I write about a zine about hometowns, leaving and staying. This is about my hometown.
I grew up mostly in a small town near a city in a state most people can't distinguish from its neighbors. I grew up an hour from Boston but with little public transportation, we were not near the city. Driving there was easy, we were ten miles or less from the highway that cut from Boston to the fall foliage of the White Mountains. As a kid, I rode my bike alone on Saturday mornings, in 3 mile loops from my house, to the dairy farm, to the building where I went to kindergarten and then home. I stayed home alone in the summer. I walked alone in the woods in the fall and winter. We had disparaging names for drivers from Massachusetts, and considered Maine the place for a vacation.
I grew up thinking “Live Free or Die” belonged on a license plate, and did not know what kind of fury and privilege it entailed. I lived in a safe, quiet town, mostly white, mostly christian, fairly conservative in that special NH way. It's why the libertarians moved there years after I left. Independent because we could afford to be.
In the summer of 1989, I was ready to enter 7th grade. On August 3rd, a few blocks away from my middle school, a Hudson Police SWAT team acted on a tip, fueled by the urgency and money the War on Drugs gave police forces in the 80's, and busted into an apartment of an alleged drug dealer. They found Susan Lavoie asleep on the couch, her husband and two of their three kids asleep in the bedroom. Believing that Bruce Lavoie was a marijuana dealer and therefore potentially armed and dangerous, they entered forcibly, with guns drawn, shields up, and shot and killed Bruce Lavoie. The officer responsible, Stephen Burke, later claimed he did not recall discharging his weapon, first in the hall then in the bedroom. And, unsurprisingly, only trace amounts of drugs were found, indicating a guy who might like to get high but was in no way a major distributor.
I remember the newspaper stories in the Nashua Telegraph, feeling a vague sense of terror but I don't remember talking to my mom or dad or friends about it. It was a thing that happened, far away from me, yet a mile from my school. It was like the teacher who got arrested in the park that year for indecent exposure, and then resigned. A story I didn’t understand that no one explained. A month later, school started and I was probably worried about math classes and crushes and how to avoid gym class.
I had forgotten about this story, even as I was searching for some connection between what is happening now in the streets of major cities and what happens where I came from. I was searching to find a recent connection between New Hampshire and the rest of the country. And there it was—not just my home state but a story I remember. The first time I realized the cops could just come in your house and they could be wrong, so wrong, and someone could die. And nothing would be done.
Well, almost nothing. The Hudson SWAT team was disbanded for 2 years. Susan Lavoie sued the city for damages and received money for herself and her sons, much to the disappointment to many residents who believed she asked for too much. The officer, Stephen Burke, resigned but was hired by another unnamed police force. Two citizens, unconvinced by the newspaper reporting and internal investigation, conducted a private query “asking questions that should be answered and nobody was asking.” Despite this, indifference prevailed. Most people were inclined to believe that there must be some missing information to justify the officer’s actions.
People are angry because this shit keeps happening and mainly in black and latino communities. Police are given power, and somehow that goes unchecked. In the 1980's it was the alleged fear of the drugs the governement had flooded into the inner city that were leaking into to the suburbs and so a war was waged and police forces were outfitted with SWAT teams that knocked into homes with insufficient evidence, ignoring whatever information they may have had and killed a man. Bruce Lavoie was a white guy in a suburb town who was killed in an overambitious raid.
It is hard for me to imagine what it would’ve looked like if Bruce Lavoie was not white because I would have to reimagine my hometown. Ten years after his murder, the town census reported that 94% of residents were white. There were a lot of things I didn't understand about race and class and differences because of the homogeneity of my town. It is hard to look back and suppose what might be different. But the issue is still relevant . Because cops still raid houses and kill innocent people. Because deadly force is used over and over and over and justified because the victim was resisting while being held down and beaten, or might've been a drug dealer or had shoplifted or looked menacing (and to say that a person “looks menacing” if you're a cop in such a certain situation is an obvious indication of the your fear and unexamined racism that will remain,criminally, unexamined). Allegations of a misdemeanor offense should not end in death. I don't understand why there is even a question of whether or not there are “suspicious circumstances” when an unarmed citizen gets killed by a cop. That is suspicious. Always. But cops don't even get indicted . Sometimes they resign. Sometimes they feel threatened by angry citizens who want to know why their friends and family and community members are killed, harassed and terrorized by them. Nevermind the systematic oppression that brings about these circumstances. Or that when people march in the streets in outrage, they are faced with the same over-armed, righteous, aggressive forces they are protesting.
In the 1989-90 annual report for the town of Hudson, zero murders are reported, meaning Bruce Lavoie's death went unrecorded. Also in that report Hudson police congratulate themselves on the effectiveness of the DARE program, “daring” to keep kids off drugs. I was too old by one year to participate in the program at my middle school but my younger sister and her friends completed the program and started smoking weed around then. (I was part of the DARE dance committee mostly for the crushes and though I have never smoked pot, it wasn't fear but lack of interest that kept me sober for many years.)
A year after the murder, as a financial settlement was reached, the local paper interviewed residents to see if people even remembered the event. Ted Lambert (who may or may not have been a friend’s dad, there were a lot of Lamberts and Lavoies in Hudson), said about it “But it's not just Hudson---it could happen anywhere.” And that's it. Because it does happen anywhere. Which is why we still have to talk about it. We have to talk the systematic ways non-white people and poor folks are oppressed in this country. From schooling and police treatment, to the judicial system and jails, there is a trail that can lead to a bigger picture of the ways we fail our fellow citizens. Consider the ways the police use deadly force, misinformation and manipulation in the name of the war on drugs or the war on terror or the war on poverty. I wish I had this kind of analysis when I lived in NH , when I was 13 and angry and I thought my mom was unfair. But this is why we get out, to see a bigger picture, to understand more. To be angry and learn and talk and maybe maybe maybe maybe affect change that could reach to the corners of our home towns.