Gators Attack! (And Other Monstrosities)

Broadcast 7/21/2006

Posted here in consideration of MLK Day.

In one of Aesop’s fables, a scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream. The scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, "How do I know you won't sting me?" The scorpion says, "Because if I do, I will die too." The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, suddenly, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but he has just enough time to gasp to the scorpion "Why did you sting me?" “Hey,” replies the scorpion: "I’m a scorpion. It’s my nature.”

You might remember one of the regional media’s recent wrongheaded endeavors, the alligator attack stories of few months ago. While, sadly, a number of people were killed in encounters with alligators, there was very little good reporting done on the set of stories, most of which instead seemed to vaguely suggest that the gators were attacking because they were monsters or were evil or had suddenly acquired a taste for human flesh.

No, few reporters – especially the usual local TV Bubbleheads – bothered to venture too far from the safety of the news van to do any real reporting. A reporter asks questions beyond the reach of, “Are you upset that your sister was just eaten by an alligator?” But a Bubblehead drops that bomb into the front yard of the grieving relative and lets the cameras roll. We needed real questions, such as: Was it mating season for the alligators? Did the unusually dry winter have anything to do with gators being so far afield? Could suburban encroachment on gator habitat be putting more people in harm’s way? These obvious questions were usually ignored for the sake of the sexy and terrifying tale of -- GATORS ATTACK! Lock up the kids and pass the ammo, Martha!

Such is the state of the news – especially local television news and 24-hour cable news – increasingly soaked in sensationalism and sentimentality and lacking the patience, courage, and wit to know an important story when it sees one.

Take, for instance – and far less trivially -- the death of 9 year old Sherdavia Jenkins, killed by a stray bullet while playing outside her home in Liberty City on July 1. Or 14 year old Markese Wiggan or 18 month old Zykarious Cadillion, two other South Florida children killed in the last three months in apparently random shootings. For too many people, these stories simply go in one ear and out the other, or the eyes glaze over. Sadly, because of the neighborhoods these children belong to, their deaths don’t count as much as does the violence done to children living in other places. Worse yet, the long-standing and specific problems that create something as shocking as a deadly stray bullet are not the problems that count as much in other South Florida communities – especially in most of the local news media. A stray bullet, after all, is a journalistic cliche for a bullet about which most people don’t care to know the circumstances of its particular velocity or vector.

Oh yes, the moment of violence is sensationalized and the day of grieving is sentimentalized by the Bubbleheads, but at the end of the broadcast day the cameras are turned off and most reporters are on to the next story. Few will stick around and ask more questions, the first being: What sort of factors produce a neighborhood where stray bullets can kill children? Not to point out the obvious here, but further investigation is in order about police presence, about playgrounds and activity centers, about overcrowding and affordable housing, about the displacement caused by gentrification, about guns and violence, about community expectations, and about Miami’s reverse-NIMBYism. Reverse-NIMBYism is that attitude of, “If it’s not it my back yard, it’s not my problem.”

But it is your problem – it is Miami’s problem. If we as a citywide community do not care enough about the killings of children like Sherdavia Jenkins by stray bullets, then what kind of place are we, really? Miami becomes then not the Magic City but the City of Scorpions, stinging and hard, certain to let others go down to doom in the depths that would take us as well.

Let us not be subject to our baser instincts – selfish, narrow, and cold. Let us come back to the painful story of Sherdavia Jenkins and ask the questions that properly address the complicated circumstances of her sad death. Let us, for once, not change the channel or turn the page and move on. Let us stay for more than a moment and be human -- as is our better nature.

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