Craig Washington: Scars to heal

They were dog tired that night arriving home after working the third shift at the warehouse. They laid their spent bodies down on the mattress in Anthony’s mother’s living room as they had done many times before without hesitation or worry. For six weeks Anthony Gooden and Marquez Tolbert had been dating. Both their mothers knew this, recognized that their sons were gay, and their love never wavered. One freely opened her home to them. Kim Foster was fine with Anthony sleeping with his boyfriend under the roof she paid to keep over her family. He was her son. This was her home and both her son and his boyfriend had a place in it.

There was another man for whom Foster made a place, her boyfriend Martin Blackwell. On the morning of February 12, as the couple slept, Blackwell poured scalding hot water on them causing second and third degree burns on both men. Tolbert said that Blackwell then forced the two injured men to leave the house. Tolbert was burned on his back, neck and arms, while Gooden suffered damage on the front of his body, his face and his left arm. His injuries were so severe that Gooden was placed in a medically induced coma for two weeks. Tolbert received surgery to replace the skin on his back. According to AJC, Blackwell who is being held in Fulton County Jail is charged with eight counts of aggravated battery and two counts of aggravated assault. He now faces up to 80 years in prison.

The night before that fateful morning, Blackwell complained to Foster about her son’s homosexuality. But neither she nor Gooden recognized the brutal threat underlying his comments. Following this deplorable act, the remarks he made to the police reveal his utter disregard for their condition. “They were stuck together like two hot dogs. I poured a little water on them to help them out.” His admission carries no trace of guilt or regret. It appears freely offered with no excuse needed. He scoffs at the injury he caused. He carries no more remorse than a chest beating predator standing over vanquished victims who deserved their fate. To explain his reasoning, he refers to the vile practice of pouring hot water to separate copulating dogs. This should be of no surprise given what he did not see when he came into the living room and watched these young innocents.

Marquez Tolbert, 21 (left) with boyfriend Anthony Gooden, 23 (Screencap image)
Marquez Tolbert, 21 (left) with boyfriend Anthony Gooden, 23 (Screencap image)

He did not see two men sharing a bed, or the son of the woman whose bed he occasionally shared in her house. He did not see two human beings. He saw what he was taught to see, two aberrations caught perpetrating the ultimate betrayal of manhood, the unpardonable sin.

There is no central site, no single institution or layer of society through which such hatred and violence is taught, allowed or rewarded. Knowing just how this individual’s heart was so deeply warped will not save another transgender woman from being strangled or another mother’s son from committing suicide. While this attack is atrocious and demands our attention it is not without precedent. It is not far removed from the practices and beliefs of many who find it objectionable. It is shocking yet not exceptional in a society where the brutalization of queer, female, black and brown bodies is shockingly acceptable. What do we expect will result when millions who would never choose a boiling pot, nevertheless, could “X away our right to life”* at the ballot box without a second thought? When we choose to cast Blackwell as a monster because his act was monstrous, we deny him his humanity as he did his victims, and we ignore the conspiring patterns that make such acts inevitable. From the state sanctioned shootings of Black people to the savage murders of transgender women, from our chronic disregard for the poor, to the cruel treatment of gays come high noon every Sunday, from the ways we train our boys to fight rather than love to our disdain for those deemed as different, our culture dictates who is valued, and who is without value and may be discarded. This does not absolve Blackwell from his responsibility. It does call us to apply a keener understanding of social accountability.

Public outcry has demanded Blackwell ‘s action to be categorized as a hate crime but despite attempts by State Senator Fort and others supporters; Georgia is one of 5 states that has no such laws. The FBI is investigating the case to determine if Blackwell can be prosecuted under the federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Given its profound flaws, I have mixed feelings about our reliance upon an imminently racist criminal justice system as the primary vehicle to bring about justice. I believe that Blackwell deserves punishment for his deeds and his flagrant self-endorsement that followed. I question if increased sentencing actually serves as a real deterrent. Will it deter the cultivation of similar predispositions among other boys and men? Will it stop us from breeding more men to use violence as a tool to intimidate and control others? How will it stunt the taproots of anti-LGBT hostilities? Will the gratification derived from Blackwell’s punishment curb our desire for transformation beyond retribution? Will it enable us to continue ignoring the broader complicity of our norms?

As new reports rapidly spread through social media, people have donated thousands of dollars through fundraising campaigns for each young man. Our response must prioritize healing the physical and emotional scars both will bear for years to come. Long after this story cools, Talbert and Gooden will still need support including physical therapy, counseling, job linkage, and the loving care of family and friends.

These young men deserve a degree of justice that yields more than incarceration. Beyond the flurries of pearl clutching Facebook shares and memes, outrage can be channeled into purposeful action. We need to do our best to prevent such an assault from ever happening again. Coalitions among hetero and openly queer organizers must directly address their own heterosexism to establish trust and organize public dialogue. How might more Black men be enrolled in collective commitments to renounce sexism and violence and recruit their brothers in this liberation? We need concrete outcomes like expanded support resources for LGBT youth, relevant sexual health education and progressive policies in the schools Black children attend. Our communities will not be healed, nor will anti-queer violence be abated through longer jail sentences. We must invest in transformative approaches that deepen our commitment to each other’s safety and honor the sanctity of all Black lives.

*Denotes an excerpt from the poem “Where will you be, When they come?” by Pat Parker