Communities grieve in tragedy’s wake

It’s been over a year since I arrived at IU. To say the least, it has been an interesting year: every place I’ve ever lived in has been dragged through the media muck and is now stained a slightly different color.

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the days when Matthew Shepard, an openly gay student at the University of Wyoming, was beaten and left for dead just outside Laramie. Suddenly, and without any warning, a community I grew to love and appreciate over my six-year stay was splashed across the front page of the New York Times and the Indiana Daily Student, to name a few newspapers, when the story broke.

Having been a resident of Laramie, I read the media’s accounts of the town with a great deal of interest, even at times pausing to wonder if the reporters had visited the same town and state that I know and love so much.

They talked about this town, calling it homophobic, racist, and drunk, casting the image in such pall that I found it difficult to imagine that they were talking about the same one I lived in. It is one with a great university that has a great legacy, a warm homecoming parade Saturday morning, and a strong sense of community.

The attention on my adopted home hurt: I love Laramie and I love Wyoming. Ultimately I would love to return to the Cowboy state, a state whose residents, like those of Indiana, have a strong sense of being, who they are and the historical legacy of their state.

The second blow to my personal geography came last spring, when Denver was dragged through the muck: Columbine High School and the two gunmen. Suddenly while flipping past CNN I thought I recognized the two people sitting behind the anchor desk and on the air: people I had watched on the news while growing up. It was CNN rebroadcasting KCNC, the CBS station out of Denver.

This time, though, the media did not blame the city; instead they tried to search for an explanation. It did not matter in the end: Denver still came off looking like a “cow town,” a backward place that encouraged gun-slinging, much like the Old West.

In one sense, Colorado is very much unlike either Wyoming or Indiana. The residents have absolutely no sense of place, being or history. Nobody in Colorado cares because they all just moved in from somewhere else; usually California.

The last blow came on July 4 when Won-Joon Yoon was killed by Benjamin Smith in Bloomington. Ironically, it took me far longer to learn about this news story than to learn about the other two. It was not until I was on my way home from Bloomington’s parade that I had to detour around the three satellite news trucks that surrounded the Korean United Methodist Church on Third Street, along with the yellow police crime-scene ribbon that I had only seen on television before.

Since I actually live here right now, it is more difficult for me to know how Bloomington came across in the national media. From what I can tell, though, it has not hurt Bloomington’s national image significantly. Perhaps this was because Smith’s crime wave was exactly that: a crime wave. It ran across two states, killed two people and hurt a number of others. The real news in this case, as it turned out, was the murder of Ricky Byrdsong, Northwestern University’s former basketball coach, in Skokie, Ill.

Bloomington was left to grieve for Yoon.

The images that the media chooses to push upon the public can lead to powerful effects in the imagination and memories of the viewers and readers. Whether in Laramie, Denver or Bloomington, reporters who fly into town for 48 hours to write a story often miss the essence of the situation. The facts may be right, but the picture is left incomplete. At best it leaves an image that is only slightly distorted, at worst the foundation of the community is damaged, forcing an already hurt community to dig deeper to fix its emotional scars.

The soul searching starts at home, and Laramie is about to be dragged through the muck again as jury selection starts for Aaron McKinney, the second of the men accused of murdering Shepard, this week. When you read the news stories over the next month, pause to remember that the citizens of Laramie were not responsible: McKinney and his friend Russell Henderson are the culprits.

The citizens of Laramie, like the citizens of Denver and Bloomington, are not to blame for their community’s notoriety; they are, however, working on the healing of their community.

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