Shouting about guns. Again.

There was another mass shooting last week. This one was in Pennsylvania. As I write this (on March 10) there have been 8 mass shootings in the U.S. this month. EIGHT MASS SHOOTINGS IN TEN DAYS!!!! Sorry to get shouty, but I’m super mad. My heart breaks for the children whose parents were taken from them. My heart breaks for the communities that have a lot of healing to do. I’m struck by how little media attention this last shooting has received (the fact that the victims were Black probably also had something to do with it). How jaded we’ve become about mass murder.

Image from Demand Action To End Gun Violence
Image from Demand Action To End Gun Violence

Did you know that more than half of mass shootings in America are domestic violence related? Most of the victims are women and children. Most of the shooters are men. This sounds all too familiar to advocates like me. We hear about this kind of thing all the time―survivors who fear for their lives because someone who is supposed to love them has threatened them with a gun.

The media pays less attention to mass shootings when the victims are family members of the perpetrator. But some of the more high profile shootings also include elements of domestic violence. Like this recent tragedy in Kansas where the gunman was just issued a restraining order by his girlfriend and promptly went on a shooting spree at his workplace.

We know the facts, so why aren’t we putting domestic violence front and center when we are talking about guns? Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recently asked his first question from the bench in a decade. Why? To question if we should be taking guns away from abusers. The New York Times calls the case in question a “minor” one. I disagree. A gun in the hands of an abuser is anything but minor.

Shattered community

We bring you this post from Sandi Scroggins, WSCADV’s Executive Assistant.

April 5, 1984. I was 14 and it was 18 days before my 15th birthday. I had transferred to Foothill High School six months prior. I was making some friends, was a member of the band, and was tinafaelzfinalstarting to fit in. Then it happened. The thing that you only read about in Stephen King novels. My classmate, Tina Faelz, was murdered. This terrible act of violence changed me but it would take years to figure out the full extent of its impact.

I did not know Tina personally, but I knew who she was. She was a normal girl with normal dreams and aspirations. She was also bullied. In fact, she started taking karate lessons to learn how to protect herself. This was back in the day before “Zero Tolerance.” Some of her classmates would actually throw rocks at her when she tried to get on the school bus. Thus the reason she wasn’t riding the school bus anymore. Thus the reason she was walking home, by herself, that day.

I became sick to my stomach when I found out about Tina’s murder. I was in shock. I cried—a lot. And I was afraid. I had nightmares. Although I have never seen the crime scene photos, my mind was able to concoct horrible images. Those images still haunt me. I was afraid to be alone. I was afraid of the dark. I just knew someone was waiting around a corner to hurt me, or worse, murder me. I was afraid of missing the bus. I became leery of people. I couldn’t understand why I felt this way. And I certainly did not know how to express these feelings. So, instead, I suppressed them and never discussed them with anyone. How could I, a person who was not even friends with Tina, be so affected?

What made the whole situation worse was that we all knew who did it. Another classmate of ours,  Steve Carlson. He had bragged about it. But he wasn’t arrested. In fact, no one was arrested. It became a cold case and our lives went on. But I thought of Tina often. I thought of her when I went to our senior ball. And when I graduated from our high school. And when I got married. All the things she never had the chance to experience because her life was stolen.

The total effects of Tina’s murder did not become fully apparent until my son was born. I became THAT mom. The one you would call paranoid. When Joshua was a baby, I was afraid someone would kidnap him. When he went to grade school, I was afraid he would be bullied. When he went to middle school, I was afraid something bad would happen to him. When he went to high school, I was afraid someone he knew would hurt him, or worse, murder him. I was told I was irrational. I was told that things like that don’t REALLY happen. Except they do.

Twenty-seven years later, Steve Carlson was arrested and charged with Tina’s murder. DNA evidence connected him. We were right. He did do it. On October 30, 2014, Steve Carlson was found guilty and he was sentenced to 26 years to life in prison. It had taken 30 years. I am grateful he is behind bars. I hope he is there for the rest of his life.tinatombstonefinal

I still think of Tina often. I still cry when I think of her. And now I know why her murder affected me so dramatically. She was part of my community. Steve Carlson was also part of my community. An act of violence affects the community as a whole. It doesn’t matter if you were best friends with the victim or the perpetrator or if you did not know them. Violence has that effect on people. And it ripples out. The impact of those ripples may never be fully realized. But they will be felt.

Ultimately, I have faith in people

Photo by Dread Scott
Photo by Dread Scott

During a week of searing sadness, tiredness, and anger, I am looking for a way to move forward. I find myself thinking about the people around me in the grocery store, standing on the bus, sitting on blankets at the farmer’s market, the faces of my children. These are the people I am with in my ordinary day … this is the “American public.” I wonder about what it takes to move public opinion. This week, I have read brilliant, challenging, and inspirational writing about the racist murders in Charleston. I believe that we are all grappling with the failure to openly dialogue about racism, acknowledge historic symbols of racism, and dismantle systems that perpetuate racism. What makes individuals risk offending those dear to them, speak up, do something different, make a change?

For me, learning from others shapes my thinking and moves me to act. I am not talking about grand gestures, but educating myself so I can figure out what to talk about with my children, neighbors, family members, and elected representatives. These are a few of the posts that have taught me this week:

On Faith, Forgiveness and Flags

Why I Can’t Forgive Dylann Roof

Confederate Flags and Institutional Racism

Reading these helped me grasp the enormity of what is ahead and reminded me of the decency in people. Ultimately, I do have faith that we will make change. This is the way forward for me.

You may be trying to comfort yourself

I told a friend recently that I was going to tour the Whitney Plantation near New Orleans. She replied, “Brace yourself.”

Photo by anthonyturducken
Photo by anthonyturducken

The Whitney is the first museum ever to focus solely on the facts and experience of slavery in the United States.  It is a fascinatingly idiosyncratic institution that is so unlikely to have evolved and to be succeeding.

My experience was that it managed to deliver a punch without knocking me out. Unlike most museums, you are not left to wander around on your own. You have to go on a tour with a guide who tells you the unvarnished truth of what happened here. It’s tough going and our mostly white tour group was shaken by the experience. The guide firmly dissuaded one white woman when she asked questions designed to point out that maybe being enslaved in the south wasn’t always the kidnapping and torture that it surely was. “You may be trying to comfort yourself,” the guide said.

But there is no reasonable way to comfort oneself as a white person. There is only to feel the national shame.

To the best of my ability, I let myself feel the white heat of that shame. Slavery was not my fault, but it is 2015 and I’m alive now so the legacy of slavery is my responsibility. I see only a slice of how the consequences of slavery still linger, but when I pay attention, I see more and more.

I started writing this blog three weeks ago, after the shooting in Olympia of two black youth by a white policeman. But I wrote myself into tiny knots and couldn’t finish.

What struck me at the time was the immediate pronouncement of the police chief that race was not a factor. Impossible. Race is always a factor. Me, you, the cop, the kids, the police chief—everyone is swimming in the same mighty river of our national story of racism and privilege.

And now we have South Carolina. Where even today the Confederate flag still flies high over many a public building.

It would be very easy to point to the south, to point to others, to point to shooters and haters and say “Them! They are the problem.” Black people throw their hands up “don’t shoot.” White people throw their hands up “not me.”

I’m white. I’m not throwing my hands up. I know it’s me.

I’ll confess to just a few of the ways that it’s me.

I lobbied for years to pass laws creating more and more domestic violence and sexual assault felonies and these laws created a lot of criminals and a lot of prisons. I failed to recognize the huge impact this was going to have on people of color. This is institutionalized racism.

I pay taxes in a system that funds my school better than yours. Institutionalized racism.

I elect people who continue to support (by doing nothing) tax codes that keep black people poor and white people rich. Institutionalized racism.

It is difficult to understand the enormity of all that I have contributed to. And it would be the easiest thing for me to crawl back into bed because I feel so ashamed. Ashamed of Olympia and Charleston. Overwhelmed at the enormity of what lies ahead to undo the harm.

But the words of our Whitney Plantation guide echo in my mind: “You may be trying to comfort yourself.” These words remind and inspire me. To comfort oneself is human. To act, human too. So I’m going to drag my sorry ass to work. Today I’ll post this blog and call my legislator to ask why she isn’t passing a budget that fully funds all schools. And think about what else I am going to do. I encourage all you white people to get your sorry asses out of bed and get moving too.

Warning signs

I was watching TV when Jaylen Fryberg shot his friends and himself at Marysville-Pilchuck High School. Which meant that I spent too much time—shocked, scared, angry—watching the media cover this horrible situation. The story was that the shooter was popular, friendly, and the homecoming prince. His popularity didn’t seem to fit in with the kind of person we usually associate with being a school shooter. The loner. The one who was bullied, unpopular.Marysville-Pilchuck_High_School,_Art_Mural_in_Forum,_October_2009

So I decided to look at his Twitter account (I am not linking to it because of the graphic content) and what I saw there was a very different person than the one portrayed on TV that day. The boy on Twitter was full of rage and sadness which seemed to center around a love interest. Who knew?

His friends had certainly seen these posts. Social media is where young people live. It’s their community. We adults aren’t doing anyone any favors by ignoring this fact and not taking the time to understand it. Social media can offer something positive. An outlet. A place for youth to express themselves.

A few years ago, someone who was hurting and raging and planning to take it out on people at school might have kept a journal that would be found after the fact. Now, we can all see the warning signs in real time as long as we’re looking. I don’t know what happened in this situation. Maybe someone did reach out to him and he wasn’t ready to hear it. Maybe an adult in his life was trying to work with him to get help.

Teens are learning how to navigate intimate relationships, and we don’t give them a lot of help. Jaylen retweeted a post that said “I’m not jealous. But when something’s mine it’s mine.” For those of us who work with survivors of domestic violence, this statement is an enormous red flag. When giving an update on this story, a local news anchor said the words “He was heartbroken.” We’ve all been heartbroken. But framing his actions that way minimizes violent behavior motivated by jealousy and rage.

What if we equip young people and their families with tools to recognize unhealthy relationships and where to get help? My heart breaks for the families of the students hurt and killed in this shooting. I hope it can open doors for more and better dialogue about healthy relationships for teens and what friends and family can do when they notice the warning signs of dating violence.

Whose reality?

I was 20 years old the year the O.J. Simpson trial made “gavel to gavel coverage” a new genre of television. I don’t remember where I was when the verdict was announced. The moments that left an impression on me were less dramatic. Certain conversations during that year were bursts of consciousness for me, as a young white person doing work against domestic violence.

It was obvious to me that O.J. had committed the murders. The story of jealousy, control, rage, fear was very familiar and utterly plausible. It wasn’t something I found even a little bit hard to believe.

The fact that so many people believed O.J. was innocent didn’t surprise me. I was used to massive denial of violence against women. Victim blaming was nothing new. Ditto valuing fame and football over women’s lives.

But one thing did give me pause: As far as I could tell, only other white people saw it my way. In a poll after the trial, 73% of white Americans said they thought O.J. was guilty. 71% of African Americans said not guilty. The split became a cliché about racial polarization in America. For me, it was a clue that my perspective was limited by my experience as a white person in a deeply racist society.

face-vase-illusion

In the feminist, collectively-organized shelter where I worked, it was a given that dismantling structural racism was inseparable from our work to end domestic violence. But this was the first time that the awareness I had developed in learning to be an ally against racism bumped up against my own experience of gender oppression. The thing I knew for sure – about the insidious reality of men’s violence against women, propped up by cultural permission and silence – was in conflict with another truth. That the criminal justice system is thoroughly poisoned by racism. That the deck is stacked from policing to prosecution to prison and that dehumanization and disenfranchisement of African American people are more reliable outcomes than safety or justice.

(Of course, these truths aren’t contradictory at all. But back then I didn’t have the skills to form a coherent picture. The media coverage at the time was not much help. On TV, in the polls, even among friends, the question of guilty or not guilty felt like a divisive referendum on which deserved attention: racism or sexism.)

A light bulb went off when I realized: I don’t have to privilege my reality as the reality.

I didn’t change my mind on the facts. I was still convinced O.J. had murdered two people. But I stopped arguing for my point of view. I stopped asserting that I knew the truth. Instead, I tried to tell the truth about the reality that was so clear to me, and at the same time, tell the truth about the reality that was harder for people like me to keep in focus.

What sticks with me after 20 years is what it feels like to shift from acknowledging something is true, to integrating that truth into how I see the rest of the world.

There is a kind of revelation that is like looking at a picture with the page folded over, then lifting the flap to see what part of the scene was hidden before. This was not like that. This was like turning the page upside down and seeing a whole other picture emerge. And then questioning whether this way is right side up after all.

Where there’s a will there’s a way

Like so many recent episodes of gun violence, the rampage in Santa Barbara raised the familiar questions: Could the violence have been prevented? Could we have seen this coming?

National conversation about how misogyny fuels gun violence is new, but the story line is old. It is echoed in the majority of mass shootings that involve domestic violence. Start with a man who feels he is entitled to attention, sex, or loyalty from a woman. He feels victimized and then enraged when he doesn’t get it. Easy access to guns makes that rage deadly.

Discussion about whether better mental health intervention could have prevented the Santa Barbara killings were still fresh when a shooting at Seattle Pacific University prompted the same questions. Last week, Seattleites faced an unprecedented choice between a vigil for victims at SPU and another on the same night, this time asking whether homophobia fueled the murder of two young men.

Experts and pundits differ on how to read warning signs. But the consensus seems to be if we somehow could see the danger in advance, we would act to stop it. Of course dangerous people shouldn’t be allowed to have guns, the story goes, but we can’t tell who is dangerous until it’s too late. If we could, we would intervene.

Baloney.

Right now, all over the country, courts and law enforcement have specific information about thousands of people who pose a serious threat of violence. What’s more, courts have heard evidence and issued orders that make it illegal for these people to have guns. Often, the court has specific information that the dangerous person owns a specific gun, and has threatened to kill someone with it. So what happens to get illegal guns away from these known dangerous people, after all the dots have been connected? Next to nothing.

It is illegal under federal law for an abuser served with a Domestic Violence Protection Order to have a firearm. With few exceptions, the law is simply not enforced. Among the victims of domestic violence murders studied by the Washington State Domestic Violence Fatality Review, a handful had Protection Orders in place because the abuser had threatened murder or suicide with a gun. Courts and law enforcement did nothing to actually get those guns out of dangerous hands. Out of the thousands of victims who petition for Protection Orders in Washington each year, only a tiny minority even ask the court to take away the abuser’s guns. That’s not because the rest aren’t afraid. It’s because they know it’s useless to ask.

Ironically, California lawmakers are looking to Domestic Violence Protection Orders as a model for a new “gun violence restraining order” that would allow courts to temporarily remove guns from people who have been identified as dangerous. But one thing we have learned from efforts to disarm abusers is that these laws don’t enforce themselves. Getting results takes coordination, political will, commitment at every level, and (of course) money.

The good news: it works. One California county hasn’t had a domestic violence murder since they put an aggressive plan in place to take guns out of the equation.

In the wake of a mass shooting, consensus that we need to do something is easy to come by. But the long uphill battle to use the tools we already have in place tells a different story. If we put what we know into practice, then strategies for preventing domestic violence murders can be a model for stopping the violence that shares so many of the same roots. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We just need to get it rolling.

The Angel Band Project

Last Friday I had the incredible opportunity to hear The Angel Band Project, featuring Jennifer (Jen) Hopper and Norbert Leo Butz. The Angel Band Project began as a benefit album after the rape and attempted murder of Jennifer Hopper and the rape and murder of her late partner, Teresa Butz.angel-band-projgect-blog-pic

Jen has a voice, a beautiful one. She will tell you her name, share her experience, and sing until you are moved to tears. Jen is extraordinary and I am resisting the urge to write a whole lot more about her. What I do want to share instead is how amazed I am by the love and support Jen’s friends, family, and people she’s met along the way have provided her. It shows in Jen’s love for them.

When I worked on the Domestic Violence Fatality Review Project, I repeatedly saw the critical role friends and family played in the lives of people experiencing domestic violence. They were often the first—and sometimes the only—person that victims turned to for help. I learned the importance of strengthening our communities’ response to violence.

As I’ve gotten to know Jen in the past year, I’ve been reminded what an honor and privilege it is to love people in our lives and our community. My message today is simple: love the people in your life, make a difference to them, and find ways to support and play a role in efforts to end violence against women.

 

I will never forgive you

I have been hauling around a rotting corpse of an experience for 19 years.

I used to think that the only way to deal with the terrible and tragic thing that happened was to forgive the person who did it. My partner’s brother murdered his wife, then called our home and engaged us in a conversation that twisted and turned between reality and delusion for 45 minutes before he abruptly hung up and killed himself.

boyholdingheartIt was indescribably traumatic. Of course, I can only speak to my own experience of it.

I’ve heard lots about the healing that comes from forgiveness. The Archbishop of forgiveness himself, Desmond Tutu, who knows about atrocity, says, “To forgive is the highest form of self-interest. I have to forgive so that my anger and resentment and lust for revenge don’t corrode my own being.”

And I get that intellectually. But forgive? Forgive has not worked for me. Some acts are just unforgiveable. And he’s dead, so there is nobody to forgive.

Dead or not, I found myself spending a lot of life energy keeping the hell in my imagination fully staffed, and molten hot for one lone inhabitant. I could not let go, replaying the scenario ten thousand times over in my mind trying to work out an alternative to the reality—an increasingly distant history—that would not budge.

Enter meditation practice and some ancient (but new to me) advice about what to do when forgiveness is beyond reach. Over the course of the past four years, I’ve attended retreats and spent many hours cultivating a wiser way.

I discovered that I am far from alone. The more I explored my interior landscape, and the more I heard from teachers, the better I understood the universal nature of this kind of struggle.

The trauma blew a hole in my heart—and I could not come wholeheartedly back to my life without mending the wound. I found out it was not necessary for me to forgive, but rather to wake up to other thoughts and actions that would relieve the pain.

First among them: putting it down. Simply, carefully, putting it down. I do not have to struggle, repress, or resolve anything. Time has passed, things have worked out in quite miraculous ways—some of which I had a hand in, most of which I didn’t. Any time I even begin to think about the pain, I recognize that I can just let it go. If I find myself way down memory lane thinking sad or scary thoughts, I retrace my steps and get on a healthier path of more fruitful thoughts.

No forgiving necessary.

Simply, put it down.

Great expectations

Our Fatality Review project just issued its annual report of the number of people across Washington State who died as a result of domestic violence last year. I drafted a press release of the findings before I ever saw the report. I planned to fill in the exact numbers once I got them from my colleague, but figured I already knew what the stats were going to tell us. 2000FR-Cover

We’ve been collecting this data since 1997. And every year, the numbers are eerily similar to the last. It seems no matter what else happens in a year—other violent crime going down, the economy getting better or worse, new laws passed—the domestic violence murder rate stays relatively steady. It’s incredibly sad, and I guess I’ve been feeling pretty hopeless about it.

But this year turned out to be different. A total of 35 people died in domestic violence fatalities. This is significantly fewer than the 54 deaths the year before, and the lowest in the 17 years we’ve been keeping track. I had to re-write the press release, but also re-think my assumptions.

Even though I truly believe domestic violence is preventable, and I see great work happening all around me, at the end of the year I don’t expect to see that reflected in the homicide numbers. Why not? I suppose it has to do with how complex the problem of domestic violence is and the slow pace of social change.

Every single life lost to domestic violence is one too many, and my heart aches for all those we lost this past year. But I feel encouraged at the same time. Maybe this is the start of a trend. After decades of work to end domestic violence, maybe it is time to expect change.