This is What You're Pretending to Be

...here's something i've been tossing around for a little while...would love comments, especially from those of you who went to Almondale and remember the "gangs" there and the news during that time...

This is What You’re Pretending to Be
I.
I spent the morning of December 14, 2012 posting a snide narrative to my blog which began with a joke making light of the fact that no one in my family has ever owned guns: “We would’ve killed each other every time we had an argument. We’re quick to anger, mistrust, and we give in to the overwhelming feeling that the world is out to get us. I hope we get through the remaining weeks of 2012 without killing anyone.”
The post went live at 9:08am and about an hour later I turned on my newsfeed and saw the chaos at Sandy Hook Elementary School. While I listened to reports of dead kindergarteners, I fought my body’s urge to run to my daughter’s school where she was sitting on a bright carpet listening to her teachers read. I needed to hold her, to touch her warm, hard, little body and reassure myself that the world was not falling apart.
That weekend I was overcome with my own self-loathing: How could I have made such a flippant remark about guns? About killing? What had happened to my humanity? My dignity? More to the point, why didn’t I take down my blog post, or at least edit it? Was I afraid the world would see me for the shallow, misguided, and mainstream American I’d become by living in my comfortable I’m-removed-from-violence-so-I-can-joke-about-it suburb?
Yes.
I didn’t want people—namely any parent who’d just that morning lost their small child—to come across my blog and jump down my throat. I didn’t want to be seen as the shallow person I was at 9:08am on an otherwise unassuming Friday morning. But every time I went to visit my post to delete it, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even bring myself to edit out the crass remarks. Because part of me wanted to be humiliated by my flippancy, for my complete lack of compassion, for the naiveté I’ve lived in even after Grover Cleveland Elementary and Columbine and Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook. I don’t want to wipe my slate clean; I want a reminder to myself of what Gore Vidal calls “The United States of Amnesia” and my role in it, my ability to push the gun violence of my youth to the back of my mind and somehow live as if at any moment my little girl couldn’t be attacked by a gun wielding son of an NRA.

II.
I grew up in Southern California where the news began and ended with gang violence reports from Compton, South Central, and East LA: Every night bodies on television, young men, in white t-shirts and sagging jeans with crisply ironed creases down the legs, pinned by police to the blood-sticky asphalt; gang signs thrown when the cameras turned on the crowds; women wearing pastel
For more Robert Yager photos about LA cholo gangs click this image
nightgowns, their hair pinned under sleeping caps, holding wide-eyed infants. Every night a fear that, though I lived two hours from it, a drive by would happen on my street. I sometimes slept on the floor because I’d learned to hit the ground at the first sound of a gunshot. Not that I would’ve known what a gun sounded like in real life—for that I depended on television crime dramas, which during the early nineties were just beginning to turn gun violence into entertainment.
At Almondale Middle School, boys I’d known since kindergarten—who came from stable homes and lived in delicate houses on paved streets where little kids rode bikes and mothers watered rose bushes—started dressing like the cholo gun lords on television. Black parkas and bandannas, the top button of their flannel shirts clasped tightly at the neck while the remainder blew open, pants sagging so low Almondale had to pass the first dress code in its thirty nine year history. These boys posed for yearbook photos flashing gang signs they’d seen on television. They made wearing certain colors dangerous for us all. The power they wielded by simply mimicking the men we saw carted off covered in blood, arrested for multiple homicides, made even the teachers afraid.
In 1992, the year after I left Almondale, South Central LA boasted a murder rate of 79.7%, with a year-end total of 800 murders from gang shootings. Which means 15 people were shot and killed each week. Fifteen years later, the shootings have diminished, but South Central still manages to clear 5 murders a week.[1]
During my childhood, I never saw a single news report focusing on why all of these young men were so angry with each other in the first place, or how they got their automatic weapons, or what any of the killing had to do with national gun rights. No one was talking about segregation, unemployment, poverty, or drugs. Unless we count Nancy Regan’s “Just Say No” campaign. But no one, not even Nancy, explored how gangs in South Central could “just say no” to guns.

III.
Neil Heslin, father of one Sandy Hook child, testified after the shooting to Connecticut’s State Legislature saying: “I still can’t see why any civilian, anyone in this room, needs weapons of that sort [AK-47s]. They’re not going to use them for hunting. Even for home protection. The sole purpose is to put a lot of lead out in the battlefield quickly and that’s what they did. Those children and those victims were shot apart and my son was one of them […] Why do we need thirty round magazines or cartridges?”
He was heckled by NRA members and pro-gun advocates in the audience.


IV.
Near the end of the millennium, I taught college prep workshops in Long Beach and Compton where my University committed itself to assisting students with academic potential rise out of the violence that had been part of their lives since birth. These were the babies I’d seen on the news left without fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and sometimes mothers. And they wrote me short essays about seeing family members shot, killed, carted off to prison. One student—a boy of ten or eleven—told me in earnest, “Get out of here by dark. A white lady like you they’ll shoot right away.”

V.
In Georgia, where I now live, a radio station plays commercials for small businesses in and around my community. Not a day passes when I don’t hear a man named Howard Reed yawn his familiar southern drawl across the airwaves in promotion of his Pawn Shop. Lately, he’s been making claims that the best way to exercise Constitutional rights is for Americans to buy a gun, and not just any gun but a semi-automatic pistol or an assault rifle. According to Howard, America is a nation founded on “faith, family, and firearms.”  At Valentine’s Day, he told each male listener that their wives would love diamond earrings and a small pistol.
When I moved to the South over a decade ago, I quickly learned that guns were a symbol of provision—a man could feed his family with a gun, or two, or six. He taught his sons and daughters to hunt deer and ducks and hogs and whatever else could be “cooked and et” with the simple purchase of a permit. At first, I saw this as a humane alternative to the cattle and chicken farms, to the hormones blasted into every food source. But now, those same neighbors post signs in their yards proclaiming their right to buy guns, their joy in doing so. They post Facebook memes proclaiming their purchase and love for assault rifles—the same sort of guns used abroad to fight the “war on terror”—in order to deter potential thieves and home invaders.

Perhaps these neighbors make me sweat because they’re joyfully purchasing the same sort of guns so freely used in South Central and Compton and East LA. Perhaps I’m afraid that my neighborhood will eventually become gang infested with my neighbors lying bloody in the streets as they protect their “turf.” Or perhaps I’m simply afraid because none of my neighbors have made the connection that the law to which they so desperately cling is the same one that allowed Brenda Ann Spencer’s father to buy her an automatic rifle and ammunition for Christmas instead of a radio; the same law that permitted Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to order ammunition from the internet; the same law that provided legal gun sales to gang members in Los Angeles. These honest gun lovers’ grasp of the violence I grew up watching is that of a distant evil, one they can simply forget or ignore, while for me every gun represents at least 15 dead bodies a week.

VI.
At my middle school, every official sporting event began with a moment of silence for the soldiers fighting in George H.W. Bush’s Gulf War, for the brothers and teachers we knew in combat, the killing going on at a distance. We watched missiles level buildings where men with guns huddled around tankards of crude oil. That was justifiable killing, we were told, automatic weapons used in the name of our country. Yet no one took at moment of silence to contemplate why we were shooting people for oil, or why an average American wanted access to the same automatic weapons as soldiers.

VII.
James Madison eventually took up pen and ink and drafted the version of the Second Amendment that we now know: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” 
“When the Bill of Rights was adopted,” writes Carl T. Bogus in his UC Davis Law Review article “The Hidden History of the Second Amendment,” “some believed that the right to bear arms was important to defend and feed citizens and their families or to resist foreign aggression and domestic tyranny.”   But according to Bogus, “This wasn’t the reason the Founders created the Second Amendment.[…] After the [Revolutionary] war, the militia remained the principal means of protecting the social order and preserving white control over an enormous black [slave] population.”
Bogus infers, “Madison's objective in writing the Second Amendment was not to grant an individual right but to set limits on congressional power. Specifically, Madison sought to assure that Congress's power to arm the militia would not be used to disarm the militia.[2]
Scholar Paul Finkelman agrees: “Even if the amendment did not exist and the national government had abolished the state militias, the states would have been free to create their own slave patrols, just as they can create police departments and other law-enforcement agencies. […] Race plays a big factor in why the Second Amendment was not designed to create an individual right to own guns.”[3]
Since I live in the South, I can’t help but notice who are the strongest advocates of the Second Amendment: white, middle-aged men. I wonder often how they would react if a mob of angry and armed black men suddenly appeared advocating lax gun laws.
Since the intent of the Second Amendment was to protect armed state militias from federal disarmament, I wonder at the name of my local neighborhood militia and how I might find out how many of my neighbors are members.
Is the NRA a militia? And if so, shouldn’t it change its name to something a little less national? Moreover, if the Blood and Crips of the nineties simply called themselves militias rather than gangs, would anyone have reported on the violence in LA?

VIII.
“For young men in combat, their mothers often epitomize the nurturing feminine sphere that stands in contrast with war,” writes Joshua Goldstein. “It is their mothers that dying soldiers most often call out for on the battlefield.”[4] 
Adam Lanza shot his mother ten times in the head before leaving home to attack Sandy Hook.

IX.
On December 15, 2012 I came across a blog post that was a litany of complaints of a spoiled weekend a man and his wife had experienced, and as I read I grew more and more sick to my stomach. In it, he describes how his work environment had been so stressful for sixteen weeks that he needed to “shake off the unpleasantness.” Thus, a holiday in Atlanta—including a swanky hotel stay, a Christmas lights display at the botanical gardens, and a 3d viewing of The Hobbit—was in order. But much to his despair, all did not go as planned, using the word “sadistic” to describe these events: the parking stubs went unvalidated! the steak dinner at the ale house was less than satisfactory! the movie froze on screen, forcing them to forgo 3d! the Christmas lights were a disappointment! they got lost trying to navigate a big city!
All of this was written without reflection, without mention of what had happened just twenty-four hours prior. After making my way through the blog I found myself wondering why this man had chosen to post it in the wake of such a terrible event. I wanted to believe he, like me, was simply pointing out his own narrow view of the world, how he took for granted the easy life he lived. But because he’d made the post a full day after the shooting, I believe he was simply the victim of his own thoughtlessness.
As a parent of a pre-K student in a state that continues to demand citizens’ rights to carry weapons onto school grounds, this blog post was like salt in an already festering wound. His sort of thoughtlessness, that retched American amnesia Vidal warns against, has lead to moments like Sandy Hook. And in a few years, or months, or weeks we’ll have another shooting, more dead children, as we continue to hold gun violence at a distance.  When we tell ourselves that it’s acceptable to make jokes about killing each other during the holidays, when we insist that drivel about missing a movie in 3d is the stuff of real life, of real worries, of everyday concern, we’re falling victim to our own ignorance and self-indulgences.

We ignore that America has the highest gun violence crime rate of any industrialized nation. We ignore our own shallowness, flaunt our bourgeois lives—filled with steak dinners and unvalidated parking stubs—and fail to understand why there are people in our own neighborhoods who would take up arms against us. And we choose to ignore the fact that we could’ve spent the weekend of December 15, 2012 identifying the bodies of our dead children instead of simply missing a 3d movie premier.

X.
When I picked up my daughter from school on December 14th her teacher whispered to me, “I want you to know that I would’ve been that teacher who stood in front of the closet.” There were tears in her eyes and I hugged her.
That weekend, each time my daughter looked at me I burst into tears and had to leave the room. I kept imagining her crouching in a closet with her classmates, fearing the noises outside the locked door, wishing I was there to comfort her, seeing as the last thing in her life not her mother’s loving face, but the dead bodies of her small classmates.
Finally, after several of these breakdowns, she insisted I tell her what was wrong with me. I sat her in my lap and told her that a very disturbed young man had hurt some little kids and they’d all died. My daughter, a pensive, inquisitive and eerily smart child, held me while tears streamed down my face. “That’s really sad, Mama,” she said, then she began to ask the questions we, as adults and lawmakers and voters should really be asking ourselves: Why did this happen? How did it happen? Will it happen again? How do we stop it?
I probably won’t win any Parent of the Year medals for talking to my five year old about Sandy Hook, in fact I have friends of kids years older than mine who didn’t want to “freak them out” with the news. But I couldn’t help thinking back to the gang wars of the nineties and the questions no one was asking then, the omissions in the news and government that has landed at the doors of so many schools and public places. No one challenged the parents of the boys in my middle school, parents who bought the black parkas, who let their sons leave the house with their pants nearly down around their knees, who never made a peep at the gang signs and graffiti littering their sons’ paper bag book covers. Who never took the time to sit with their children and say, “Take a long hard look at these dead and dying people. Guns do this. This is what you’re pretending to be.”




[1] City-data.com, “Is South Central Really Safe?” 12.19.2009
[2] Carl T. Bogus, The Hidden History of the Second Amendment, UC Davis Law Review, 1998
[3] Paul Finkelman, 2nd Amendment Passed to Protect Slavery? No!, The Root, Jan 21 2013
[4] Joshua Goldstein, War and Gender: how Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa, Cambridge University Press, 2003

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