The Mandingo fight scene of Django Unchained really disturbed me. Two men were fighting for their lives. They were not competing over resources for survival, like food or shelter or access to mates or to protect their young. No, they were fighting for the entertainment of others. (This is not natural, might I add.) They were compelled to violently lash out at another, reach down deep into themselves and conjure up their most beastly, ugly, vicious pits of anger to maim and kill someone who had not provoked them. As Big Fred is required to finish off his fallen opponent, you can see how he must lose part of his humanity in order to survive.
Watching this scene made me uncomfortable; and I thought of how some dogs are forced to live this reality, too. Just being born looking like a pit bull means that some fool out in this world might think it’s a good idea to make an animal fight. Or some municipality might decide that this breed of dog is inherently violent and bad and not worth (trying) to place in a loving home. I’m actually a fan of bully breeds. Some of the sweetest dogs I know are pit bull types. To imagine any of them being forced to fight, becoming injured or dying to entertain others makes me angry.
Since the late 1980’s I saw the popularity of pit bulls increase in my neighborhood. Rumors of dog fighting increased too. D-boys were making name for themselves - tough, hyper masculine, psychologically and physically violent young men were being epitomized on the big screen and on the streets.
When Michael Vick’s charges were being listed I was sick to my stomach. I was very vocal about Vick being prosecuted for animal cruelty. We (Black folks) were quick to speak out in support of him because many of us relate to him. But some of our efforts came across as excusing him and I was not okay with this. Now, years later, Vick has served his time, doing community service and education and is picking up the pieces of his life. Some of the people who were crying for his punishment during the trial are still protesting him. And I am not okay with this.
In defending Vick, because he was ‘one of our brothers’ we engaged in a no-win public discourse that continues today. Then and now, some people have aligned in one of two camps: 'I don't care what he did because I don't think it was that bad' vs. 'he's an animal abuser let's punish him forever'. It’s a false dichotomy. Neither delivers any solution or restitution or serves to inspire people to be their best selves after making mistakes. These camps tend to be racially and socioeconomically divided, too. Also, not good.
Don't be fooled, these protests against him and his book tour is not about protecting animals or speaking out about cruelty. It is a distraction! It is bait! Serious conversations are not being had.
In-house conversation (between Black Folk)
I saw what Vick did as a symptom of negative behavior long overlooked in our community: Hyper masculinity, violence, materialism, misogyny. He and the co-defendants needed to made an example of – not just because I believe what they did was reprehensible, but because I thought that animal abuse (and dog fighting) had been deliberately overlooked by us for too long. In my opinion, his arrest and conviction should (and could) have spurred conversations about responsible pet ownership, the relationship between animal abuse and violence, the lack voice on urban pit bull kennels and fighting rings. Plus, there was and still is an opportunity to connect the dots between the rising fear of pit bulls (and other bully breed dogs) and proposed laws to outlaw certain dog breeds.
Oh, I get it. Like most other urban black folk, I see Michael Vick as a real person. I relate to him. He could be my brother, my cousin, and any of those boys I grew up with in South Memphis or taught in North St. Louis – talented beautiful young men, struggling to stay out of trouble, trying to earn a little money to help the family out, getting his shine on and loving the attention. He’s human. His experiences and perhaps even his interest in acquiring and raising bully dogs is a real and lived reality of quite a few inner-city neighborhoods.
The other conversation (understanding how ‘external forces’ shape African-American lives)
Michael Vick says he will not be bullied into seclusion after receiving serious death threats -- and vows to continue working with community service organizations in the wake of the scare. ~TMZ
Vick either doesn't fully comprehend how people view the severity of the crimes he committed, or he's getting some really bad advice. ~LZ Granderson from Michael Vick's book miscue
I think he gets it. He gets it very well. His entire life, especially since the legal trials, have been about him facing other people’s vitriol. What is he suppose to do? Live in conspicuous contrition forever to appease their angry hearts. Shrink, beg forgiveness from countless faces people who obviously feel they have the right to judge him for the rest of his life. What part of this is fair?
These ‘protests’ have nothing to do with animal love – it’s about interfering with his freedom and peace. And what is happening to him serves as a springboard into how inner city folk are often denied the opportunity to ‘live past’ mistakes and start over in life. These protests are symptomatic of how he & others are denied real legitimate opportunities to earn a living and experience redemption.
The conversation we all should be having: What is Justice?
I saw/still see his journey as an opportunity to have some very hard conversations. What is the role of punishment? How do we define crime? How are criminal codes applied to different segments of our population? Is our criminal justice system fair? How can we make it so? What is compassion/empathy? Can it be cultivated?
Michael Vick has written a book about his life and some people want him to die for it. Or at the least shut up and disappear. Fine, you don’t want to support him; but to dedicate your hard-earned energy to make him miserable seems more like an exercise of power, not a demonstration of values. What is the purpose of exercising this power?
How I see it, Vick’s greatest offense to these ‘protesters’ is that he dared to get back up and try it again. To me, this makes him inspirational, especially in my community where young Black and Brown men are often described as ne'er-do-wells and are expected to end up as nothing. He accepted responsibility for his actions. He didn’t whine when punished or paroled. I believe he is remorseful and wants to do the right thing. I always thought that about him. I always thought his story could serve as a great example of the journey to (personal) redemption. The protestors want to limit the narrative of his experiences, thereby robbing him of his testimony. I don’t believe that is right. And when folk step in to defend him by saying “oh, get over it, it was just a dog” they are falling into a trap and denying him his testimony, too.
I tip my hat to Vick for owning his entire story, accepting his mistakes, and coming out on the other side and not becoming bitter or angry. If folks really want to show their support of him, then we should do so by listening – not trying to shut the conversation down. If you agree, then you stand in support of him - buy his book, book him for speaking engagements, encourage him to tell his story - and not get derailed by this false argument of people vs. pets.