This song was the first protest song I can remember being old enough to have a direct influence on me. Released in late 1975 by Bob Dylan, Hurricane tells the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a New Jersey boxer wrongfully (per Dylan, anyway) convicted of a heinous triple murder in 1966 and serving consecutive life sentences.
More than eight minutes long and cinematic in its scope, the song was an eye-opener for a white kid from what my wife used to call the “wilds of suburban Connecticut.” Wethersfield, the town where I my family lived from 1969 until my mom died in 2008, is pretty much the opposite of diversity and growth. I can’t find historical data on diversity, but even today, the town is 93.2% white, 2.1% African-American, 1.6% Asian, and 4.2% Hispanic. The net population growth from 1970-2010 was 6. Not 6 percent, mind you, but 6 people – in 40 years. I assure you it was less diverse when I was a kid than those numbers.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t super-rich or even very WASPy; those folks lived in Avon or Simsbury or West Hartford. My neighborhood back then was full of Italians and Greeks and Poles. We were the only Jewish family I knew in town – we belonged to a synagogue in Newington, one town to the west. When I was in elementary school, and I told my teacher I’d be off for the Jewish holidays, she thought I was making it up (not a completely undeserved suspicion in other contexts), and the principal was utterly perplexed when my parents tried to explain what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were.
Yes, I was “white,” but in those days, I was Jewish more than I was white. I had some idea what it was like to be the odd one out and to be accused at age 7 of somehow having caused the untimely death of someone named Jesus. So when I heard Dylan singing “Hurricane” when I was 12, a few months short of my bar mitzvah, it was one of the first times that what I now recognize as my “oh, fuck no, this is not acceptable” reflex kicked in. Police shouldn’t be accusing people who didn’t do it. They shouldn’t be treating black people like that – not that I knew any black people. And how could the courts possibly stand by and let this happen? It was like a bomb went off, learning that the world didn’t always (or even often) operate the way it should.
Boy, did I have a lot to learn, right? 40 years later, and my education on the unfairness of the world remains a work in progress. But if I had to pick a moment where it all started, the desire to fight for people who needed help, to stand up for the little guy and against bullies, it might just have been the first time I heard Bob Dylan tell the “story of the Hurricane.” When we talk about criminal justice reform and wrongful convictions and racially biased prosecutors and court systems, cases like this one are part of the DNA of what we’re getting at.
I think I’m going to need that reflex a lot more in the next few years, unfortunately.
#NotMyPresident #1444DaysUntilWeVoteHimOut #AsLongAsItTakes