Pretty little blonde girl, just 12, petite and with a name – Autumn – that marks the season she was murdered, hops on her bike in the early afternoon and never comes home.
And now we know. The bike was found. Then she was found, and it was awful. I know somebody who lives in that town, and is deeply affected, so I’ve been tracking the story all day, along with a lot of other folks.
Newspaper accounts are factual, TV reports more or less direct. What fascinates me today, though, are the comments after the stories, and the Facebook remarks following postings of the awful details of Autumn’s death.
The boys now charged with Autumn’s murder are black. She was white. And the bloodlust that has risen up since that fact – and their picture in cuffs – is in evidence is frighteningly racist, and worked-up in a way that singularly seems tied to the loss of a blond girl and the guilt – alleged – of young black men.
No, I won’t be linking. But along with the community’s heartfelt sympathy and expressions of sadness for her, and fear for their own kids, there are discussions of stringing the boys up. “Lynching them old-school.” “Pitchforks and torches.” Suggestions there should be “retroactive abortion”.
I can only wonder at the shadow-streak of sadness across Clayton, NJ tonight. There’s a community church service going on right now; it must be both awful and beautiful to be there in her memory.
When little blond kids go missing, the world takes notice in ways we don’t all take stock of. I’m not immune. When I was 16, I might have saved a little blond boy – it happened fast and I’ll never know. When I was 22, I searched Manhattan for a little blond boy; Etan Patz. Was that because he was a neighborhood kid? Or a photogenic little white face whose heroine I wanted to be? I’ll never know.
But not too far from where I live, the threat to little kids is constant. And I confess: I hardly ever touch on it in my mind. But it’s inescapable in some houses, for some families, in some neighborhoods. In my town, which used to be white and well-off and is less those things now, some of my neighbors have lost some of the neighborliness that should define small towns like this one, and maybe like Clayton. The crumbling facades and empty stores aren’t about the economy, a rerouted road, local Wal-Mart or anything random for these people. No, these people are most comfortable seeking scapegoats among their neighbors. Impossible not to notice that the neighbors my neighbors hate are darker than they are. And the terms they use to describe them are awful.
Autumn Pasquale’s death is awful, and will and should be felt deeply. But I’m troubled by the fact that too many of us only raise our heads and open our hearts when the randomness of the horror – girl killed for bike parts – seems so improbable and the victim so attractive to us that it consumes us. When the violence is everyday, when the conversation is about spiraling murder rates and walks to school are scary, drive-bys take the boy next door, and the one down the street, is the currency of young lives lost somehow less? I know we would never say so. But don’t we act as though it’s true?
When we see TV, radio and social media light up for a pretty white child gone missing, and barely take note when another child is taken, exploited, killed randomly or killed with intent, aren’t we valuing one life above others? And what are we saying to those parents?
My neighbors speak about their neighbors like their parents don’t worry about them, as though