I was born in a small village in England. I grew up in a suburban/rural area twenty minutes outside of Akron. In high school, I joke that I was the poorest kid in a VERY rich suburb 30 minutes outside of Chicago. I did not know people who had been shot. I did not know people who had shot anyone. I probably knew some gun owners but none of whom I was aware. Even though I cared about gun control, it was in the abstract.
I still remember the first person I met who knew gun violence and knew it far too soon and too often. Now I know a lot of people like that (and count myself in that group), but I remember the first person for whom it was not an abstract debate about constitutional constructionism.
I was part of a group of youth who went to Washington DC and New York to learn about the Methodist church and the realities of issues like poverty and homelessness and what we could do to address them systemically. One of the programs we visited was a job training program for youth in the Bronx. The young man they brought in to meet us was part of the job training program—being trained in construction skills, maybe?—and we asked obvious questions like how he liked it and why he had done it.
I don’t remember how it came up, but he talked about how many funerals of his friends he had attended. “I’m sick and tired of going to funerals” is the one thing I really remember him saying.
In college I remember reading “The Corner,” a riveting and heartbreaking book about the city of Baltimore in which I lived (although a neighborhood a world away from mine). The book confirmed to me the need for progressive policies and more compassionate engagement with poor people by people of means. It confirmed for a conservative colleague of mine that “we need to bomb west Baltimore and start from scratch; it cannot be salvaged.” The thing that struck me about the book was the impotence of the church and also the compassion of the few pastors dedicating their lives to a community being shredded by drug wars and random, arbitrary shootouts. And the one line I remember vividly from the book is a pastor presiding over yet another funeral of a teenager he doesn’t know all that well, interrupting his scripted sermon, looking at the congregation and almost wailing in the direction of the young man’s fellow gang member, “I am TIRED of presiding over young Black men’s funerals!”
By that point I’d had my own taste of what it means for your life to crumble apart due to gun violence, even when you’re not the victim. Mine was a quirky and weird experience featured in national news and magazine articles and on tabloid TV. That didn’t make it any less devastating.
I remember being so moved in my teenage years by those mournful cries a degree removed about guns, and a community so hopeless that some have been driven to guns and others have been driven into hiding.
Now that’s my community and my people. Oakland is a small city—with the exception of a couple of more isolated communities (and even there, often), if you’re at all plugged into the life of the city, you know people who have lost people, or you’ve lost people. Depending on your community, you’re probably also sick of going to young Black men’s funerals. Or you’re tired of your kid’s elementary school going on lock-down because of gunfire in the surrounding neighborhood. Or you’re tired of feeling like you’re taking a real risk every time you leave your home after dark. It’s not an abstraction. When I hear someone express their anger over another death, my reaction isn’t deep empathy from a place of learning. It’s sympathy from a place of knowing that same rage and impotence and sense of “It doesn’t need to be like this; how can we make it stop?!”
Last night another person died in Oakland, during the monthly art festival “First Friday.” Chances are someone else will die this weekend. The people who fall in our streets have stories. They have friends and families and sometimes enemies and missed opportunities and opportunities on the horizon.
I’m not saying debates about structuralism in the constitution don’t matter. I’m just saying that they don’t happen in a vacuum. Saying that issues related to the second amendment need to be debated apart from what’s happening in our streets is consigning real people to death.
When we say “We cannot bear to have to go to another young Black man’s funeral,” someone needs to tell us what they’re going to do to make the shooting stop. We know the causes are myriad. We know the solutions will be complicated. We know it’s going to take a whole lot of everybody. But I don’t know how many more funerals I can bear.
I have been thinking about those drug wars and gang wars in west Baltimore in the 1990s when I lived north of downtown, maybe 5 miles and a world away. I have been thinking about them as I think about the young men I know who have been caught in crossfire or been targets of gun violence in Oakland. I have been thinking about the many things that have led to us being a community of too many funerals. A colleague of mine recently wrote the following reflection (with statistics from the Urban Strategies Council) that lifts up the many different strands that place us in this situation. I’d like to offer them as the end of this reflection and the beginning of a broader dialogue. Thank you, Simmy Makhijani.
“Today, in Oakland, one person is killed every four days, nine out of ten male, eight out of ten African-American, eight out of ten shot by some kind of firearm, three out of four killed on a public street, and 30 of those killed are young adults between ages 18-25. 2011, the fifth time in six years Oakland’s homicide total reached triple digits. Mainstream media, American cinema, and conservative political discourse, armed with such statistics, collude in depictions of inner city black, youth on youth violence, as the ‘everyday’ culture defining urban realities. Historically, systematic practices of segregation and displacement of African Americans, specifically in Oakland, created a double bind, where ongoing migrations of southern African Americans to northern and western cities was narrated as the primary cause of urban decay. A deeper look, from the perspective of community elders and activists, presents a much more complex and nuanced history, journaling multiple levels of migration, internal and external, displacement, and ‘orphanization’ of black urban youth producing empowered and disempowered forms of resistance: radical political organization (inspired by critical thinking education) and pacification (an unfortunate product of internalized oppression). Recent decades, burdened more so by the effects of ‘the war on drugs’, have yielded yet another breed of orphaned youth — orphaned orphans. And from a broader perspective, the effect of 30 years of neoliberalism (Harvey 2007) has created the worst working class impoverishment Oakland has seen in the last eight decades, making it even harder for the most disadvantaged African American youth to be employed in today’s economy (Wilson 1991). Economic disenfranchisement continues a human rights issue, a life and death issue.” – Simmy Makhijani