“…when a Frank is shot, there is such a disturbance made about it! Consuls write letters; Pashás are stirred up … the murderer is sought for everywhere, and he, or some one else, is hanged to please the consul; in addition to which the population are beaten with thick sticks ad libitum. All this is extremely disagreeable, and therefore we are seldom shot at, the practice being too dearly paid for.”
I have taught the text in a course on travel literature, and in 2014 I wrote this question in the margin next to that paragraph: “Whose lives matter?” I remember our discussion in class: we critiqued the colonialist structures that assigned more value to a western European’s life than to that of a local and discussed those structures’ roots, legacies, and injustice.
I thought of that paragraph again this past Thursday, when the verdict came down in the trial of the nine men charged with the intentional homicide of Bakari Henderson. Henderson was a twenty-two year old African-American from Texas who was beaten to death while on vacation in Greece, in the early morning hours of July 17, 2017. The incident took place at Laganas, a busy tourist resort area on Zakynthos that has a reputation for rowdiness. In 2011, a British tourist was stabbed to death there, in a fight that broke out between tourists and taxi drivers.
A Serbian woman at the bar the night Henderson was killed told investigators that, when Henderson took a selfie with her, a man standing nearby commented “There are a lot of Serbs in the bar. Why are you talking to a black guy?” He then punched Henderson, who hit him back. The security footage shows how the incident escalated: the men later charged with murder chased Henderson down the street, threw him against a car, and beat him mercilessly until he was lifeless. He died of severe head injuries; it took the mob fewer than 20 seconds to kill him.
Seven of the men who were accused of causing Henderson’s death are Serbian. One is Greek (a bartender); the other a British citizen “of Serbian origin”. On Thursday at a court in Patras, all nine men were cleared of homicide charges, on the grounds that they had not intended to kill Henderson—only, it seems, to beat the hell out of him. Six were convicted of grievous bodily harm and given prison sentences of five to fifteen years; the British citizen received the longest sentence. The three others were convicted of simple assault and released.
Henderson’s parents were present at the trial and sentencing. After the verdict was announced, his father, Phil, told the American news network CBS “I can’t understand, a man’s life here in Greece doesn’t mean anything.” When the verdict was read out, the defendants were apparently seen smiling, hugging, and giving each other high fives.
It is understandable, if not justifiable, that Phil Henderson should blame ‘Greece’ for what happened to his son. He has suffered an incomprehensible loss, but a court is not the same as a nation. And one could just as easily argue that “a man’s life in America doesn’t mean anything,” especially a Black man’s life. Last year, Bakari’s mother Jill discussed the irony of her son’s death with Gayle King, a host of the American news show CBS This Morning. Jill called what happened to her son a “black American tragedy,” and remarked that her son had always felt safer abroad than at home in the United States. Obviously referring to the epidemic of police murders of Black men in America, she told King: “He said, you know, with the climate, with African-American males in the U.S., that he just felt more comfortable overseas.”
Jill Henderson nevertheless suspects that the assault on her son was racially motivated, and so do I. I doubt that these men would have felt such license to attack him so brutally if he had been white. And if they had indeed killed a white American tourist, I can’t help but think that their sentences would have been harsher. Today many white tourists still cling to a version of the reassurance spelled out in the old Murray’s Handbook: they take for granted that their skin color grants them special protection and permission; that if anything were to happen to them abroad a “disturbance” would be made about it; the murderer would be “sought for everywhere,” and consuls would write letters.
A disturbance should be kicked up in the case of every murder (not just that of a tourist), but no such disturbance is evident in the case of Bakari Henderson. This case, it seems, has hardly entered the public conversation in Greece. Sure, several news articles turn up if you Google his name in Greek. But I have yet to see or hear evidence that a dialogue is taking place about the role that race may have played in this murder and in this verdict. Social media has shown no signs of public outrage, no discussion of why the suspects “got off soft,” as a headline in Thema put it.
Perhaps, a friend has suggested to me, it has to do with the fact that eight of the nine defendants were foreign: maybe the Greek public would show more concern if this weren’t largely a matter “between foreigners.” But the Greek national justice system is seriously implicated here, and that is worth attention and scrutiny.
Other legal news out of Greece this week puts the Henderson verdict in sharp relief. Most of the men who chased him down and savagely beat him to death will spend less time in the prison than the municipal cleaning woman who was sentenced to ten years in prison for falsifying her Primary School Certificate, just so that she could work to provide for her family. Her sentence was handed down at a Volos court on Thursday, on the same day—Thanksgiving Day in the U.S.—that Bakari Henderson’s parents learned in Patras that some of his murderers would walk free. If Henderson’s killers “got off soft” because they (supposedly) had no intent to kill, why should a cleaning woman—who had no intention of harming anyone, and who only wanted to put food on her family’s table—be put away for ten years?
Now the world awaits the trial in Greece of two men who have been charged with inflicting “lethal harm resulting in death” on Zak Kostopoulos, a 33-year old HIV-positive LGBTQ-rights activist who was beaten to death in broad daylight in Athens on September 21. The surveillance video that captured Kostopoulos’ murder (which many have called a lynching) bears some eerie resemblances to the video of Henderson’s beating one night some two months earlier. We can only hope that in the Kostopoulos case the court will take to heart words that Jill Henderson uttered to reporters following the verdict in her son’s case, before she broke down in tears: “You should not be able to chase a man down and beat him to death and then not go to jail and serve jail time.”
Meanwhile, the last week has reminded us that, from the capitalistic, classist obscenity that is Black Friday to racially-motivated murders of Black men that go virtually unpunished, we in America are committed to exporting the very worst we have to offer.