Five Dominos: Finding empathy after gun violence impacted my life

On August 25th, 2016, I was robbed at gunpoint. This is the speech I wrote and gave at a Nashville symposium on crime prevention.


On the evening of August the 25th, I was enjoying a sunset walk in East Nashville with four friends — we were going to see my favorite band, Dawes, at Live on the Green. Unfortunately, our path was beset with gun violence. We became the last domino to fall in a tragic series of events that began when my favorite band was still riding tricycles around Los Angeles. The crime that happened that evening was not a single event, but a culmination of institutional failures that led a scared, desperate man, to think that a $10 bill could be worth potentially taking my life, and the lives of four other people.

Understanding crime, especially violent crime, is about being empathetic to a plight that disproportionately impacts poor minorities in America. People like Edward Gordon, the man who robbed my friends and I at gunpoint, don’t often start desperate, with a gun. Showing Mr. Gordon empathy wasn’t a personal issue, but rather an epistemic reality of the society we have become.

Domino 1.

We collectively topple the first domino together, by perpetuating a cycle of opportunity inequality, which results in the inequity of our collective output. To put it simply: We cannot expect that we’ll all get the same things out of the world — that’s just unreasonable, because we all have different talents, skills and levels of aptitude. There’s a reason I’m not LeBron James right now — height, basketball talent, the fact that I can barely touch the rim.

We can however, choose an equality of input, by offering everyone an equal chance at prosperity, and a happy life.

This inequality begins when children aren’t given equal opportunities in education — when they don’t know if they’ll have a stable home, or even food in their homes. You show people empathy, because they don’t choose the homes they’re born into, their underfunded schools, or their parents. Children don’t choose to grow up in single parent homes. Children don’t choose for their parents to be incarcerated. Children don’t choose their neighborhoods. Yet we can all logically understand those factors have a profound impact on whether or not you lead a life of abundant opportunity, or are plunged into a life of cyclical incarceration.

Domino 2.

Our second domino falls when young men and women are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, often misdemeanors. They are served by overworked public defenders, who often encourage them to take a guilty pleas, because they simply don’t have the time to offer thorough and comprehensive legal advice. Being poor isn’t their fault alone, so we have to show empathy. I know this happened to the man who attacked me, because I have access to his records. Long before Edward Gordon was committing violence with firearms, he was clearly a man suffering from substance abuse issues, with arrests for crimes like public intoxication. I show him empathy, because he was clearly in need of comprehensive mental health counseling, and substance abuse treatment — and rather than offering him help… we offered him a cage.

Domino 3.

When we repeatedly put human beings in cages, we are stripping them of their humanity. We are saying to them, “You are an animal who isn’t like us.” We do this to many young men and women, time and again, slowly eroding away at their humanity, creating an adversarial complex that doesn’t need to exist. When we treat people like animals, we shouldn’t be shocked that when they are released from their cages, they begin to behave like animals.

Domino 4.

It’s not profitable to treat substance abuse problems, or mental illness. It’s not profitable to offer comprehensive education systems to people while they’re incarcerated. In fact, we’ve done the exact opposite. Companies like the Core Civic, formerly the Corrections Corporation of America, headquartered right here in Nashville, have made it profitable to create more criminals, and put them in cages for longer than necessary. They hire lobbyists to create mandatory minimums within the state legislature, increasing the number of heads in beds. If they actually intended to reduce recidivism, they’d put themselves out of business — which… in my business, we call that a conflict of interest.

When we begin commoditizing freedom, and putting a price tag on the profit that can be derived from crime, we shouldn’t be surprised when crime rates increase. When it becomes more profitable for our society to put a person in a cage, than a classroom, we are failing at seeing the basic humanity in each other.

I have empathy for the man who robbed me, because there was a fiduciary interest in his failure, greater than the fiduciary interest in his success. I know this, because looking at his 19 previous arrests, it occurred to me that he was no longer a human being on these spreadsheets. My assailant had become a commodity — his name was just a line item in accounts receivable. I have empathy for him, because somewhere along the way, we forgot he was once somebody’s baby, with a mom who cared about him, and wanted him to succeed in life.

Domino 5.

So at 5PM, on August the 25th, the last domino fell, in an act of sheer desperation. For ten dollars. Ultimately, he’ll serve a lengthy prison sentence, for ten dollars. I feel empathy for a man who calculated his freedom on the prospect of whatever change I had in my pocket.

Accountability and empathy are not mutually exclusive ideas. Being held accountable for the crimes you commit is different than being empathetic about what happens next. Actions have consequences, and those are decided in a courtroom.

But empathy doesn’t happen in a courtroom. Empathy happens in your heart. Empathy happens in your community. Empathy happens when you choose to treat the causes of crime, rather than the criminals themselves.