Initially when I saw Twitter ablaze with news of the shooting at UCLA early last month I was sad. Not stunned. I’m never shocked by these all too common occurrences on school grounds anymore. Guns in schools seem to be as common as politicians making empty promises and people actually believing them. But I was very upset. I tweeted my well wishes and predicted that even after another tragedy, gun control still wouldn’t win the day.
I was right.
10 days later Pulse night club in Orlando Florida was attacked by a lone gunmen with a homophobic vendetta on its very popular ‘Latin Night.’ It’s worth noting that Pulse is a safe haven for many queer Latinos and that the advertisement for Latin night featured Trans Latino and Black women. 49 people were murdered and 54 more injured. There were calls for gun control and prayers for the victims and their families all over social media. What I did NOT see was information about the victims. Slowly but surely the names of those killed or injured began coming to light. But before I saw that I was bombarded with information about the ‘radical Islamist’ shooter responsible for the attack. In the midst of a massacre perpetrated against over 100 members of the LGBTQ community that has been universally ostracized for SO long, for some reason, the focus was on the perpetrator’s religion. Isis would later claim responsibility for the attack but what extremist group wouldn’t latch on to an anti-gay massacre to bolster its credibility? Especially one losing territorial ground in Syria, Libya and Iraq, knowing the American media would run with the story.
While looking through the UCLA and Orlando focused twitter hashtags last month trying to keep up with the latest on the unfolding stories I came across the following tweet:
‘Poor kids in Chicago slums everyday: Meh
UCLA once ever: Hey, stop the presses!’
I was so moved by its accuracy and relevance that I immediately shared it with my own commentary.
‘Honestly. Gun violence effects us all but POC are demonized & WYPIPO get the world’s empathy. He said it not me…’
Can you feel the shade? I was bitter in that moment. I cleaned up my act a bit in my subsequent tweets for clarity.
‘I could not agree more. We are constantly provided with proof that all lives do not matter.’
‘The entire #guncontrol debate centers around school shootings. They are tragic yes, but so is everyday gun violence.’
You know what happened next.
Strangers named Kathleen, Kit and Enigma Golfer among others came to the defense of absolutely no one to tell me how my injection of race into the conversation about the UCLA shooting was ‘inappropriate.’
‘It’s a time for prayers!’
‘College kids getting shot isn’t the same as drug dealers shooting each other!’
‘Surely a shooting at the University of Chicago would have received the same coverage!’
Hol’ up. I mention Chicago and your mind immediately goes to drug dealers? K. You think black ass UC would get the same media attention as UCLA? K. Prayers gon’ work just like they did at Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and Columbine? K.
Then later on when I called out the corporate media for jumping on the opportunity to paint a picture of a violent Muslim extremist despite the accounts from his ex- wife and parents that he was not religious, but incredibly homophobic, I received more of the same dismissive, outraged commentary. Yes, we know he pledged allegiance to Isis in a 911 phone call in the midst of the massacre and we know he shouted Allah Huakbar. What we don’t know is whether or not he was actually affiliated with Isis or just an individual exacting his will who was inspired by the extremist group, a phenomenon that is all too common within cultures that use fear to inspire violence in others, such as Donald Trump offering to pay the legal fees of supporters who physically harm protesters.
‘The mainstream media does an incredible job of showing society violent Muslims. It’s our job to know better.’
‘Because you are not connected to the Muslim community you have no idea what work it’s doing to combat extremism.’
‘And the notion that peaceful Muslims are somehow responsible for violent extremists is unfair.’
I was met with a resounding ‘No one kills for their religion except Muslims!’
I repeatedly demanded proof of this seemingly statistical data. Surely there were numbers to prove this purported lead the Muslim community has in the violent religion Olympics! But my requests went unanswered. Instead I was told that Christians would never do such a thing. Never! As if the Crusades never happened and evangelism wasn’t utilized to rationalize the brutal trans Atlantic slave trade for centuries. As if every religion, especially Christianity, doesn’t promote violence with hateful rhetoric related to God’s lack of tolerance for ‘men who lay with men’ every time an unapologetically homophobic pastor steps onto he pulpit.
I don’t have the time Yall.
But I went ahead and found the time because in that moment I realized how different my experience and mentality around ‘gun violence’ and ‘extremism’ is from most of America’s.
When other people hear ‘gun violence’ they think of school shootings. They think of random acts of violence perpetrated by ‘crazy people.’ They consider these people anomalies and many don’t feel like these supposedly mentally ill folks who are few and far between are worth our collective 2nd amendment rights.
When they hear ‘terrorism’ however, they distinctly connect Muslim people and countries to violent behavior and events that America participates in to this very day such as indoctrination, militarization and the murder of innocent civilians. We don’t allow widespread white male rage to dictate our gun policy but we allow the actions of a subset of Muslims to dictate our foreign policy, waging war on entire faiths and regions of the world.
Consequently, when I hear gun violence I envision the police. I think about Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. I remember the ex who once hid a pistol in my dresser drawer without my knowledge. I remember how the serial number was scratched off and how my heart stopped when I saw it. I remember not taking his suspicious activity seriously until then and being grateful I had not gotten mixed up in his madness when we finally parted ways. I remember feeling sorry for him because that’s no way to live life. I remember the 4 year old boy who got hit by a stray bullet while playing in the park in the Bronx last year and the 6 month old baby girl who was shot FIVE times while her father was changing her in their family’s SUV in Chicago.
When I hear the word terrorism I envision Dylan Roof. Right as he’s walking into AME baptist church in Charleston and making conversation with the nine people he would later murder in cold blood. I think back on the beginning of the Oregon siege and how a right wing militia overtaking indigenous land was framed in the media as a ‘grazing protest’ despite the fact that they were heavily armed and had even taken hostages at one point. I think about the 5 Black Lives Matter protesters who were shot while exercising their constitutional rights in Minneapolis last November. I think about the murders of 3 Muslim college students at Chapel hill and how the media attempted to frame it as a ‘parking dispute’ and not the hate crime it clearly was.
Fast forward to last month’s tragedy in Florida and we are exposed to yet another cultural disconnect within our national gun control debate. Nuance related to religion. Not only do we frame instances of gun violence differently based on the racial identities of the victims and perpetrators, but we also capitalize on narratives that demonize communities already criminalized for their appearance, attire and faith.
As soon as it was discovered that Omar Mateen was Muslim, the Internet lost its collective mind, conservatives and bigots quickly tweeting various forms of the words ‘told you so!’ while horrified and indifferent Muslims alike recounted how just last week we were celebrating Black Muslim boxing legend and activist Muhammud Ali but were thrust back into the annals of progress when a singular Muslim chose to inflict their personal will after he saw two men kissing.
I fear that most people don’t care enough about gun violence because we haven’t even started having the same conversation. We discuss gun control under the guise of collective rights and individual responsibility but it often seems that only black and brown folks pay the price for inflicting violence with the help of a gun. I had a black woman with Locs type the words ‘guns don’t kill people. PEOPLE KILL PEOPLE!’ In the comments section of my Instagram earlier today. I was FLOORED. But I was also reminded that it’s not only the privileged who soak up and act on the slanted reporting and selective humanizing or lack thereof that occurs in mainstream media reporting of shooting deaths.
Grown white men and young white school shooters alike are humanized every time. The adults get careful phrasing in news coverage and the children spur robust dialogue about mental health each and every time they are responsible for a high profile shooting such as the biker brawl in Waco Texas and the Colombine Massacre. White gun wielding perpetrators are often taken into custody without so much as a scratch. But black youth resorting to violence as a means of regaining power they lost somewhere along the way, often to the same culprits as these white children we want so badly to understand- such as bullying, broken families, gangs and mental health issues- are painted as violent delinquents with no redeeming qualities who are unfit to be integrated into society. Black suspects are often brutalized and even killed for wielding such ‘weapons’ as sticks and wallets. Sudanese Muslim boys like Ahmed Mohamed go to school with home made clocks and get arrested and criminalized instead of applauded and celebrated.
So the gun control debate and how we discuss who gets criminalized for using them is not the same for me as it might be for someone whose not experiencing life as a black woman fearful for the black and brown men, women and children she loves. We need to start pooling our knowledge on the pain gun violence causes us all, acknowledging how we as a society almost encourage it with our treatment of those responsible or lack thereof, and start having the same conversation in order to address the many gun related issues we face today.
I had the good fortune of growing up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Before it was the safe haven for all things gentrification, it was diverse in a beautiful and authentic way. Everyone had a tendency to be ethnocentric but the kids who had no interest in their parent’s indifference toward broadening their horizons had a damn good time together in school, at the park, and hanging out in local establishments. We even dared to bring one another home and truly become friends.
I bring this up because I didn’t grow up in the Chi or Brownsville. Seeing that gun in my dresser drawer was the closest I’ve ever come to being near one. I’ve never witnessed someone get shot and I’ve never been shot. I’ve never even heard a gun shot, save that one time at Jouvert when someone decided it was time to act up and I scrambled through several crowded Flatbush side streets with some close friends. But I empathize with victims of gun violence across the spectrum and I think we need to start acknowledging a lot more people as such.
We demonize entire black communities who lose children to gun violence without stopping to take stock of the trauma living in an environment riddled with death can cause. We have no regard for the entire communities full of men, women and children we have wiped from the face of the Earth after invading their home lands in a the name of democracy only to pump them full of lead. We don’t even grieve collectively for slain Black and brown children because as far as we’re concerned it’s either ‘their fault’ (war on drugs) , ‘the ends justify the means’ (war on terror) or ‘that’s just how “they” are.
When we do grieve a young black child’s death at the hands of a community member, we always make sure to demonize that person without ever looking at the circumstances surrounding their desire to carry and utilize a deadly weapon. Some would argue the very possession of a gun in certain neighborhoods is a matter of life or death. We need to start meeting people where they’re at if we are to effect change and save lives across cultures and socio-economic boundaries.
We extend the utmost grace to violent white children. We are bombarded with the life stories and familial hardships of white perpetrators of violence without fail. And baby pictures. Always with the baby pictures. I don’t recall seeing a baby picture of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin or Rekia Boyd but I damn sure got a glimpse of Tryavon flipping me the bird several times across the mainstream media landscape as well as a hulking and unsmiling Michael Brown. These are the images that aid in our continued lifting up of white anguish to excuse white violence while simultaneously upholding the racial myths that black men are inherently deviant, dangerous and criminal, men who appear Muslim are terrorists and black & Muslim women aren’t even worth mentioning unless the conversation relates to policing their appearance. There is no place to start a holistic dialogue about gun violence under these circumstances.
Instead of leaving you with a concluding paragraph that wraps all this up I just want to leave you with my thoughts for the many different types of victims of gun violence across the country.
My heart goes out to the #Orlando Community and the patrons of #Pulse who were there that fateful night.
My heart goes out to the LBGTQ community and every victim of gun violence who was targeted because of their sexuality or gender expression.
My heart goes out to #UCLA.
My heart goes out to the students and staff in every school that has experienced this all too common tragedy.
My heart goes out to the worried families who send their kids, spouses and siblings off to school or work only to see their destination on the news hours later and have to wonder ‘did they make it out alive?’
My heart goes out to the folks who were sitting in the Century 16 movie theatre that was senselessly shot up in Aurora Colorado.
My heart goes out to the parents, families and friends of school shooters.
My heart goes out to the parents, families and friends of victims of lethal police brutality.
My heart goes out to the parents, families and friends of victims of gang violence.
My heart goes out to the parents of children hit by stray bullets living in communities impacted by generational poverty, police misconduct, and structural racism.
My heart goes out to the gang members whose pain no one acknowledges because they ‘chose’ that life. As if anyone could ever ‘choose’ to be without role models and positive influence.
My heart goes out to the black men locked up simply for having a gun because in their world it is a necessity.
My heart goes out to the women locked up because they fell in love with such a man and held onto that love for dear life in a world so devoid of love for black women- no matter what the cost.
My heart goes out to the Muslims who have been surveilled, profiled, assaulted, imprisoned and murdered since that fateful day in September 2001.
My heart goes out to the families of the Chapel Hill shooting victims.
My heart goes out to the students, cab drivers and shop keepers who have been attacked in the wake of extremist violence in Paris and San Bernardino.
My heart goes out to the victims and families of gun violence perpetrated in the name of Islam.
My heart goes out to the victims and families of gun violence perpetrated in the name of ‘saving’ America.
My heart goes out to the mentally ill from all backgrounds who are often met with violence instead of the help they need.
My heart goes out the the families of the Dallas 5.
Your hearts should go out to each other as well.