We Can Stop Pulling the Trigger

Last Sunday, our church music director opened worship by saying, “It’s been a rough week. Not only the cold, but I have been dealing with two suicides–one an 8th grader at my school and the other a leader of the Black Lives Movement.”

I did not get a chance to ask Tyrone about the young student, but I learned about the activist through a Washington Post article a couple of days later (click here for the story).

MarShawn McCarrel complex com
MarShawn McCarrel complex.com

His name was MarShawn McCarrel, 23. He shot himself on the steps of the Ohio State Capitol in Columbus on February 8. A few hours before the shot, he posted a Facebook message, “My demons won today. I’m sorry.”

By all accounts, this was a talented young man,  dedicated to liberation and justice. He started several nonprofit organizations, a mentorship program called Pursuing Our Dreams and a charity for homeless people called Feeding Our Streets. He had become a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement in Ohio, following on other activism and writing poetry.

The man was a poet. On paper. And in life. Poets are people for whom words matter. Each word matters. And for this poet, lives mattered, too.

Except he could not sustain his own. He pulled the trigger.

But so did we. We–and when I say “we” I mean all of us who call ourselves white who have so far failed to undo the strangehold white supremacy, white privilege, white racism, have on our national psyche and day in and day out living in this land we claim is free and home to the brave.

As sure as anything, I believe his depression–which had plagued him for some years, after the death of his grandfather–was undone or minimized, but also deepened, by his activism.

Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me
observer.com

His ability to write and speak and organize and give hope to others helped to keep him going, but it was not enough to overcome the relentless–r e l e n t l e s s, let me say that again, relentless–drumbeat of negativity in his life and the lives of millions of other African American men, women, and children (remember that 8th grader?).

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his magnificent, also relentless (in a similar but also different way), letter to his son about growing up Black in America, “Between the World and Me,”

To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.

Coates tells us that much of the posing and braggadocio of Black boys and young men on the streets, and the posing and efforts at creating distinct identities for the Black girls and and young women, is really in response to fear, fear for their very lives in the face of what feel like, and are, overwhelming odds against survival for many, if not most, of them in a world run by and for those who call ourselves white.

I cannot speak for MarShawn McCarrel, this lost prince of Black personhood, but I can imagine that he, like many other activists in the Black Lives Matter movement (and many in other movements for human dignity here and around the world), was brought down, depressed, by that fear, and by how little long-term deep, intentional attention is paid to the continuing violation of African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, etc.

Black Lives Matter protest  startribune com
startribune.com

I know I feel that, and I am not (yet, anyway) on the front lines of that struggle. He was on the front lines, and I know from experience on my own front lines (for LGBT equality, e.g.) that there is hope, even exhilaration at moments, when you watch others see new truth, but there also is exhaustion and fear when you realize how many people aren’t paying attention and how many of those who claim they are show no signs of caring (and may even express animosity).

What Coates’ book, and the unnecessary death of MarShawn McCarrel push me into is somehow to join the front lines. I have no desire to do what we who call ourselves white so often do–move in to take over the struggle, or even to make it about me or us. And yet, I know I have and can claim my place to support McCarrell’s surviving colleagues in the movement more than I have done, and to more directly engage my siblings in white privilege so that we all may learn why and how to give it up.

I don’t want to be part of pulling the trigger any more.

I don’t want to participate, even at a distance, in snuffing a life, or silencing a voice, as magnificent as that of MarShawn McCarrel.

It is my belief that he has found peace with the God who loves him unreservedly. But I have yet to find peace in my grief for this beautiful man, and perhaps I will not any time soon, knowing–as I have chanted more than once on the streets of Richmond, New York, Boston, and will undoubtedly do so again on Washington boulevards, and maybe elsewhere–No Justice, No Peace! Know Justice, Know Peace!

The good news, if there is any in this, may be that I have found, thanks to his friends, a powerful poem of truth and life by MarShawn McCarrel. May he have the final word here, today.

Down South by Marshawn McCarrel

A Constitutional Right to Shoot Oneself?

Philadelphiaspeaks.com
Philadelphiaspeaks.com

My friend Rob has been talking about his tough neighborhood 50 years ago in Philadelphia, where fistfights, dares, taunts, and threats were all too common. Still, he says, “we all walked away.”

What he means is that there were no guns–boys and young men fought, they acted ugly to each other, but they did not kill each other.

No guns. What a concept! Think how different today’s Baltimore, or D.C., or Philadephia or New York or Detroit would be.

That would be my ideal world. No guns on the streets except for police when absolutely needed to stop crime. Indeed no guns in the forests or woodlands either (I am a vegetarian and don’t want animals killed for our food) except for those legally empowered to protect us from marauding, dangerous wild animals (similar to police protecting us from marauding, dangerous human animals).

Still, I know that is unrealistic, especially in the United States.

associatesinfamilymedicine.com
associatesinfamilymedicine.com

Still, something must be done. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in much of the nation today, deaths from gunshots now outnumber deaths from traffic accidents, and overall a person in the United States is as likely to die from gunshot as from auto accidents. This is a new situation, an indicator of two things:

  • how much has been done over the past several decades to make cars, highways, and driving safer (as well as improved medical treatment)
  • and how little has been done to make guns safer to use and to restrict their use by people not properly equipped to do so.

Gun-related deaths did decline in the 1990s but the numbers have since remained steady. And homicides by gunshot have declined, while suicides committed with guns have risen.

Thus, it feels to me that at least some of the rhetoric about Second Amendment rights is saying that people have a constitutional right to kill themselves with guns. And I suppose I agree (although I do not know if the Supreme Court agrees).

tenthamendmentcenter.com
tenthamendmentcenter.com

However, I am not sure I agree that it is an unlimited right. Can we not better protect people in the midst of mental health crises from killing themselves (as well as others)? Is that not a matter of protecting the public health (especially when unstable people have access to guns in order to kill others)?

Three things can be done.

  • First, we can make guns safer by mandating various safety locks and mechanisms so people (including children) cannot just pick up a gun and shoot.
  • Second, we can insist on background checks on all gun buyers and every purchase. No exceptions.
  • Third, Congress must remove the ban on many types of federal gun research–so we can be smarter about how to prevent gun deaths without denying the right of people to own guns. Much of the decrease in automobile-related deaths is traceable to extensive federal research, often undertaken in cooperation with the auto industry. The NRA and the gun industry could learn from this. Fewer gun deaths would make the cause of gun ownership less toxic in our culture.

There is another set of factors to consider here. Like much else in our nation, gun-related deaths reveal underlying racial and class divisions. For example, Black Americans are significantly more likely to be victims of homicide even though only 1 in 5 Black households has guns. In contrast, more than 2 in 5 Americans who call themselves white have guns in their households, but gun violence is more likely there to be from suicide.  Both sets of numbers make changing some of the rules imperative.

slideshare.net
slideshare.net

It feels to me that a culture of violence is growing our nation–verbal violence in our politics, gun violence on our streets, visual violence in the world of video games and even the traditional and social media. Of course, ISIS and the Taliban and other violently radical groups cause great anxiety–especially in light of San Bernardino–and many people seem to be trying to ratchet it higher.

The bottom line is that violence in response to violence does not increase safety or peace ultimately. Instead, it simply multiplies the overall level of violence. Hatred begets hatred, violence begets violence.

My friend Rob’s old Philadelphia neighborhood sounds almost idyllic–boys being boys, men or about-to-be men being men, contesting for territory and badges of masculinity but staying alive to shoot hoops or chase girls or just hang out and talk big.

It seems hard to believe that old days may have been less violent, and yet in some ways and places that may be true. We are often blinded by thinking that technological progress is the same as moral progress (though improved gun technology could lower the odds for gun deaths), but it ain’t necessarily so.