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Vigilante Justice and White Exceptionalism in America

My Weekend With Bernie (Goetz)

by MISSY BEATTIE

“That sounds like something Bernie would do. This is Bernie,” I’d said to Charles, years ago. He shook his head no.

Before we met, Charles lived in NYC, where he got his PhD. That’s how he knew Bernie, both at NYU in the department of nuclear engineering. My husband collected characters, and Bernie was one. Charles had plenty of Bernie stories but disagreed with my realization, couldn’t fathom that one of his friends could do what struck me as obvious.

A few years after Charles and I married and were living in Kentucky, Bernie visited. He drove a rental car from Manhattan to Lexington, on his way somewhere. He stayed a few hours and had dinner with us.

When Charles joined the staff at Johns Hopkins, we moved to Baltimore. Bernie rented a car and drove down from Manhattan. He did this twice, staying several hours each time. First trip, he related a story—that he’d been mugged and injured by three teens in a subway station. Only one of the kids was apprehended. Bernie was angry his assailant was charged with criminal mischief, not for the attack and attempted robbery, but for tearing Bernie’s clothing. Said he’d bought a gun. Then he told me about another attempted robbery, when a Black teenager suddenly was in his face, demanding money. He pulled out the gun and pointed it at the kid, who dropped to his knees and begged for his life. Bernie described him, the pleading. He let the young man go.

Bernie tried to convince me to purchase a gun. He said I needed to be armed when I ran. And he suggested a specific gun, one so small it would fit in an eyeglass case. I told him I wasn’t interested. I have a visual right now of Bernie and me, just the two of us, standing in the kitchen of the first Baltimore residence, a rental, having the conversation. This was the early ‘80s. Son J was about eight, and H was a possibility, a hope.

Not long after this visit, the Subway Vigilante story was THE NEWS. That’s when I told Charles Bernie was the man who’d shot four teenagers. Days later, Bernie turned himself in, and his photograph was front-page at our door.

I don’t remember exactly when Bernie visited again but son H was far more than a maybe, five or six years old by then. And Bernie had served a prison sentence for illegal possession of a firearm. He arrived with a woman. She was a police officer, very pretty and nice. We sat on our row house’s balcony. I remember not wanting to talk about the shooting in H’s presence.

Bernie never came to our place in Nashville, where we lived for eight years. Then we moved to Manhattan. On a hot Saturday morning, Charles and I saw Bernie at the Union Square Farmer’s Market. We chatted briefly. Bernie mentioned his aspiration to be mayor. That was the last time we saw or spoke with him.

The Zimmerman acquittal delivered Bernie memories.

And triggered another: I was in a children’s clothing store in Baltimore’s Roland Park area, shopping for H. When I was at the counter, paying for my purchase, I saw alarm on the cashier’s face. I turned to see a Black couple entering with a child. The man wore a full-length fur and held the little boy’s hand. “We have to watch them. They’re here to steal,” the cashier said to another.

I spoke up, “Because they’re Black? Probably, most of your shoplifters are women like me. White and privileged.”

She began to apologize. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

This is the way so many perceive anyone outside their set—anyone not among the group with whom they identify. And it’s one of the reasons we’re not in the streets, obstructing traffic, blocking commerce, to end the murder of those we dehumanize, those whose countries are in chaos courtesy of US Empire. Another name for our superiority complex is white exceptionalism.

Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Baltimore. Email: missybeat@gmail.com