Republican News · Thursday 25 May 2000

[An Phoblacht]

The consequences of brutalisation

All God's children

The Bosket family and the American tradition of violence
By Fox Butterfield
Available via the Internet bookshop

``Welcome,'' Willie said exuberantly. ``I can get you whatever you want. Ginger ale, juice. I run the show here. The guards aren't going to argue with me. Willie winked knowingly at me. Willie's hands were padlocked behind his waist to a wide leather belt and his ankles were in leg irons, but he acted as though he was in command.''

ANC chaplain Michael Lapsley came to Belfast late last year to speak to Relatives for Justice (RFJ). In 1990, during peace negotiations in South Africa, a parcel bomb was sent by the Apartheid police to Michael. He lost both hands in the explosion. In the RFJ's Falls Road offices, Michael spoke of his personal journey from victim to survivor and finally victor. During a discussion about trauma counselling, the pastor delivered a simple warning. Deal with the brutalisation inflicted upon the community by the conflict because if you don't, it will haunt future generations.

Willie Bosket is a petty thief with a propensity for violence. At the age of 15 he shot and killed two men on the subway in Manhattan. The killings were arbitrary and casual. As a juvenile convicted of a double murder, Willie was sentenced to only five years incarceration. But his fate had been sealed and Willie has spent all his adult life in American maximum security jails.

Constantly in conflict with the prison authorities, Willie is now considered the most dangerous prisoner in New York State. Condemned to a lifetime of solitary confinement, in a concrete box without electricity, denied access to all reading or recreational material and where even his guards are not allowed to speak to him, Willie describes himself as ``only a monster created by the system.''

Fox Butterfield is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who is currently a national crime correspondent for the New York Times. In the early 1990s, Butterfield was asked by his editor to investigate Willie Bosket's story. As a fellow African American, the editor wondered what made Willie so violent and thought his story might provide an insight into juvenile crime.

The story Willie tells is one of poverty, abuse and neglect. It is a tale of a parental abandonment and institutional indifference. A bright and beautiful black streetwise kid marginalised by white America. Willie grows up within a subculture of crime and violence, with its own codes of honour and revenge. The child who nobody wants becomes the man no jail can contain.[

But the book isn't just about this. When Willie meets Fox Butterfield he knows nothing of his family's history but he suspects it holds some relevance to the pattern of his own life. It's an inspired guess. As an experienced investigative journalist, Fox Butterfield thinks it unlikely that any record exists of a dispersed family both poor and black but he's wrong. Almost every member of Willie's paternal line, father, grandfather, great grand father, had been convicted of a violent crime.

But this is not a tale of biological or racial determinism. This is the story of the consequences of brutalisation and injustice meted out to generation after generation. It starts with slavery in South Carolina, in a county called Edgefield - the most violent county in the most violent state of America, where Southern land and slave owners presided over brutal regimes within their own farms and settled their differences by a ``gentleman's code of honour'', a code of arbitrary and casual violence perpetuated within their own class.

It's about the hope of emancipation fading as former slaves try to survive as sharecroppers impoverished by greedy landlords. It's about the flight from the oppression of rural poverty to the brutality of urban deprivation. It's about making your way through life starting with nothing and finishing with less. It's about defining masculinity through codes of honour which increasingly degenerate into arbitrary violence.

So why should 21st century Irish republicans read Willie Bosket's story? The reason is both chilling and compelling. We need to recognise that we have not only been brutalised by those seeking to oppress us but also by the desperate strategies we've employed to resist oppression. If we don't deal with the consequences of brutalisation, without the discipline of armed struggle, our revenge will not be the laughter of our children but the bitter tears of their corruption.

The rise and rise of Sinn Féin at City Hall

Belfast's Dome of Delight

By Máirtín Ó Muilleoir
Beyond the Pale Publications

Former Sinn Féin Councillor Máirtín O Muilleoir provides a first-hand account of his experiences in Belfast City Council chamber during his two-term tenure as elected representative for Upper Falls.

Máirtín charts the political rise of Sinn Féin that transformed the political landscape in Belfast. Prior to the election of Alex Maskey in 1983, the council had never had a Sinn Féin representative grace its chamber.

Máirtín's latest work catalogues the appalling vista of unionist domination and bigotry that was the hallmark of City Hall politics for decades and succeeds in reminding us just how bad things were while the most bigoted and reactionary elements of unionism retained unfettered control of the council.

The King Canute-like efforts of unionist councillors to stifle the right of the Sinn Féin councillors to free speech and impede the democratisation of City Hall are portrayed in some detail.

Likewise, Máirtín reminds us of the sacrifices republican activists and their families made in the pursuit of full equality for their community. This, of course, occurred at the hands of state-sponsored loyalist death squads, determined to deprive the nationalist and republican electorate of its elected representatives.

If there is a criticism to be made of the book, it is that Máirtín's incisive, biting, and sometimes acerbicly witty style of writing, for the most part employed to good effect, rests uneasily with his depiction of the more tragic events of the time.

One of the most positive aspects of The Dome of Delight is that it highlights the true nature of political unionism's highly ambivalent relationship with loyalist paramilitarism. For instance, the DUP's Sammy Wilson is quoted (in a thinly veiled reference to the UDA killing of Sinn Féin councillor Eddie Fullerton in Buncrana, County Donegal, nine years ago this week) congratulating loyalists who had done good work on both sides of the border.

Overall, The Dome of Delight provides an informative, and often humorous, insight into the mindset of a significant element of the unionist body politic. This element attempted to disenfranchise tens of thousands of nationalist citizens in Belfast and to deny their representatives access to even the limited political power acquired through participation in the structures of local government in the Six Counties.

This is an important account by an able republican advocate of a turbulent and formative period in Belfast's political history. Moreover, it provides a first-hand account of some of the most significant battles - legal and otherwise - in the struggle by Belfast republicans to provide effective political representation, to have their electoral mandate recognised, and to achieve equality for all the city's citizens.

The timing of its publication is particularly apt given the impending Mayoral elections next month. In 1983, Sinn Féin won its first seat on Belfast City Council. By 1993, Sinn Féin was the largest party on the council in terms of first-preference votes. The 1998 elections signalled the end of unionism's overall council majority, with the Alliance Party holding the balance of power. The onus now rests upon that party to ensure that parity of esteem becomes a reality for republicans in Belfast.

If the more progressive elements of unionism can rise to the challenge, next month could herald an important step in this 17-year journey, which started with Alex Maskey entering Belfast City Hall as the first Sinn Féin councillor and may result in him becoming Belfast's first citizen this year.


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