Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Batavia, NY: Old-Lady-Punching Capital of the World

I would like to see a breaking point in our perception of suburban and rural crime. This is one of those things that I realize I’ve been observing all my life, but that I only notice the real significance of once I encounter an example of it that cannot be glossed over. Then I hope my personal breaking point precipitates a more general one.

I just encountered a story that, as luck would have it, comes from my general area and happened on Christmas Eve, as well. It seems that in a Wal-Mart in Batavia, NY a seventy year old cashier named Grace Suozzi asked to see a receipt from twenty-six year old Jacquetta Simmons for purchases she had made in the electronics department. Simmons, amidst much shouting, refused to produce the receipt, though she did indeed have one. Suozzi stepped towards her as she moved towards the exit, and Simmons punched the old lady in the face.

Shocking story, right? Now, tell me this: Would it be less shocking if it happened in New York City? How about if it was specifically the Bronx? Detroit? Please comment if you answered yes to any of those questions; I would really like to hear your explanation.

Personally, I say no. No it would not have been any less shocking if it had occurred elsewhere. Situation the event in the middle of a war zone, and punching an unarmed seventy year-old woman in the face is still quite reprehensible. No matter where the attacker lives, I’d be pretty amazed to witness somebody demonstrating such an abject lack of conscience, restraint, and considering the presence of many, many witnesses, an interest in self-preservation.

However, the coverage of the story by ABC affiliate WHAM-TV suggests otherwise. It’s not the deplorable viciousness of the act that’s surprising, it’s the fact that a deplorably vicious act would occur in Genesee County, and a town of just over 16,000 people. After describing what occurred, the reporter explains, “The news of what happened spread throughout Batavia through word of mouth and Facebook.”

From there, she turns to testimonials from two representatives of the Batavia community, starting with Dawn Williams, the owner of a local salon, who says: “It’s hard to believe that it happened in Batavia. I mean it’s something you see that happens in the city or the big cities, but not here.”

Given the careful distinction between “the city” and “the big cities,” I immediately recognized that, why, in the first place, she must be talking about me! I live in Buffalo, which I gather is “the city” as far as Western New York is concerned. And yet, I can’t seem to recall having ever seen anyone punch an elderly person in the face. Much less have I heard of such a thing happening repeatedly, as is implied by describing it as something “that happens.”

The other Batavia resident that was interviewed for the story, Clifford Shultz, was initially more measured with his commentary. For a fleeting moment, it seemed like he was going to comment just on his shock at what happened, regardless of where: “I mean on Christmas Eve, a twenty-six year-old lady punching a seventy year old woman, I mean, that’s kind of, you know, shocking that something like that would happen.” He paused there, and then added, with great emphasis, “around here.”

D’oh. Almost had it there, Clifford. The correct answer was, it’s kind of, you know, shocking that something like that would happen… anywhere on the planet. You see, punching an elderly person is kind of an exceptionally bad criminal act, based purely on what it is, not where it occurred. I don’t care if you live in Shanghai, Buffalo, Batavia, or Centralia; if you fracture an old woman’s face, the jaws of onlookers will drop, and then they will surround your car to prevent you from leaving before the police arrive. That’s what happened in this case, and maybe that’s what makes the story unique to Batavia. In other areas, the attacker and her male companion might just have been beaten unconscious. But I’m pretty confident that respect for our elders is a sufficiently ingrained ethic throughout Western civilization that nobody who did such a thing would walk away without incident to herself.

Ms. Williams and Mr. Shultz, your living in Batavia is completely irrelevant to this story. Commentary about different patterns of criminal activity in urban and remote areas has no place here. This is a unique story about someone punching an old woman, and sorry folks, it happened in your town. Yet I’m more generous than Ms. Williams, as I’m not going to take that as grounds for generalizing old-woman-punching as a Batavia activity. I don’t think Batavians go around doing that sort of thing for sport; I just think something awful happened in their Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve.

Giving Mr. Shultz the benefit of the doubt for his commentary, I would not be a bit surprised, based on the abrupt way he added his last two words, if he had been coached by the reporter to make an issue of the town’s identity. And it would be all that much less surprising because we’ve all seen this sort of thing before. Most times there is a crime in a small town or suburb, the media emphasis goes to how anomalous it is for something bad to happen in what is usually a quiet community. Well, yeah. Lower population + less poverty = lower crime rates. But still, surprise, surprise: human beings are capable of terrible things. Moving house doesn’t really change that.

The media’s addition of special significance to crimes that occur in small towns is not just irrelevant; it’s manipulative, biased, and downright illogical. It establishes a narrative whereby every crime that’s committed in a small town is just an exception to the usual peacefulness of the place, while every crime that’s committed in a city confirms to presumption of urban violence.

However, though I don’t have specific statistics to bring to bear on this, I’m rather certain that there’s about as many people in cities not committing crimes as there are in small towns. It seems to me that if violent crime is an anomaly, it is an anomaly to the human race, not to certain subsections of it. And if it is a general rule, it is a general rule for the same.

To think of the situation otherwise, as we so often do, is to perpetuate false distinctions among people according to some ephemeral concept of regional identity or town pride, while in reality the relevant distinctions among people are circumstantial, and though they are difficult to pin down, they are concrete. That’s the sort of thing that can be clarified with facts rather than divisive spin. And the former is supposed to be the purview of journalism, even though it rarely is.

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