We go through life trying to adhere to the standards that societies ahead of us have set for us. If someone decides to strive against the norm, then a fear goes through the portion of society that has set those standards to be golden. Golden being when something has been followed without the presumption that there are other options, or that standing up for oneself will attain anything. Sometimes it is hard to understand why people do the things that they do, and yet nearly everyone falls victim to the same assumptions, that with change comes chaos. But change isn’t nearly as bad of a thing as some will portray it, or make it out to be to others. America the beautiful, the free, the democratic… or is it?
To really dive into the concept that society is undergoing massive changes, one must only look towards what is going on in everyday life. We can all see that some things in life aren’t going to turn out the way that they are supposed too, but sometimes people aren’t satisfied with taking a back seat, and often feel the need to take action. Such is the case when looking at how our schools have slowly begun to deteriorate. When stopping to consider what is depicted by the media on a daily basis, we begin to see that there is a dark-side to everything and that some people will chose to exploit the underbelly that our society has decided to allow to form. Now some will cling to the argument that is was merely where America was headed, but things wouldn’t be the way that they are today in the world if someone hadn’t looked the other way in some instance.
A quick look at the sewer systems in Eastern St. Louis can prove this point pretty quickly. In an effort to finish the original system quickly and inexpensively lots of mistakes were made, and too many corners were cut. What the result became was a section of a major metropolis that has become barely inhabitable. This is a place where people get sick on a daily basis, and the city gives tax breaks to people for merely living in the general area. What this says is that there are people in powerful positions in this country that are only there for themselves and not actually working for the good of the cause. Where does this lead? Corruption and ‘backdoor’ politics become the basis for most that would go into the political fields.
Far from me saying that all of the problems of the free world are a result of what our elected officials have evolved into, is one of the main reasons the USA is where it is. As everyone is always taught society must continuously change, evolve, and better itself in order to sustain its own survival for future generations. The problem that arises here is that if society cannot adapt to the changes taking place within it, then what occurs are cracks at the foundation of everything that we hold dear and everything that remains just. Take for instance the original belief that the world was flat. Though a crude example, it is one that will suffice here.
With everyone succumbing to the “handed-down” belief that the world had to be flat, and that beyond the horizon there was a rather large “cliff”, people adhered to the thoughts that what was set upon then was fact. But, a fact is usually something that cannot be disproved, such as that we need oxygen to continue our survival, or that pork actually is the “other” white meat…. Wait… I guess that second one doesn’t hold quite as true as the first one. But nevertheless, the theory holds true that if someone doesn’t question what is thrown upon them that they to fall victim to either a lie or a misconception that might stick with them permanently. Maybe, even a misconception consisting of not trusting a black kid walking through your predominantly white neighborhood. This is by far one of the things that stood out in bright neon lights while I was reading through The Other Side of the River. How something like this can actually exist in a country where we always seem to pride ourselves on being forever patient with our virtues, and where we claim that every man has the same freedoms as the next law-abiding citizen. What is really being talked about here though? The premise is that 2 cities on opposing sides of a River can be at such odds with one another mainly because of a major racial thorn. The thorn is that neither side can accept the other one for what they truly are; human beings.
First we have the city of Benton Harbor, which is composed of 92% African-Americans, and is described as being “dirt poor” by the author. Gangs and drugs are its biggest problem, and it appears to take on the characteristics of actually being a city like Detroit or Washington D.C., when it boils down to what it suffers from. But, in reality it is actually not that large of a town, and once appears to have been a great place to live. But with a downtown that people are ashamed or afraid to venture into, and businesses that have been gutted or burnt out by a mall that has taken all the business away, just adds to the dreariness. It is no wonder that Money magazine rated it as the worst place to live in the States. Then we have the city of St. Joseph that is 95% white. Where its biggest problem is keeping leaves from collecting on its pristine sidewalks and city benches. A city that has survived on the opportunities supplied by a mega-corporation like Whirlpool, it has all of the luxuries of a great tourist trap while at the same time being a comfortable and beautiful. Sitting on the border of a great lake, and having a river run through it, it is one of those types of cities that are often used in love stories as the “getaway” from normality, or it is a normal person fantasy. But, the people there live in a turmoil that they have in no small part caused and inflicted upon themselves over time.
By not being able to cope with a sister city that only has a River separating the two, problems become abundant. But this imaginary line or “boundary” that separated the 2 cities didn’t really come into play seriously until the shooting took place. That shooting was when Marv Fielder, an aging policeman, shot and killed Norris Maben. The story goes that Fielder thought that Maben was a suspect that had been spotted earlier, and upon thinking that he was armed Fielder fired 3 shots into him, instantly killing him. Much controversy swirled around at the time of the shooting, because Fielder was a white cop, and Maben was a black teen, and the shooting had taken place in Benton Harbor. More questions arose as to whether or not he even had a clean shooting or that maybe he had shot the kid in the back. With too many questions going seemingly unanswered, and rumors being allowed to fly every-which-way, there was too much racial animosity building for lines not to be drawn. Alex Kotlowitz stated that, “the lines had been drawn, and the sandbags piled high. People retreated to the familiar… whites among whites, and blacks among blacks” (p.79).
Now to say that the death of Eric McGinnis came at an inopportune time for the two cities could rival “The New York Yankees as being a good baseball team”, as the understatement of the twentieth century. Eric McGinnis was a young African American teenager who according to his mother found spending time in a St. Joseph club more fun than hanging about in his own city. His body turned up in the River separating the 2 cities after he had been missing for several days. Thus begins to unfold a quite complicated tale of the death of a young-man that has yet to be, and may never be solved. Two towns consisting of a veritable plethora of people who have and believe their own theories about what actually happened, and the events that really led up to his death.
Through the search for answers, and the difficult process in discovering the truth, author Kotlowitz really takes a magnifying glass to race relations and the murder of this young boy. From the belief of his own mother that he was killed by a black man to the belief that the man whom he had robbed earlier in the day and caught up to him and ended his life. But then there is the question of whether or not he actually did rob Ted Warmbein’s car in the first place. Too many witnesses give too many different thoughts on the whole event, and that just adds to the overall contemplation that race could be involved in the death. When lead detective Jim Reeves fails to complete several important tasks as perceived by the townships, questions and concerns can and will arise. What happened here was that rumors were allowed to spring up and grow everywhere. But, the rumor most clung to by the black community is one that the crime was committed with obvious racial motivation, and that the only reason that Eric had to die was that he was black. Now how can something like this even happen in a society where the constant preaching is that we need to love thy neighbor? The answer isn’t that simple, but coming up with one isn’t difficult by any means either.
A journalist by trade, Kotlowitz shines light on a true story of race relations and the true impact that prejudices can have on a community. Part factual reenactment, and partly a compelling story of mystery,The Other Side of The River presents many versions of the same story, much the way the film Courage Under Fire did, but leaves the ultimate opinion to the reader when the final page has been read. Those interested in the topics at hand will find this a good read, and ultimately a trail that is well worth following.