Let's Wake Up From Our Inoculation and Get Real About Mental Health, Race, and Violence in America.
I didn't find out about the shootings in Newtown until early Friday afternoon. I don't spend my mornings watching the news and had spent all of Friday morning playing with Alex and writing my previous post.
When Alex went down for a nap, I settled in on the couch and pulled up Twitter, looking forward to catching up with my friends & posted links. That's when I found out. Tweet after tweet expressed shock, terror, anger, and talk about mental illness, gun control...As my mind scrambled to try to figure out what had happened, Bertski started yelling and cussing, his voice angry and choked up with emotion. I ran to the room and found him staring at his computer screen, his face a mix of anger and disbelief. Following his gaze, my eyes met the headline on CNN's front page. I stared at it, unable to process what I was reading. When I did I quietly went back to the couch and started reading what was coming in about the shooting.
20 children dead. Kindergarteners. First graders. Teachers hiding their students and sacrificing their lives to save those of their students. Assault rifle. A hundred rounds of ammunition. My whole body started shaking, my heart sank, tears blurred my vision. Pain, shock, and disbelief gripped me and rendered me unable to speak. I turned to Twitter to try to express my grief, only to realize that it was too much, too triggering, to overwhelming, the arguing and hateful comments too disgusting. I turned everything off and tried to focus on cleaning my house while processing the grief slowly consuming me.
What happened in Connecticut has shaken me to my core. I'm disgusted, enraged, and mourning the loss of life and desperately wishing the families affected could experience comfort and peace in the midst of their grief. I'm horrified that such young children were subjected to such terrifying, cold-blooded violence, and feel both grateful and guilty that Brennan had a fun-filled, SAFE day at kindergarten, while the children in Newtown did not and will never have the chance to again or become the people they were destined to be.....
Over the last few days, I've read hundreds of tweets and a large amount of posts by people expressing much the same emotions I myself have been feeling. I've found solidarity and join in with those expressing outrage and asking as my friend Stephanie did: "If not now, then when?" When will we care more about the lives of our children, and human life as a whole over our "right" to own an assault rifle, or an arsenal of weapons in our homes...even if they are for hunting or so-called "protection?" When will we look at the context of the time period and intent of our forefathers when they originally wrote the second amendment and realize, that the context in which our society now lives is drastically different from the one back in the 1700's? When we will look at updating an outdated perspective?
I've also seen people discussing mental illness, both the need for better mental health care and access to it, as well as the need to "protect" ourselves from such "dangerous and unstable" individuals. "Put them away where they belong, they aren't fit to function in our society." I've seen the media and others instantly assume that mental illness was to blame for the killer's actions, even BEFORE we knew he really did have some mental problems we now know were never addressed. I've seen heated arguments about gun control, rights, and people demanding we FINALLY do something to make it so these kinds of events are less likely to occur.
So I want to take the time today to address two very important things that I think need to be thought about and acknowledged in the aftermath of this latest tragedy to rock and horrify our nation. I waffled back and forth with whether or not to say these things and make them part of the conversations we're having with each other and the questions we're asking, the arguments we're making. After some thought-provoking and civil conversations with friends who urged me to share my thoughts, I've decided to just go ahead and say somethings that I know are not going to be well-received, seriously thought about, and given validation. As I discuss the following points I beg you to not forget that I am in NO WAY diminishing or intending to trivialize what occurred in Connecticut, Wisconsin or Colorado. Bear in mind that I am just as horrified, enraged and heartbroken as you are. But please open your mind up and seriously ponder what I have to say.
First: I hate the way each time something like this happens and captures national attention, the immediate conclusion people jump to is " this is SUCH a heinous act of barbaric violence that only someone who's mentally ill could commit such a crime." Do I believe that there are some mentally ill people who become violent? Yes, definitely. However I believe that it's a small percentage and know that the majority of those living with mental illness are not violent towards others and have no intent to be. I have a mental illness and while I've tried to harm MYSELF I've NEVER thought of actually committing a violent act against another human being. So when I hear people instantly associate senseless acts of violence with mental illness, it infuriates me, because I know that doing so only perpetuates the stigma surrounding mental illness, and compromises the efforts to make mental health and the resources it so desperately needs, a priority in this country. It damages & undermines the empathy and understanding of mental illness that thousands of people are trying to advocate for in this country as well. For more thoughts on this, please read this letter from a mother whose son has a mental illness: "I am Adam Lanza's Mother."
What I do believe more is that there are some very sick bastards out there with no conscience, who for whatever reasons they deem important, senselessly embark on killing sprees-either for fun, some kind of glory, revenge, or to send some kind of message they can't communicate in another form or fashion. I think instantly labeling such people as mentally ill, especially before it's even been verified, is not only sensationalistic in regards to the media, but also dangerous because it gives these killers a subtle immunity if you will from the justice system and public opinion. It gives these killers the opportunity to capitalize off of the insanity defense and increases the chances they will be institutionalized in an understaffed or funded mental health facility instead of in jail or on death row where they belong in my opinion. So, I firmly believe we need to be very careful about automatically associating mental illness with violence.
Second: This is going to be very hard for the majority of you to swallow and I'll be honest and let you know it's as equally difficult for me to say, because I know that when you force people to confront harsh realities outside of the bubbles they live in, their first reaction is a visceral one; they instantly get defensive and reject what's being presented because really listening to and acknowledging what's challenging their belief and world view requires asking themselves some rather uncomfortable and tough questions. I know, because I've experienced it myself, several times, especially within the past year and a half. I also know what I'm going to say will be met with a " this is NOT about race, race doesn't play a part in these tragedies, and you can't compare this to what has just happened." But I'm here to say that whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, race DOES play a role when it comes to violence and how we respond to it in this country. Socioeconomics also plays a role, but they really just intersect and sometimes overlap each other so I'm making these points understanding this fact.
Let me be honest and say that as senseless and horrific as what happened in Newtown is, and as heartbroken as I am over the loss of life, I'm also very aware that this kind of violence occurs EVERY day in minority & poverty-stricken communities and receives very little, if any, attention either on a state or national level. When senseless violence rocks these communities, no one in the media EVER instantly considers mental illness as a contributing factor, or as an explanation as to why someone decided to go on a killing spree. There are no "we need to ACT NOW and demand our elected officials to make access to weapons more difficult. This is UNACCEPTABLE!" expressions of outrage-at least not on a national level.
I also know that if there is any outcry or demands for change from citizens in these communities those cries for justice and real change are often ignored, stifled, and stalled by politicians who care more about advancing their own "more important" agendas than getting their hands dirty and dealing with the complicated and messy reality of life in urban areas.
You're going to hate me for saying this but do I believe the reasons for the lack of attention and demand for change are steeped in racial bias? Yes, you're damn right I do. I know it is, because I've witnessed and have family members who have lived it, pushed and argued for change, for help, and been ignored or beaten down by a system designed to stay broken instead of fix the problems. Now I know and have spoken over the years to lots of white friends, co-workers, classmates, etc who adamantly and even vehemently claim that what happens daily in the inner city is not on the same level as what happens in communities that don't experience violence everyday. I've even had heard white people during class discussions on violence and race say that it's not as serious of a problem because it's "expected" to happen in urban communities, because "that's just their way of life. That's the ghetto. Those people choose to live that way instead of choosing to live the right way."
My response to this bullshit (and yes, racist) argument? Tell it to the thousands of families that are slaughtered on a regular basis, in cold blood. Tell it to the thousands of school children who are shot and killed in school, walking home from school or while they are outside playing because one of their relatives had a "beef" with someone and that person decided the only way to handle being "disrespected" was to kill everyone attached to the person who supposedly wronged them.; to "send a message." Tell it to the families of those who are killed on street corners and the front steps of their homes...to the parents of children whose throats have been slashed and bodies thrown away in a dumpster.
Perfect examples of cities with this level of everyday crime are Chicago, Philadelphia, and Camden, NJ, a city that can't afford to pay their police force so they've laid them off. The crime and violence in Camden is so vile, that the city council has given up and reached out to the state and federal government for help. Are they getting it? Not enough to solve the crisis happening there. In Philadelphia where my mom is a school administrator in charge of dealing with students who have violated the district's "zero tolerance" policy, kindergarten-second grade students are constantly being brought into her office because a knife or gun was found in their book bag. One six-year-old girl told my mother she took the pistol from where her mother stored it because she wanted something to defend herself if something happened while she walked to and from school. She was terrified of that daily journey. 4 days later, after being in my mother's office, she was found dead in an alley down the street from her home with her backpack still on. Was there an outcry then? A demand for stricter gun control laws and a more threatening police presence? No. Why? Because it's an everyday occurrence. It's "expected" so "there's not a whole lot that can be done to fix it." Too much politics, too much bureaucracy, not enough REAL action or solutions being implemented. Murders in inner cities happen because that's what "we" do. It's normal. So we just "deal" with it as a way of life.
So what's my point?
- That when things like what happened in Newtown occur, the immediate response and assumption by the media and public is 1) if the killer is white, he probably acted so violently because he's mentally ill, and didn’t get the adequate mental health care that could’ve prevented his violent actions. When it's a white man committing these kinds of horrifying crimes, the media and police work overtime to snuff out and explain his motives for doing so. If he has an illness, then that almost gives people some kind of...I don't know what the right word is, but it gives them something to partially explain away his behavior. "Of COURSE he did this because he's mentally ill and unstable." Me personally, my first response is that he must be some kind of vengeful son a bitch who decided for whatever sick & twisted reason that his relatives and the KINDERGARTENERS he didn't even know deserved to feel his wrath.
- There is never any national attention, sensationalism, outrage and calls for more restrictive gun control laws unless something this violent and senseless occurs in a predominantly white, suburban community where exposure to violence is not an everyday reality its citizens have to live with. It's not "real" or worth addressing until it happens in their backyards and touches them, and then there is outrage, there are vigils, there are relief funds, there is mourning. And guess what? There damn well should be. Yes- we need to stop and mourn the lives of those innocent children who died way too young & were robbed of becoming who they were destined to be. Yes, we need to help their families recover and offer them whatever they need to make it through this. Yes, we need to honor those who gave their lives to save others. Yes, we need to help the children who witnessed this unbelievable horror who will forever be traumatized and most likely develop PTSD as a result. But we should be doing the same for those who endure this everyday in communities deemed as lost causes. We need to be just as outraged, just as saddened, just as heartbroken, and just as vocal for the forgotten and broken down communities who don't have enough voices to speak & fight for them-for their children. They are American citizens too and their kids are America's children too. The fact that we only cry out for some and not others disgusts me just as much as the violence in Wisconsin, Colorado and now Connecticut.
Also? In President Obama's address to the nation on what happened in Newtown, he said we need to quit with the bullshit politics and get real about fixing this problem, "whether its at a temple in Wisconsin, a movie theater in Colorado, an elementary school in Connecticut, or a street corner in Chicago." Guess what? That was the FIRST time in my ADULT life I have ever heard an elected official in high office put the violence that happens everyday in urban communities on the same level as the violence that occurs in predominantly white communities and say we it's past time we deal with this shit.
We need to focus on mental health care in this country. We need to pressure our elected officials to change our gun control laws. But while we're focused on addressing the immediate needs in the aftermath of what happened in Newtown, we need to think long-term and look within to have a much larger conversation on the racial, and socioeconomic issues that breed violence period. We need to confront ourselves and get real about getting to the real roots of these problems. We need to change the way we teach our children about differences and tolerance of those who are different from them. We need to level the playing field for everyone, no matter what race, creed or sexual orientation. Until we do, the governing systems and climate of our culture will continue to be unbalanced, riddled with double standards, and experience the heavily resistant movement toward the "post racial/post modern" society we mistakenly claim to already be.
After I published this post yesterday, I came across an essay today expressing & expounding brilliantly on what I talked about here. It helped me feel proud for sharing my thoughts and it was gratifying to read someone else sharing similar thoughts. It was written by Tim Wise, a noted author & speaker on race relations and white privilege: "Race, Class, Violence, and Denial: Mass Murder and the Pathologies of Privilege." I've been an avid reader of his writing and perspective for close to a year now-I highly recommend taking some time to read and reflect on what he presents in his other essays.
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