Sunday, July 13, 2014

Who's Counting?

I keep thinking about a headline that caught my eye this week. During the 4th of July Weekend, over 80 people were shot in over 20 shooting incidents in Chicago; and 15 died of gunshot wounds. Yet the President did not visit the families of those who died (nearly all were black and Latino men in their teens and twenties) and those who were killed have not been pictured in the national news, their lives spotlighted, their loss mourned, their fathers quoted in the press, their mothers shown holding portraits of them. Is this any less of a tragedy than a mass shooting at a predominantly white elementary school in Connecticut or a movie theater full of white people in Colorado? Doesn’t it tell us something that 5 of those shot and killed were shot by police officers?

These shootings were largely dismissed by the ignorant as “gang-related” and those who died thus devalued because “they must have been involved with gangs.” But who is qualified to judge what the lives of these victims are “worth”? Who among us has been given the power to decide what lives should be mourned and what lives forgotten? It’s not OK to just throw people away. How are those who were murdered (whether or not they were in gangs) any less valuable than the college students killed in Santa Barbara in May? In truth, most of them had nothing to do with gangs.

Michael Lansu at the Chicago Sun-Times Homicide Watch Blog had this to say:  “Police will say that the victim is a documented gang member, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the shooting was gang-related. Gangs are not basketball teams with rosters. The lines are blurry.” Lansu explains that if a young man lives on a block where gang members live, then members of rival gangs see that he lives on that block and they assume he must be a part of the “clique” on that block. They don’t make any distinctions between gang members and other people who live in the same neighborhood with gang members. Gangs are territorial. There are over 600 little gang “sets” in Chicago these days and they each “control” a very small turf. So if a young person crosses through a different neighborhood (for instance to walk to school), then they might be crossing a territory of a group that has something going on with the gang members in that young person’s neighborhood. And that young person, who is not affiliated with any gang, is automatically implicated by geography.

In Chicago, victims of gun violence are treated as statistics rather than individuals. You would not be likely to see their photos in the newspaper or witness any public mourning for their loss. In June, seven people were shot outside a laundromat in Chicago, but it was never referred to as a mass shooting. If it had happened in an upscale white neighborhood, you can bet it would have been called a mass shooting.

Similar shooting numbers are frequently posted elsewhere, like in Oakland or New Orleans. But again shootings in these places are not referred to as mass shootings and the individuals who are shot or killed do not receive individual press. Their families do not experience a nationwide outpouring of support and sympathy. They are merely a statistic. Last year on Mother’s Day 19 people were shot in New Orleans at a parade. This was never referred to as a mass shooting. This was never treated as an American tragedy of note. Perhaps it’s just that this is the new normal. It seems that a mass shooting is cited in the media nearly every week. It’s impossible to absorb this information and keep functioning with some semblance of enjoyment of life. Seriously. I try to limit the negative news to which I expose myself because it’s just too depressing.

But I’m taking a moment here to point out that “tragedies” don’t seem to happen in Oakland or Chicago or New Orleans. “Gang-related shootings” are what happen in these places. And it seems that deaths from gun violence are highlighted in the news when they occur in sleepy all-American towns, when, let’s be real, they result in the death of white people.

The good news is that the homicide rate in Chicago is actually over-rated. It’s made out to be this horrific violent city, but in fact when you look at the number of shootings per capita, and compare to other places, the only reason Chicago looks so bad is that it has such a high population. The per capita numbers of shootings is relatively low. And based on the number of deaths from shooting, the violent crime rate is declining in Chicago. However, interestingly, Yale sociologist Andrew Papachristos, who has studied homicide in Chicago, reports that while the number of shooting deaths in Chicago has fallen, the number of shootings has not fallen. Papachristos says that “you usually see four shooting for every fatal homicide, but in Chicago you see about eight per homicide.” How to explain this phenomenon? I wonder if it’s because shooters in Chicago have bad aim or never learned how to shoot a gun. Sorry, I guess that’s some awful gallows humor.

It seems to me that 15 people dead in one weekend is a pretty big tragedy. It seems reasonable to expect to see their pictures and to hear their stories and to see a national outpouring of support for their families. The death of a mother’s son is the death of a mother’s son, no matter how much money that mother has or does not have and no matter what color she or her boy are.

A feature of last week’s shootings that has not been trumpeted in the news is that five of those fatally shot were shot by police officers. One was 14-year-old Pedro Rios, who had a gun and reportedly would not put it down when ordered. The other was 16-year-old Warren Robinson, who hid under a car when pursued by police, who claim he had a gun, but witnesses say he did not. This is under investigation. Robinson was riddled with over 20 bullets. How is this any less of a tragedy for the families of these boys than the shooting of the college students in Santa Barbara? Who has the authority to measure levels of grief?

I don’t know the answers. I’m just posing the questions. I’m just allowing myself a moment to grieve the loss and to rage against the injustice, before I push on with my charmed life in paradise. I do pray every day that my black son living in Oakland is never misinterpreted or mis-identified, that he remains safe from harm.

I find it interesting that when I searched for photos of Robinson and Rios in the online news, I found nothing. The only photo I could find when I searched Robinson was this photo of his mother being comforted by her family just after receiving the news of her son’s death.

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