This blog entry began as a Facebook post as I reflected on the outpouring of skepticism around the autopsy findings in the death of Dakota James, a 23-year-old gay man who disappeared early in the morning on January 25. The autopsy declared his death an accidental drowning, suggesting he fell into the water on his own. His family rejects that finding and insists that there must be more of an explanation. You can read my entire coverage of the story here.
Dakota’s death is tragic, a loss to his family that most of us cannot understand or empathize with because we haven’t had that type of experience. Their grief and reaction must be given room to unfold. Who wants to think their adult child got really drunk, fell into a river and died? That’s so senseless.
However, the relentless speculation by OTHER people about serial killers is a disservice to those struggling with real epidemics. Insisting that the coroner, the police, and the mayor are covering up some key piece of information that will make sense of this senseless tragedy is not helpful to anyone, least of all the bereaved. I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of insistence for months, mostly wild speculation based on facts that have nothing to do with one another. And that fierce determination that something is amiss overlooks what really is amiss.
First example is alcohol culture. Anyone can get too drunk to get themselves safely home. “Novice drinker” as used by the Post-Gazette to describe the family’s response to the findings is a red flag term for me, who grew up with multiple family members justifying alcohol abuse. It’s unreasonable to not allow for the fact that he might have been drunk. Perhaps not intentionally, perhaps he drank too much without really thinking about it. But no one is immune to the effects of too much alcohol. It happens. All of the time. Taking it off the table as a factor is harmful. We have to take responsibility for how much damage alcohol culture does so we can implement better strategies to reduce harm.
We also have to stop centering white cis men as the victims of mysterious disappearances and deaths. Two black women were shot this week alone in Pittsburgh, and I promise you that the story about the autopsy will get more media attention than both of the women combined – their names are Lashelle Gibson and Kala Thomas. The body of a man who reportedly jumped from a local bridge to evade arrest in February was found this past week, but we aren’t talking about his life mattering – his name was Gregory Benton. When Andre Gray disappeared in October 2014, people downplayed the seriousness even with a bloody crime scene and burned out car. I heard over and over that Andre had been involved with drugs (not true) and was having sex with men on the “down low” as if either fact made him culpable in his own murder. It was because he was a black bisexual man that people said these things. Come on, people.
Also, rivers are dangerous. They are not bucolic background scenery. These four rivers have driven entire economies, sparked warfare for centuries and sustained people for millions of years. I grew up along the Mon and my father drilled us about respecting the power of that river. We are so disconnected from water as a life-giving power that we see things like the Flint water crisis arise. We see Standing Rock. God knows what is going on with PWSA on any given day. But we lose sight of the immense might of our three Rivers when they shift from cogs of industry to become recreational playgrounds. We forget the lessons to not go near the water. We want river access as if they are placid shallow lakes. We have lost our natural connection to the rivers, to water, even. And we pay a terrible price for that disrupted connection.
Dakota’s family will rightfully do what they gotta do in the wake of a terrible loss. But YOU who are reading this need to go a different direction for the sake of all those who are missing or lost and no longer generating headlines. If you wanna play CSI/amateur detective, go where the greatest need is. If you do one thing to resist alcohol culture, you will save lives. If you demand equity in media coverage. If you ask why a man terrified of heights who couldn’t swim jumped off a bridge. If you acknowledge that rivers are power and powerful. You will save lives.
There is no serial killer. There are raging epidemics in this region that take lives every day – including alcohol use, poverty, domestic violence, addiction, lack of health care, etc.
I’d like to see someone do something tangible. Set up a prepaid effort with Lyft to give people free rides home when they should not drive (or walk.) Do a public awareness campaign. you will reduce drunk driving, you will reduce sexual assault, you will reduce people being robbed while impaired, you will keep people safe. Do something practical instead of fixating on crime-solving.
Or if you feel the police don’t have adequate resources, do something practical there. Organize fundraisers to buy equipment the City can’t afford. Go to River Rescue meetings and learn how to promote water safety. Ask the City what is needed to get the cameras fully functioning. Invest in organizations led by black women to support their work with women in the community.
This has been weighing on my heart. I feel genuinely terrible for the James family. I can’t imagine their pain and I know that I cannot ease it. I hope they find peace and that Dakota’s memory is a blessing to them.
I hope you stop perpetuating gossip and start acknowledging reality. Who shot Kala Thomas and why? What are we going to do about out of control drinking beyond shutting down fraternities? If Gregory Benton couldn’t swim, does the police report make sense? And who will investigate that? How do we remind people of the power of the rivers without turning them back into chemical waste sites?
How do we honor the lives of all who are lost too soon?