For most Americans, December 26th isn’t a date that holds a great deal of significance outside of its relation to the day that comes before it. If you’re lucky, the 26th of December will be spent in the comforts of your own home, watching some obscure college football bowl game, nursing a prime rib and egg nog hangover and trying to regain some of the sanity you shuffled off after being around your extended family for much of the day before. Others will be out braving the consumerist frenzy of after-Christmas sales or trying to recover from the side effects of the season at work, but, regardless, few will think of the day itself as being anything special. However, in the United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa, Australia and a host of other nations which were once British colonies, December 26th is celebrated as a holiday known as Boxing Day.
In modern times, Boxing Day has become about as divorced from its origins as Christmas has here in America and is celebrated as something akin to a federally recognized Black Friday, where shopping and a full slate of sporting events are the main orders of the day. However, the roots of Boxing Day, which are about as Dickensian and quintessentially British as you could imagine, center around an old tradition wherein members of the working and/or servant class in the British empire were given small boxes filled with gifts and bonuses on the day after Christmas as a reward for their service throughout the year. Going back even farther, others say that the origins of Boxing Day are related to the story of the 10th century Bohemian duke Wenceslas, whose alleged charity was immortalized in the Christmas carol, “Good King Wenceslas” and is set during during the feast of Saint Stephen, which takes place on December 26th. No matter which origin story you choose to believe, the thread that runs through all of them is that it is a holiday centered around charity with a noblesse oblige chaser.
Americans generally do not celebrate Boxing Day, but if we were to start, it might be appropriate to start our own derivation of the holiday using Saint Stephen and the killings of Bettie Jones and Quintonio Legrier as inspiration. For those who are unaware or might need a refresher, Bettie Jones and Quintonio Legrier were two black Chicagoans who were killed by members of the city’s police department in the early morning hours of December 26th, after officers responded to a domestic disturbance call. According to police reports and radio dispatch transcripts, a pair of officers were sent to an apartment complex in West Garfield Park on the city’s West Side after Antonio LeGrier called to report that his 19 year old son Quintonio was carrying a baseball bat and making threats towards him. Antonio also called his downstairs neighbor, 55 year old Bettie Jones, to let her know that his son was acting hostile and to not open her door until after the police had arrived.
Bettie Jones’s daughter LaTonya, seen here holding a picture of her mother and being comforted by her father, Garry Mullen
The details of what happened next are sparse, but from what little we know, two police officers arrived at the multi-family residence in which Jones and the LeGriers lived at 4:20 on Saturday morning to respond to the call. Once there, the police asked Jones to open the door to her home and, shortly thereafter, both she and Quintonio LeGrier were shot by one of the officers on the scene. Antonio LeGrier reported looking out after the shots were fired and seeing a white or hispanic officer standing on the lawn about 30 feet from Jones’s front door in a state of shock. “Fuck, no, no, no. I thought he was lunging at me with the [baseball] bat” the officer reportedly yelled.
In Antonio LeGrier’s mind, there was little doubt that the officer knew he’d done a big thing badly. “In my opinion, he knew he messed up.” LeGrier told the Chicago Sun-Times. “It was senseless. He knew had shot blindly, recklessly into the doorway and now two people are dead because of it.” According to the autopsy report released by the Cook County medical examiners office, Quintonio LeGrier died as the result of several gunshot wounds and Bettie Jones was killed from one bullet to the chest, although when her daughter found her lying on the floor of her apartment she was bleeding from a gunshot wound to the neck, so it would seem the officer shot her at least two times.
In a statement released shortly after the killings, the Chicago Police Department said that once they arrived at the scene, “officers were confronted by a combative subject resulting in the discharging of the officer’s weapon which fatally wounded two individuals.” What makes someone a “combative subject” in the Chicago PD’s eyes is anyone’s guess, but given the fact that LeGrier didn’t lay a hand on either officer and was armed with a 30-some-odd ounce piece of wood or metal, it would appear that all that was needed to make a subject combative is the perception of the officer in question. With regards to Ms. Jones, the department acknowledged that she was, “accidentally struck and tragically killed”, adding that they extended their “deepest condolences” to Jones’s family, which includes 5 children and 10 grandchildren.
At this point, it would certainly be fair to ask what, aside from their happening on December 26th, the murders of two African-Americans by police on Chicago’s west side have to do with Boxing Day and Saint Stephen. Well, in order to adequately explain that, it might help if I fleshed out who Saint Stephen was a bit, as hagiography may not be everyone’s favorite past time. Stephen was one of the first deacons of the early Christian church who was appointed by the Apostles to spread the word of Christ and to help widows and the poor in Jerusalem. According to the Bible, Stephen worked wonders amongst the Hellenistic Jews he was sent to minister to, but was falsely accused of blasphemy by those who disagreed with him and was eventually stoned to death, making him the first martyr in the history of Christianity.
Before he was executed in one of the most barbarous ways imaginable, Stephen gave a speech to the Sanhedrin, an assembly that was the main governing body among the Jewish people at the time. In the first half of the speech, Stephen essentially gives an accounting of history of Israel, starting with a depiction of Abraham’s covenant with God. It ultimately amounts to little more than a retelling of certain portions of the Book of Genesis, but when I looked on it in the wake of the murders of Bettie Jones and Quintonio LeGrier, one passage in particular caught my eye:
“‘For four hundred years your descendents will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, God said, ‘and afterward they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.’”
It was 396 years ago, in 1619, that the first Africans were sold into slavery in Jamestown, Virginia, strangers in a country not their own—a country that, as far as the justice system is concerned, is not their descendents’ own. Is it coincidence, this symmetry between the Israelites in Egypt and blacks here in America? Probably, but that doesn’t make the parallels between them any less prescient.
One of the biggest problems with living in the age of social media and a never ending news cycle is that we have a tendency to follow the proverbial bouncing ball and pay attention to whatever’s newest at the expense of past events which still require our attention. With the frequency of police murders of blacks in America and the overwhelming tendency for their perpetrators to go without so much as a trial, it is easy to get discouraged and numb to it all. Just as I was in the process of writing this article, it was made public that a Cleveland grand jury had declined to indict any of the officers involved in the killing of 12 year old Tamir Rice last year. Naturally, much of the attention that was being paid nationally to the deaths of Bettie Jones and Quintonio LeGrier will switch over to the results of the Tamir Rice grand jury, before pivoting to wherever a police murder of black men, women and children happens next.
Therefore, I would like propose a new Boxing Day tradition here in America. Every December 26th, in cities and towns all across America, we could have people from communities of color, black lives matter activists, victims of police violence, white allies and anyone who wants to stop the incessant killing of African Americans by police come down to their local courthouse with boxes. But, unlike the creators of the original boxing day traditions, the focus of our gift to local law enforcement and the judicial system will not so much be what’s in the boxes as much as the boxes themselves. That is because the boxes that we will lay at their feet will not be ordinary boxes. They will be coffins.