REPOSTED from Prison Culture
“The natural state of this society is violence…”
A colleague uttered these words to me over a year ago as we were collaborating on an anti-violence curriculum project. It’s worth reflecting on his words at this time in our country. Currently, the news is saturated with reports about the Gabrielle Giffords assassination attempt and the massacre of other innocents in Tuscon. What happened is truly horrific and I offer my condolences to everyone impacted by this tragedy.
A few days ago, I received a phone call from the assistant to a famous filmmaker. This person was seeking data pertaining to “youth violence” in Chicago. ‘What specifically are you looking for?” I asked. Of course, she was looking for statistics about the number of youth homicides in the city. I once again found myself deflated at the end of the conversation.
For over two decades now, I have been working to reframe the conversation about the nature and impact of violence in the U.S. It’s been one step forward and three steps back. It is difficult not to feel discouraged in the face of a persistent insistence to define violence in America as homicide or as PHYSICAL assault.
It is certainly true that some young people in Chicago are being wounded and killed by guns. It is valuable and important to address this lethal form of violence. I recommend an upcoming film that I have been privileged to preview called the Interrupters for some ideas on how to stop the shooting. Below is a trailer for the upcoming film:
When tragedies like the Tuscon attack occur, I understand the human impulse to look for a “reason” for what happened. Was the killer mentally ill? What role does media play in the act? Should we have gun control? Should we be nicer to each other?
Yet what is always missed in the countless “national conversations” and recriminations that take place after such tragedies are perspective and honesty. The root cause of violence in the U.S. and across the world is oppression. Frederick Douglass famously wrote:
Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where one class is made to feel that society is organized in a conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.
There it is. In one sentence. Clearly articulated. Eloquent. Easy to understand. And yet we ignore the truth and the wisdom of these words every day. We do so because it is easier to focus on quick fixes and band-aid solutions that will not disrupt the status quo and will not challenge the powerful. It is a sick game of willful ignorance.
If 50 youth under the age of 18 years old are killed by gun violence a year in Chicago, what about the 30% of youth under 18 who are living under the poverty line this year. Is poverty not violence?
What about the over 2200 youth in Illinois who are currently incarcerated in our juvenile prisons. Is youth incarceration not violence?
What about the thousands of youth in Chicago who drop out of school every year. Is educational malpractice not violence?
My friend’s suggestion that “the natural state of our society is violence” takes on real significance when we are clear in our definition of what constitutes violence. And yet, no one wants to hear this. It is too overwhelming and too dangerous to view the world through this lens. James Baldwin has written that: “To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.” Too few of us are acting on the knowledge that we have. We KNOW that only a radical reallocation of resources will help us to end violence in our societies. We know that this is true and yet we tinker around the edges. Everyone wants me to talk about violence but no one actually wants to hear what I have to say.