A few weeks ago I took my daughter for frozen yogurt after school. We sat at a table on the sidewalk in the waning heat of a September evening. I listened as she chattered enjoying the warmth of the sun and the excitement in her voice as she told me about the letter and number of the day, and who was a superstar or on the “warning face” of the behavior chart in her kindergarten classroom.
She was finishing her yogurt and I’d begun to gather our bags when two cars pulled up almost directly in front of us. The sidewalk was along the entryway to a mini-mall parking lot and the two cars were parallel, but facing opposite directions, the windows of both open. A woman drove one car and a man the other and I heard immediately they were fighting, loudly and intensely. My daughter was licking the last drops from her treat and, hearing the couple cursing at each other, I rushed her to get up so we could leave the place before she became too aware of the fight happening just behind her. She’d just stood up when I saw a flash of black in the male driver’s hand. I think I froze. I know I had time for these two thoughts: will he shoot her first or himself? what if he shoots us all? I heard him scream,”Do you wanna see me die you fucking bitch?” And then there was no thought but I grabbed my child and got her down behind me, covering her ears with my hands and her body with mine, bracing for the gunshot’s blast. Once down I heard the screech of brakes and both cars sped out of the lot onto Vermont and were gone. It probably happened in less than 10 seconds. My daughter had no idea what happened. The sidewalk was filled with other people, mostly parents and kids from the neighborhood, a few of the kids in the same school uniform as my daughter. Everyone had seen, most had frozen. I was shaking and maybe in slight shock as I made fearful, tear-filled eye contact with a couple other adults and hurried my daughter away toward home. She asked why I had pushed her, covered her so completely. I told her I was scared, trying to keep my voice and hands steady.
“Why were you scared?”
Tears. Don’t scare her.
“Mama, WHY were you scared?”
Deep breath, “I saw two people fighting in a way that scared me. And sometimes when we’re scared we react without thinking.
“What does that mean?”
“I wanted to protect you.”
I managed to stay relatively calm for the next hour then, after my daughter went to visit her dad for the night, had a quiet freak-out: cried, trembled, called friends. One shared my terror and shock, but looked for the positive and applauded my reflexes. “Now you know: when faced with survival, you know you will act. Other people froze and you took action. That’s a good thing to know about yourself.” And maybe. But really I’ve been primed for that action for nearly two decades.
I was 16 when Columbine happened; then, a school shooting was an unbelievable aberration, a tragedy so momentous there was a feeling of an irreversible shift- there was Before Columbine and After, and the culture, language and practices of schools changed. After we had complex escape drills and plans which changed from semester to semester, modified in response to new insights into how and why shooters thought, planned and might behave during their rampages. One month we might practice ducking and covering, another we’d troop through the parking lot toward the empty athletic fields, lineup, scheme escapes to the woods to sneak cigarettes. When administrators realized a shooter might prefer a field full of targets to open fire upon, we returned to lock-down drills in the classroom- official policy on how to handle an active shooter remained unresolved as of the time of graduation two years later. In many places, that continues to be true.
It turned out Columbine wasn’t a terrible blip, but instead the opening of the floodgates of a culture sick with anger, denial, racism, misogyny and inequality and strengthened falsely with the ultimate equalizer- guns. A relatively small piece of metal, easily obtained, can remove the complicated interpersonal dynamics and factors of age, gender, power, experience, education, wealth- reduce two humans to shooter and shot, assailant and victim, living and dead. And so, over and over, we watch as men with guns inflict their rage on others- in homes mostly, it’s true, but with sickening predictability in every kind of public space: schools are an almost expected target, with malls and movie theaters gaining in popularity. Hospitals, military bases, streets, restaurants- there is no one category of place remaining unrocked by reckless murder.
I’m not at all alone in my practices of looking for exits in new places, mentally mapping escaping routes, feeling a low-level unease in crowded plazas and events, the question, “Will it happen here, today?” always at the edge of my mind. I wasn’t surprised by my reflexive action at the frozen yogurt shop, I’ve been conditioned for this.
How do we allow this? Is the paralysis — the unwillingness to loudly and continually demand change and accountability from those whose power is meant to lie in representing the voice of people — some kind of mass societal post-traumatic stress disorder? It appears we’re so numb and impotent feeling that even the unthinkable slaughter of Sandy Hook did not shake us. Nor do the daily explosions of gun violence on the streets of Chicago and Los Angeles, or in houses in every part of this vast and varied land. This year the President has delivered two post-mass shooting addresses; in both he’s pale, clearly angry as he delivers the requisite platitudes about thoughts and prayers, but the words are hollowed by the rage and frustration underneath. Last week he demanded that journalists and newspapers provide the public with data- raw information detailing how many mass shootings, how many dead, how much more frequently this happens. The data are clear and horrifying: 294 mass shootings in 274 days this year, 380 people killed and over 1,000 injured. But that’s not all, guns have killed over 10,000 people this year and injured 20,000 in other (non-mass killing) gun violence incidents this year (source).
It’s been said ad nauseum by others more eloquently than me, but numbers of dead a fraction of these have been used to justify actions as sweeping and substantial as the Patriot Act (with all of its Constitutional ambivalence) and initiatives as extreme and morally ambiguous as unending drone strikes and more traditional warfare. Yet at home we mourn and post angrily, but futilely across social media, stopped somehow from taking more drastic action. I don’t understand why, but I can’t not act anymore.
I and so many others are almost overwhelmed with the daily work of simply getting by- working, paying off students debts, caring for family members- and the thought of fighting the vast and intertwined monoliths of the weapons-industrial complex, gun lobby and the wealthy, politically powerful institutions they support and from which they derive considerable benefit seems nearly impossible. But I can’t live with the feeling of constant risk in public spaces anymore, can’t look at the faces of dead children on the news, can’t hear another mindless soundbite about the price of freedom. Nearly unrestrained access to guns is not freedom- being able to send my daughter to school without the worry of whether I’ll pick her up alive is.
I’m ready to take action loudly and relentlessly, and I know there are many, many others who feel the same way. Let’s claim the power we have, come together in numbers too large to ignore, and face down the hydra-headed industry and structures that perpetuate consistent outbursts of public slaughter. I don’t know the exact hows or the specific actions to take just yet, but we have models of resistance and action from the past from which to draw inspiration. Through the close study of previous demonstrations and political agitation and channeling the powerful energy of our anger, sense of injustice and even hopelessness, we can transmute those emotions to real, effective power. There is work to be done and this is the time.