Last night, I watched Newtown, a new documentary on PBS about the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012.
Among the many things I learned, the residents of Newtown refer to the event as “12/14.”
I had a strong emotional reaction to the film, and perhaps not the reaction intended by the filmmaker.
It’s possible I shouldn’t comment on Newtown because I’m not expert enough to have ready answers to the questions that will come up, or to adequately defend my conclusions.
If you, dear reader, are expert and believe I’m wrong, please call me out.
My first reaction to this documentary was surprise, and the second was anger.
It really struck me that this documentary showed nobody speaking or acting angry, even while giving congressional testimony.
Why wouldn’t they be angry, I asked myself? Maybe I wouldn’t be either, I don’t know (thank God) what it’s like to have your child murdered.
Were there others besides these people who were angry following Newtown? Politicians angry about these stoppable deaths of children and educators? (I seem to remember President Obama was pretty fed up.) Gun control advocates angry about the failure to enact policy that might have saved these children’s lives?
If anyone besides these people was angry, I asked myself, why wasn’t their anger shown in this documentary? Why was the focus of this film entirely on grief and shock and lack of resolution, and not on anyone’s anger? It seems to me sometimes anger can be useful in prompting change.
In this film, the father of one child who died said, “You don’t have to stop what you’re doing and become a full-time advocate.”
Why not, I wondered? Why wouldn’t this father want people to become full-time advocates for his murdered son and other children at risk from gun violence?
This man’s son’s name is famous. I was on the email list for Sandy Hook Promise for years, and this child’s name was mentioned prominently and regularly.
In this film, the priest who led the children’s memorial services said, “We were all victimized.” By “we” I’m pretty sure he meant, “the people of Newtown, Connecticut.”
The word “victimized” hung in the air for me for a while. I associate victimization with powerlessness, with an inability to use anger to prompt change.
In one scene in this documentary, the mother of a murdered child talked with the father of a surviving child. Before or during their conversation (I don’t remember which), there was what filmmakers call an establishing shot of the house where these parents were talking. I concluded from context that the house was the house of the murdered child’s family.
The house was enormous. It appeared to be a very expensive house set back from the road, sitting on a big price of property. I believe property is expensive in a town like Newtown, Connecticut. I concluded that these people who lost their child are affluent.
In this film, a few people interviewed refer to the many children killed as a group, but most of them speak instead about a single murdered child.
In this film, one of the parents says, “We did everything right. We were doing everything right that last morning when we put him [our child] on the bus.”
In this comment, I heard a subtext. What I heard was, “This terrible thing shouldn’t have happened to us, because we were doing everything right.” “Our child shouldn’t have been murdered, because we were doing everything right.”
I began to think that there was a subtext to this whole narrative. What narrative incorporates a belief that if we’re doing everything right, nothing bad should happen?
I have a handout, received in a training called #BeyondDiversity.
The handout is called “Aspects and Assumptions of White Culture in the United States.”
It lists categories of these aspects and assumptions that are part of white culture in the US.
The first category is Rugged Individualism.
In that category are listed:
* Individual is primary unit
* Independence and autonomy highly valued and rewarded
* Individuals assumed to be in control of their environment — “You get what you deserve”
“You get what you deserve” = “If we’re doing everything right, nothing bad should happen.”
“Individual is primary unit” = “My child died tragically.”
This is different from, “My child is one of many who have died tragically.”
“Self-reliance.” Nowhere in this film did I see the parents of Newtown reaching out to the other parents in America who have lost children to gun violence who might have advocated alongside them.
Not to the parents of Trayvon Martin.
Not to the parents of Tamir Rice.
I wondered how many Black children have been killed by gun violence, so I looked it up. In the year 2014, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, 1,020 Black children and teens were killed by guns.
20 children were murdered at Newtown in 2012, along with 6 educators and staff.
In the year 2014, 51 times that number of Black children and teens were killed, and that’s only one year.
What does the Sandy Hook Promise website say about its outreach to Black and brown parents who have lost children to violence?
I didn’t find the word “white” on the website.
I didn’t find the word “Black” or the word “race” either, or “racial.”
On the Sandy Hook Promise website, the group describes its approach in 4 parts. Part 1 is “Building A National Base by attracting, educating and engaging parents, schools and community organizations to join SHP through social media, advertising, speaking engagements, major events and initiatives.”
So, it seems to me that the Sandy Hook Promise group might have used a different approach and said something different on its website.
The website might have said: “As a result of our tragedy, we’ve learned that thousands of families across the country have been similarly impacted by gun violence, and that our own tragedy reflects a terrible membership in a large and nonexclusive club.”
The website might have said, “We, the predominantly white parents of Newtown, Connecticut, have decided to use the privilege bestowed upon us by our whiteness to advocate for change, knowing that our privilege bestows on us attention that bereaved parents of color don’t generally get, and that perhaps as a result of our use of privilege, something will finally get done.”
If Sandy Hook Promise used this approach, would change be more likely? I don’t know.
I do know I wanted to speak what I thought I saw in this documentary.