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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: WWII veteran’s death marred by hatemongers

Delaina Duran, 10, of Spokane, places a ring she made of Play-Doh on a memorial erected in memory of Delbert Belton during a vigil on Friday at the Eagles Lodge. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Delaina Duran, 10, of Spokane, places a ring she made of Play-Doh on a memorial erected in memory of Delbert Belton during a vigil on Friday at the Eagles Lodge. (Tyler Tjomsland)

It should be overwhelmingly obvious, but let’s just get this onto the record:

Spokane gives a damn about Delbert “Shorty” Belton.

Plenty of people here loved Shorty, lots more liked him and admired him and enjoyed his company, worked with him at Kaiser or played pool with him at the Eagles Club, and thousands of us who never knew him were moved and saddened by his senseless, brutal murder.

Hundreds of people showed up for a candlelight memorial for the 88-year-old World War II veteran. Online and in person, around town and in the local media. Spokane residents were horrified by the crime and talking about it. Police arrested his alleged killers almost immediately, and city leaders spoke to the issues eloquently and with speed. In particular, police Chief Frank Straub has given steady, responsible voice to the circumstances surrounding the crime. Thursday, there will be a formal memorial service. Expect an enormous turnout.

What happened to Belton was horrible. And what happened to him in death – as his name was taken up cynically for political fodder in the world of bloviation and dog-whistle racism – was horrible in a different way. Rush Limbaugh and Matt Drudge and their loyal followers rushed to capitalize on the death – to turn his tragedy into a chance to trumpet the fact that his alleged killers are black.

This is part of a strenuous post-Zimmerman narrative in Rushworld, in which the death of a black teenager in Florida and the subsequent uproar over the case has been followed by an exhaustive effort to scour the nation for black criminals to hold up as anti-Trayvons and with which to taunt President Barack Obama, who stands accused of being the “real racist.” This, runs the tenor of this argument, is the true face of black America. This, Mr. President, is who we should really think of when we think of you and your hypothetical son.

Shorty’s death – his real death, the real human tragedy of what happened to him and the real human brutality of what his killers did – was sorrowfully perfect for this abuse. The people who loved him were still reeling, still in the freshest grief, as Rushworld sordidly swept in, claiming that Obama should never have mentioned Trayvon Martin – but now that he has, clear-eyed realists have no choice but to start emphasizing the hell out of every black-on-white crime they can find.

A key part of the narrative is the supposed failure of people – or at least the president and the media and people of color – to care enough about Shorty. Like Rush cares. Like Kathleen Parker cares.

The people of Spokane put the lie to this. They have done so by showing that they care about Shorty the man and demanding justice for those who killed him.

Among the most poignant comments to have emerged in the news reporting of the case – which has been constant, and steady, and solid by the media here in Spokane – was this statement from Shorty’s daughter-in-law about the killers: “You have to look at them as kids. Not black kids, or Hispanic kids, or white kids. They were just kids and they did something horrific.” 

The part of the world that wants to use Shorty’s death already wrote its script and already drew its conclusions before he was killed. It does not care about when Obama made his first comments about Trayvon – weeks after the boy’s death, following protests and demonstrations and a growing controversy, in response to a question at a news conference and using language that was anything but inflammatory. It does not want to hear a word about the experiences of black people, not counting black people who murder white ones, about whom their interest is bottomless.

Spokane gives a damn about Delbert “Shorty” Belton. Does the bloviosphere? A couple of clues: You don’t show that you give a damn by gleefully, instantly donning your outraged-by-Obama mask the moment you hear of a tragedy. You don’t show it with carefully shaped expressions and ill-suited comparisons that meticulously avoid the most racist ideas, all while laying a nice rich bed of manure for them to flower in.

Shorty was one man, and from the sounds of it, he was an amazing one. He was not his race or age or town. The people who apparently killed him were two boys – they were not their race or their age or their town.

The people who knew and loved Shorty are individuals. Their grief and their memories will live within them, in one form or another, for the rest of their lives, as will whatever comfort they receive from their family and community. Those of us who never knew Shorty but merely lived here, in the place where this happened – our share of the sadness will not be as great, but it is personal and real to us, as well.

Meanwhile, the people who took up his name and stuck it to their bandwagon – the hashtaggers, the Obama-haters, the bigots – will forget him quickly, because they never really cared about him in the first place.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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