edge of the Niagara escarpment, and the beautiful attention to the grounds, particularly on the Canadian side, where we stopped.

But history is never far from mind, and as we watched the water tumble and roar, I couldn't help wondering what it looked like in the early 1800s when it was the impassable barrier between the upper Great Lakes and Lake Ontario, and the ocean beyond via the St. Lawrence River. The opening of the Erie Canal, a mind-boggling project in itself, in 1825, took Niagara Falls out of play as a navigation barrier, and, as I wrote in Detroit: A Biography, that was a crucial turning point in the development of Detroit as a trading hub, and as an economic lifeline for the upper midwest.

The canal eventually was superseded by the railroads, of course, but I like how this summer trip of ours has both inadvertently and purposefully touched on some of the elements of the book. The photo inserted in this blog post was taken from the deck of the Mary Jemison during a two-hour trip we took on the Genesee River and the Erie Canal while in Rochester, another place that found riches with the opening of Clinton's Ditch, as it was called. Today we head into the heart of what was Michigan's first major industry, logging.

And on Wednesday, we head to Detroit for a couple of days. That stop will be purely social, with no readings planned. And then, like the western expansion itself, we point the nose of the Fusion toward the Pacific and head home.Video by Margaret Mercier-Martelle. Read More 
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A night at the ballpark, and the freedom to insult

Frontier Field, Summer 2010/Credit: Scott Martelle
Last night was beautiful in Rochester, New York, a perfect night for baseball. So off I went to Frontier Field, the home of the Rochester Red Wings, and one of the prettiest AAA ballparks in the country (I try to go every time I'm back in town). It was my second night in a row at the ballpark, after joining eight members of my wife's extended family on Tuesday. Last night I went alone and splurged the couple of extra bucks for a $12 seat a dozen rows back from the field on the third-base side.

Turns out it was the "insult" section. I was surrounded by regular attendees, many of whom knew each other by first name, and many of whom also embraced baseball's questionable tradition of heckling the players.

But a few of them also were heckling other fans. A young man with long black hair and sunglasses walked past to a seat in the second row; a woman in her late 50s called out, "Get a haircut!" Another woman around the same age, in the row behind her, added, "The sun set an hour ago!" An older man in the next row closest to the field spewed an endless stream of criticism, all audible to those around him, about the play, the players, the audience, the music -- he was like one of the two crotchety old men from "The Muppet Show," but without the humor.

Sitting there on a balmy evening, sipping a cup of beer, and watching the two squads of young players struggling to achieve a dream, I got to thinking about the divide between the players on the field, the fans around me in the stands, and the stream of negativity. Players sucked, coaches couldn't coach, pitchers couldn't pitch, the music was crap, this guy will never make in the majors and that guy, he used to be up but they sent him back. Nope, couldn't cut it. Did you see Kent Hrbeck, here tonight to sign autographs? Man is he fat, really let himself go, didn't he? Get a look at that girl; my mother never would have let me out of the house dressed like that! Ugh! The tattoos on that guy! Do you see them? He's going to regret that later, I tell you.

America's favorite past-time: The tearing down of others. Next time you wonder what motivates kids to bully others, think about the role models we give them, and the kind of behavior that passes for acceptable in the adult world. Read More 
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On Aurora, and our history of violence

We tend in this country to live in the moment, looking neither to the future nor to the past with much insight. The killings early Friday in Colorado - where I spent a fair amount of time researching my first book - will prove that to be the case once again. Hands will be wrung, demands will be made, counter-arguments will be lobbed that the Second Amendment guarantees killers the right to their weapons.

And nothing will change. Because we, as a nation, really don't want it to.

If Columbine couldn't spur a move toward sane gun-control laws, the shooting up of a movie theater certainly won't do it. In fact, none of these killings in the list below - all since the year of alleged Aurora gunman James Holmes' birth - managed to do a thing to move the nation to act. Which says more about us than it does about the killers.

This partial list of mass shootings in the U.S. is gleaned from a range of online news sites. I count more than 200 people killed, not including the gunmen. And I repeat, it is a partial list:

May 30, 2012: Ian Stawicki killed five people, including four who were sitting in a Seattle cafe, before killing himself after a police manhunt.

April 1, 2012: One Goh opens fire at a small Christian college in Oakland, California, killing seven.

October 12, 2011: Scott Dekraai, 41, allegedly enters a Seal Beach, California, hair salon where his former wife works and opens fire, killing eight people.

January 8, 2011: Jared Lee Loughner opens fire at a political gathering in Tucson, Arizona, killing six people and wounding 13 others, including then-U.S. Rep. Gabbie Gifford.

August 3, 2010: Omar S. Thornton, 34, leaves a disciplinary hearing at Hart­ford Dis­trib­ut­ors in Connecticut, where he is a driver, and opens fire, killing eight people.

November 5, 2009: Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan allegedly opens fire at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 12 people and wounding 31 others before he is shot and wounded.

April 3, 2009: Jiverly Wong opens fire into a Binghamton, N.Y., community center, killing 13 people before turning the gun on himself.

March 29, 2009: Robert Stewart, 45, shoots and kills eight people at Pinelake Health and Rehab in Carthage, N.C. before a police officer shot him.

March 29, 2009: Devan Kalathat, 42, kills his two children and three other relatives, then himself in Santa Clara, Calif.

March 10, 2009: Michael McLendon, 28, kills 10 people in rural Alabama before killing himself.

Feb. 14, 2008: Former student Steven Kazmierczak, 27, opens fire in a lecture hall at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, killing five students and wounding 18 others before killing himself.

Dec. 5, 2007: Robert A. Hawkins, 19, opens fire with a rifle at a Von Maur store in an Omaha, Neb., mall, killing eight people before taking his own life. Five more people were wounded, two critically.

April 16, 2007: Gunman Seung-Hui Cho, 23, kills 32 people in a dorm and a classroom at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, then himself in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Oct. 2, 2006: Charles Carl Roberts IV, 32, kills five girls at West Nickel Mines Amish School in Pennsylvania, then shoots himself.

March 21, 2005: Student Jeffrey Weise, 16, kills nine people, including his grandfather and his grandfather's companion at home, and five fellow students, a teacher and a security guard at Red Lake High School in Minnesota. He then kills himself. Seven students were wounded.

March 12, 2005: Terry Ratzmann, 44, guns down members of his congregation as they worship at the Brookfield Sheraton in Brookfield, Wisconsin; he kills seven and wounds four before killing himself.

March 5, 2001: Charles "Andy" Williams, 15, kills two fellow students and wounds 13 others at Santana High School in Santee, Calif.

Nov. 2, 1999: Copier repairman Byran Uyesugi, 40, fatally shoots seven people at Xerox Corp. in Honolulu.

July 29, 1999: Former day trader Mark Barton, 44, kills nine people in shootings at two Atlanta brokerage offices, then kills himself.

April 20, 1999: Students Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, open fire at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., killing 12 classmates and a teacher and wounding 26 others before killing themselves in the school's library.

May 21, 1998: Two teenagers are killed and more than 20 people hurt when Kip Kinkel, 17, opens fire at a high school in Springfield, Ore., after killing his parents.

March 24, 1998: Andrew Golden, 11, and Mitchell Johnson, 13, kill four girls and a teacher at a Jonesboro, Ark., middle school. Ten others are wounded.

Oct. 16, 1991: In Killeen, Texas, George Hennard opens fire at a Luby's Cafeteria, killing 23 people and wounding 20 others before taking his own life.

June 18, 1990: James Edward Pough shoots people at random in a General Motors Acceptance Corp. office in Jacksonville, Fla., killing 10 and wounding four, before killing himself. Read More 
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