Friday, February 15, 2008
The Undiscovered Country
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself”
Between classes today, I watched a live feed over the internet of Randal Simmons’ funeral. KCAL 9 estimated the crowd at 10,000 mourners. Many news outlets claimed it was the largest funeral in LAPD history. From the first moments as Officer Simmons’ casket was wheeled into the church to the accompaniment of bagpipes, the service was moving and heartfelt.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s speech was clichéd, and he tried to inject a little venom into the proceedings by stating that newspapers only report the facts in an obituary, and that the LAPD is not defined by consent decrees and other court documents, referring to recent troubles for the department. He then proceeded to detail how many wounded police officers he had visited in the hospital, and how this was the first time he had to deal with the death of a policeman in the line of duty. I thought his remarks typically focused on him when he should have been comforting the family and the citizens of Los Angeles.
The most moving moments of the day were when his partner, Officer James Hart spoke. He even injected some humor into his tribute. Also, Officer Simmons’ family members spoke of him and his devotion to not only his family and friends, but also his charities and his church. Officer Simmons’ Christianity was a touchstone of nearly every remembrance.
By far, the most intense moment came when his fifteen year old son spoke. I admired the young man’s courage—to be so young, and to stand before 10,000 people and a large television audience and speak about his relationship with his father was truly awe-inspiring.
The sun was setting when the graveside portion of the service ended. From the air, Holy Cross cemetery in Culver City was a sea of navy blue, the streets and roads choked with law enforcement vehicles from around the state. Two ladder trucks from the Los Angeles Fire Department raised their ladders in a salute at the entrance to the cemetery. It was an incredible sight, one I will not forget anytime soon.
I left school around 3:00 PM and stopped by the burned out Rivera home where Officer Simmons and four members of the Rivera family lost their lives. The property is now surrounded by a ten foot chain link fence. Flowers and candles cover a portion of the sidewalk in a makeshift shrine. Inside the fence, debris and burned up furniture litter the lawn. A partially burned washing machine sits in the drive way. The windows and doors are boarded up with plywood. The most startling display is the five crosses planted in what is left of the front lawn. The crosses are labeled with the names of the victims. Nearby sat a news van, and several other cars slowly passed the property.
Death and destruction. The senseless loss of life. What was clear today is that the Simmons family will dearly miss a husband, a father, a brother. The sole surviving Rivera brother is now alone in the world. Others are injured and will carry the emotional and physical scars for the rest of their lives. All of this because of one, deeply disturbed young man. And in the week and one day since the shooting, how many other shootings have occurred across the country? A man kills five at a college in Illinois. A fourteen year old kills a classmate in Oxnard and will be charged with a hate crime, making him eligible for the death penalty.
In a supposedly first world nation, a country that values freedom and has offered countless millions the opportunity for a better life, we have people turning on one another and committing homicide over what? In one case, it was a matter of parking tickets.
Randal Simmons tried to encourage young people from poverty and diminished means to succeed. He tried to offer others messages of hope. According to his fellow officers, he was a beacon, a shining example of self-sacrifice and bravery.
It is up to us to continue to foster humanity, to reach out to others. For Officer Simmons, his calling was his Christianity. His faith was his vehicle to make sense of his own life, and to assist others, especially children, to make sense of their lives. We must find our vehicle—it might be religion, but it could also just be an appreciation of the human experience, what it is that makes us human. We must reach out to people, to what is good and decent inside of them. We must find away to connect. In this age of technology and emptiness, it is our only hope.