The Death of Matthew Shepard:
Murder in a Murderous Climate

Revolutionary Worker #979, October 25, 1998

Near sundown October 8, two bicyclists riding a deserted road outside Laramie, Wyoming suddenly came upon Matthew Shepard. Matthew, a 21-year-old freshman at the University of Wyoming, was spread-eagled, tied on the split wooden rails of a ranch fence. From a distance they thought his motionless body was a scarecrow.

Matthew had been beaten brutally. He had spent 18 hours exposed to near-freezing temperatures and was in a coma. He never regained consciousness. As the news spread, nightly candlelight vigils started in cities and campuses across the U.S. A few days later, Matthew Shepard died in a Colorado intensive care unit.

A Crime of
Reactionary Violence

It is believed that Matthew Shepard was kidnapped, tortured and killed because he was gay. The cruel bigotry of Matthew's torture and death have shocked people and moved many to protest.

Two men, Aaron McKinney, 22, and Russell Henderson, 21, are charged with the murder. McKinney's girlfriend Kristen Price says he had been embarrassed because he believed Matthew Shepard "made a pass at him" at the Fireside Bar in Laramie. Price says that McKinney and Henderson decided to "teach him a lesson not to come on to straight people."

McKinney and Henderson apparently tricked Matthew into leaving the Fireside and going for a drive with them. Once on the road, one of them reportedly pulled a pistol on Matthew, announced that they were not gay, and started beating him. They took him to a deserted area outside of town and tied him to the fence. While Matthew reportedly asked them to spare his life, they tortured him, broke open his head with the pistol butt, emptied his pockets and left him for dead in the cold Wyoming night.

After leaving Matthew, the two killers cruised Laramie and attacked two young Latino men who were just walking along the street. One of these men, 19-year-old Emiliano Morales, III, said that McKinney jumped him out of nowhere and opened a gash that took 21 staples to close. Emiliano's friend Jeremy Herrara beat McKinney off with a stick.

Some people, including the Laramie police, have tried to claim that this murder was basically a robbery that got out of hand. But the available evidence, including the racist spree after the killing, shows this was a two-man reactionary rampage. That Wednesday night in Laramie was a painful illustration of the Refuse & Resist! motto, "It's all one attack."

Taking a Stand

There has been a powerful outrage over this killing. And a strong sense that Matthew's death is part of something bigger--that highly placed and influential forces have encouraged a climate in which men like McKinney and Henderson feel empowered to punish homosexuals.

Vigils and rallies have been held in many cities and on many college campuses across the U.S. People have denounced intolerant and bigoted "traditional morality." And many people justly demand that the society as a whole endorse a clear, public verdict against the persecution of homosexuals.

Meanwhile, television talk shows gave major airtime to Christian-fascists who promote a "new intolerance." The outrage over Matthew's murder is so strong that even these creepy rightists had to denounce the killing--but then they used their TV time as a pulpit to condemn any departure from traditional patriarchal roles and "family values" as immorality and "sin." James Dobson, leader of "Focus on the Family," denied that "the Biblical standard on homosexuality leads to murder" (while knowing perfectly well that Bible explicitly calls for the killing of gay men in Leviticus 20:13). Then Dobson went on to rave that same-sex relationships undermine "the fabric of civilization." CNN's resident rightist Pat Buchanan charged that the murder of Matthew Shepard had been hijacked by forces wanting "special privileges for homosexuals."

The Danger of Supporting "Hate Crime" Laws

Many people have been grappling with how to actually stop gay-bashing--and how to beat back the climate of conservative intolerance and reactionary violence that produces it. President Clinton, Attorney General Janet Reno and many other ruling class figures are trying to recruit such people to support the Federal Hate Crimes Protection Act. This law would widen the powers of the federal prosecutors and the FBI by turning crimes based on "sex, disability and sexual orientation" into federal offenses.

It is a dangerous mistake to support this call. And unfortunately many people have done so at the vigils for Matthew Shepard.

The push for more police-state powers is itself an important part of the current reactionary offensive in the U.S. Having anti-hate crime laws on the books in many states has not reduced reactionary violence --but it has given police new ways to manipulate and exploit politically charged situations. The FBI and Justice Department have a long history of working closely with Klan-types. New laws will not cause police or the FBI to magically become defenders of the persecuted.

The outpouring of outrage over Matthew Shepard is very welcome. It is a sign that many people want to stand against bigotry and reactionary violence.

It would be a sad development if this system succeeded in channeling this outrage into support for broader police-state powers. Regardless of the intentions of many people supporting new "hate crime" laws--backing new police powers will strengthen, not weaken, the climate of punishment and patriarchy.

by the System

Powerful ruling class forces stand behind the two brutal small-town bigots who killed Matthew Shepard (and behind their brethren in the Montana Militia, the suburban Promise-Keepers, and the Klan of Jasper, Texas)--powerful forces that are egging such bigots on, flashing them a green light to crawl out from under their rocks.

This capitalist system depends on the subordination of women and the enforcement of all kinds of repressive norms. It constantly generates and promotes extreme reactionary forces who rise up to enforce the oppressive practices of traditional male supremacy and patriarchy.

Who can miss that, these days, the whole official political arena is fixated on a morality tale about "traditional values." Sex outside traditional marriage is being treated like a state crime. The very idea of sexual privacy is mocked in Congress. This president (who pushed the conservative "back to the closet" policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell) is now himself publicly asked and forced to tell about his "sins."

Want a glimpse of what the Christian-fascists' "new intolerance" means at the street level? Follow the trail of McKinney and Henderson's late night rampage. The killing of Matthew Shepard is intolerable. These are times that demand consciousness and resistance.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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