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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 8.14.08

 

Mean Eugene?

Attack on black resident leaves scars and raises questions  

words by Rick Levin  |  photos by Todd Cooper

When Michael Clay received a severe beating while walking home during the early morning hours of June 11, it was understandable that authorities and local media immediately wondered whether this qualified as a hate crime. Eugene ain’t exactly Oakland — it isn’t even Berkeley, despite its academic anchoring and longish history of lefty activism. In a town of this size and outwardly mellow stature, with its relatively low incidence of violent crime, any attack of this magnitude will make the news, usually of the front-page variety. It turns heads and raises questions.

But in a town as undiverse as Eugene, racially speaking, a single explosion of white-on-black violence sends cultural shock waves that make people uncommonly queasy. There is no absolute calculus ranking the moral hierarchy of street violence — it is always abhorrent — but when an older black man is beaten with a bat by a pair of white teens in a community where Hacky Sacks and hippies seem to outnumber haymakers and handguns, it can spark questions about the very foundation and nature of that community.

The attack certainly raised disturbing questions about the state of Eugene in the mind of Michael Clay. For him, however — and perhaps surprisingly — race barely enters into the equation. Beyond the blunt descriptive designation, he says he believes his status as a racial minority had little to do with what happened to him.

In fact, Clay argues, fitting the attack into any sort of isolated category of motivation, no matter how heinous, could prove overly convenient and perhaps even dangerous for some folks. There is a bigger lesson to be learned here, he says. More troubling for Clay is what he considers to be a general increase in crime and violent behavior on Eugene’s streets — something that moves across the board when it comes to potential victims. These days, Clay says, what happened to him could happen to anyone. 

So here’s what happened: Clay — a 60-year-old African-American war veteran who has lived off and on in Eugene since getting out of besieged Saigon in 1968 — was nearly home that night when, at the intersection of Lassen and Roosevelt south of the railyards, he was approached by two white males and asked for a cigarette. He doesn’t smoke cigarettes, but before Clay could offer the substitute of one of his cigars, he was slapped. Then came the bat. His medical discharge report cites fracturing to the maxillary sinus, the zygomatic arch and the mandible and displacement of the tempomandibular joint — to name but a few results.

Five rivets were put in his face, along with stitches. His teeth are loose. He gets headaches, and concentrating on the most everyday tasks is difficult, he says. Upon returning from his hospital stay, Clay had to rearrange his house just to know where everything is. “I’m so bad at remembering everything since this happened,” he says.

In layman’s terms: Michael Clay was fucked up. Two teenagers — Alex Lee Swegle, 18, and Joseph Anthony George, 17 — were arraigned in June on charges of first-degree assault for the attack and, if convicted, could face up to seven and a half years in prison. They were arrested on a public tip — apparently they had been bragging about beating Clay — and were picked up less than a mile from the scene of the attack. Court records for both young men reveal a history of involvement with the juvenile justice system, and both have been charged for previous (fourth-degree) assaults. The investigation by the state is ongoing.

Clay came home from the hospital 40 pounds underweight, and were it not for help from friends and neighbors, he says he doesn’t know where he’d be. His injuries make it impossible for him to work right now. Clay says he’s broke and on the brink of homelessness. He’s been unable to make a dent in his $20,000 hospital bill, and his landlord is allowing him to repaint his house in lieu of paying rent this month. A fund started at SELCO Community Credit Union by the local community, called Stop the Hate (acct. #451824), has helped him with expenses. Still, he’s barely making ends meet.

“I went a long way to get away from violence,” Clay says, “and now I have to take a head-bashing just to prove it. I spent 40 years eating and working and trying to be healthy. Right now the streets in the city are really screwed up. It’s really hairy out there.”

Clay, who was born and raised in Chicago, is a tall and rangy man with an easy manner and wry sense of humor, though in conversation he frequently cuts to the chase and brooks no undue interruptions to his such-is-life stories. Since serving in Vietnam, he has made his living working various jobs including a stint at the grain mill, though for several years now he has been self-employed in the farming and distribution of organic seed. Clay is a musician as well; his living room is full of electronic gear and drums. Since the attack, he’s been unable to pursue either his pastime or his livelihood, and an unpaid debt to Lincoln County is holding up his victim’s assistance. “I don’t know where I go from here,” he says.

Talking with Clay, one gets the sense that he’s not entirely convinced race wasn’t a factor in his attack; it’s just that he believes latching onto the label of hate crime obscures the more crucial issue regarding the violence he encountered. According to him, while he was in the hospital for the first three days after the attack — all but insensate with a steady supply of intravenous pain killers — a whole narrative was worked up in his absence. “They sure went out of their way to spin a bunch of racial crap in the news,” he says. “I stayed out of it. I wouldn’t get in the news. All of this stuff came down and nobody talked to me.

“Now,” he adds, “all of a sudden this has made me a victim.”

Clay surmises that the violence he encountered was part of what he calls the “dance,” whether that be organized gang violence or the random belligerence of kids out on the streets looking for trouble. He says he’s heard rumors of a new posse moving in from Chicago trying to “cut into the game” of local toughs in the northwest Eugene area. “Our neighborhoods are being sliced up by old rivals again,” Clay says. “I think there’s a whole problem down here on the streets. This neighborhood is a 24-7 operation. Now I won’t walk hardly to the fucking mailbox.”

In a sense, he says, he feels like what’s happening now in Eugene is something of a repeat of what followed the hippie era, in the aftermath of Vietnam when the bad economy and gas crisis of the ’70s gave an unusual and frightening edge to life in this presumably sleepy and peace-loving burg. “They’ve almost come full circle,” Clay says. “Stupid is running loose again.”

Clay chalks up the street-level change he’s seeing to numerous factors, including the growth in Eugene’s population, the nation’s economic and international crises and an attendant atmosphere of uncertainty and unrest. Tough times have a way of creating meaner streets.

“It’s a whole different morality, you know,” Clay says, adding that the sort of brutality he encountered is often indiscriminating when it comes to its choice of victims. “This shit is happening all the time to people, and color only happens to be part of the description,” he says.

Certainly, the blessing and the curse of any fair-sized liberal city with a halfway decent social services network — Berkeley, San Francisco, Seattle, Eugene — is that homeless and wayward youth tend to flock to that area’s civic hubs, seeking companionship and Dumpsters and drugs and fun and handouts. Lefties tend to be more tolerant and generally looser with their spare change, and they aren’t so quick to shoo away the ragged clans of kids that flock like leatherbound peacocks to the town’s bus terminals.

The flip side of this is that when the streets start to resemble A Clockwork Orange, everyone throws their hands in the air in paralyzed frustration while social workers exhaust themselves trying to save the ones they can. Many turn a blind eye. Or so says Michael Clay.

“I’d like to see something come into this neighborhood that would help the kids,” says Clay. “Because if things go like this, I don’t know where it’s going. Until this, I was quite proud of Eugene.”

The attack, and recuperating from the attack, has left Clay’s life in an uncomfortable limbo, as he deals with the financial and physical toll the beating exacted on his life. The attack has changed him as a person, he says. “It made me all of a sudden old,” Clay says. “I wasn’t tired until this happened. It’s hard to be old now.”

According to Clay, recovering from the attack has been a slow but steady progress, though not without its expected and unexpected trials. “For three weeks I couldn’t walk without getting dizzy,” he says. Mornings can be trying, he adds, and it can take an hour to an hour and a half “to get unfuzzy.” A few weeks back, he noticed that some of his teeth were sitting a bit wonky in his mouth — an after-effect of the trauma sustained by his skull.

Aside from his physical ailments, there are the daily reminders of his present predicament, including endless phone calls from doctors and doctors’ secretaries, some of them asking after his health and some wanting to talk money. “This is the way life has been for me,” Clay says when his cell phone rings yet again.

Playing fiscal triage with his own compromised health — wondering which medical follow-ups he can afford and which he might have to forego — has allowed Clay little time simply to rest up and recuperate. “How in the hell is somebody supposed to get well?” he wonders.

Still, Clay says he’s ever thankful for the care and concern he’s received. “My friends have been beyond belief,” he says. “That’s what has saved me — the neighborhood, the people I know. I want to thank everyone who has and hopefully will continue to help my recovery — physically, mentally and financially.”