Full disclosure, I originally started writing this piece a few weeks after the June 17, 2015 Charleston, North Carolina shooting – where the shooter walked into a historic black church and open fired, killing 9 people. However since the presidential race has been heating up, I have spent a lot of time writing and researching candidates, and responsive stories like this have been pushed to the side. Once I heard about the shooter in Oregon yesterday, it reminded me how important it is for us to react and discuss the challenges we face as a country, not just an urban community. Sometimes the greatest impact on an issue comes from the raw, real, not politically correct conversations we have following tragic events. It’s those dinning room and dorm room conversations with friends and family where we are not worried about looking good for the group, rather, we unapologetically articulate our feelings and describe the experiences we’ve encountered that support our position. It is in that spirit we write this post in response to the shooting in Oregon along with the other recent and horrifying mass shootings. So if you are looking for a detailed discussion on the statistics of gun violence, mass shootings and the corresponding legislative authority, this post is probably not what you are looking for – although we will publish a piece on that shortly.
What Inspires You?
While listening to president Obama give the Eulogy for Reverend Pinckney he said something that literally made me stop the video and rewind. This is what he said:
“But it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allowed ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again. Once the eulogies have been delivered, once the TV cameras move on, to go back to business as usual — that’s what we so often do to avoid uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society. To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change — that’s how we lose our way again.” Remarks by the President in Eulogy for the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney
In politics we hear a lot of propaganda and campaign encouraging rhetoric, but every once in awhile we stumble upon a very organic, candid and emotional response. Comfortable silence. To me, comfortable silence is the perfect way to describe how Americans respond and react to mass shootings. When the unthinkable occurs, often times people send their thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families. But like Obama notes, once the eulogies have been delivered and the TV cameras move on to the next story, then what? According to Obama, the worst thing we can do in memory of those we have lost, is to slip back to the comfortable silence. In a way, Obama is saying that prayers and candle light vigils are great, but unfortunately they’re not enough to solve the mass shooting problem (assuming you are in the camp who believes there is even a problem – more on this later).
Is that what America has turned into, with respect to remedying racial issues and mass shootings? The comfortable. The silent. Often times we hear people refer to it as the elephant in the room – meaning this giant problem everyone is aware of, but yet deliberately ignores. But why? Why do Americans deliberately ignore taking the steps necessary to mitigate mass shoots and gun violence? Is it really too much of a burden for people to put down their Starbucks and iPhone, and write their representative? How is it that we can so easily go back to our 9 to 5 lives and act like the frequency with which mass shootings are taking place, is not steadily increasing? Are we numb to these issues just because they occur with an alarming degree of regularity? Alternatively, if we accept that these things are happening can an argument be made that mass shootings, like the most recent one in Oregon at Umpqua College, are merely an unfortunate consequence of the freedom we enjoy? Maybe having the most individual freedom in the world comes with some terrible side effects. Or better yet, maybe the National Rifle Association (NRA) has the entire nation by the throat.
The Moment Everything Changed
For me, I have literally lost sleep over the pain and remorse I feel for the families impacted by the reprehensible behavior of others. Does that make me a saint? Absolutely not. But it certainly made me question, what it would take for others to lose sleep over something that didn’t even happen to them or someone they knew. It also made me question how on earth I could have such, seemingly, strong feelings towards people I have never met and have no real tangible connection too. I’ve been thinking about this concept for the past couple months, trying to figure out what exactly happened that made me this way. Or maybe something didn’t happen, maybe I am just built with more sympathy and empathy than the average bear. I eventually came to the realization that none of that matters. Why? Remember what Obama was talking about? He suggested that the American people are real good at sending ‘sorry for your loss’ cards – which is mainly their way of showing sympathy. But Americans are not as good at sending letters to their elected officials describing their position on gun control and challenging their representatives to discuss these issues and find solutions. Speaking to the American people after the shooting in Oregon the other day, Obama pushes the issue even further, challenging the media and Americans to be more conscious of the mass shooting data and statistics. Since I am a research nerd – seriously google is my best friend – I can appreciate Obama’s call to action. But the reality of it is, you don’t hear people in the barbershop or salon throwing around CDC statistics on deaths caused by firearms in the United States. What you hear are the stories of neighbors, friends and colleagues who have been impacted by gun violence. But once the pedicure is over and the fade is lookin’ fresh, we walk out the door and go back to our lives. If we substitute the anecdotes for gun statistics, will that empower people to challenge their representatives? At the individual level probably not, but if the media decided to take that approach certainly the spotlight would be warm and bright. In political science there is this theory called Political Agenda Setting Theory – basically what it says is the media is not very good at telling us what to think, rather, the media is more effective at telling us what to think about. Essentially, the media is not going to fundamentally shift peoples positions on gun control (or any issue), but the media can definitely get people talking about gun control and influence the narrative of how we talk about gun control.
Beauty in The Struggle
Friday, October 4, 2002 was the day my grandfather died driving to drop off trash at a nearby dumpster. See, at the time, in the rural Georgia community where my grandfather lived they did not have a standardized trash pickup. Neighbors often burned their trash or found alternative means to disposal their waste. Consequently while driving down a narrow road, a semi driver coming the opposite direction, did not see him and struck my grandfathers car. He was air lifted from the scene, but at 86 years old and nearly every bone in his body broke, he did not survive. I was 13 years old when it happened. I remember at the funeral I was trying to do everything I possibly could to keep myself from crying. I think at one point I shoved an entire box of Kleenex’s into my eye socket, in hopes that the older, stronger, wiser generation of family members would not see my perceived youthful weakness. It must have been terribly obvious because my dad, my grandfathers son, pulled me from the service and took me outside to talk. In the middle of nowhere Georgia, in the dark of night, my dad explained that it was ok if I was upset and it was ok to cry because he too was upset and wanted to cry. Everything about that day sticks out in my mind, from the smell of the cologne and perfume which consolidated into its own unique colorful musk, to the warn-out amber colored church pews with faded blue bibles sitting neatly inside each end row.
For me this experience was so real, so deeply personal to the people that I love and care about most, that there is no conceivable way that I could ever forget the feelings I had that day. In addition, there is no conceivable way I could go back to my daily life without thinking about the issues plaguing rural communities. Why the hell don’t they have trash pick up? If they did, would my grandfather still be alive today? Who do I need to talk to, to get trash pickup in that area? Are my grandparents tax dollars only used to pick up trash in affluent parts of town? What other resources are rural communities deprived of? Don’t even get me started on the semi driver. How many hours on the road had he logged before plowing into my grandfather? Who is responsible for making sure drivers are not going over their daily driving limit? Yet, it took death knocking at the door of my family for me to learn how to memorialize those feelings and spring into action. Fast forward to the person I am today, it becomes easier to understand, why I have a strong connection with people that I don’t even know and communities I have never visited. I can thank my grandfather for giving me the courage to wake up each day, and feel empowered to challenge what government is doing, because the raw emotions of losing a close family member when it could have been avoided, is something no one should have to go through. I’d like to think that I am not an anomaly, that there are others out there who have used the emotions from tragic circumstances to step up and spring into action. It is like Jean Jacques Rousseau’s idea of pity, “an innate repugnance to see his fellow suffer.” If you take a trip to the small town of Newnan, Georgia and talk to community members, familiar with the history of the area, about garbage pickup and sewage there is no question they will bring up my family. I remember one politician, jokingly, describing my grandmothers persistence on getting legislation passed, as a mix between a pit-bull and a Mack truck.
Empowering Action to Influence Change
It is time to take these tragic and horrific mass shootings, and lift up the souls of those lost, by not slipping back into the comfortable silence of our daily lives. At the end of the day, the way we respond and react to these mass shootings will matter just as much if not more than the event itself. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”