Why Orlando is a National Tragedy, And Chicago is Too

Politics Features
Why Orlando is a National Tragedy, And Chicago is Too

Photo Credit: Getty Images
Flags lowered to half staff on the Washington Monument grounds

Many of us have had that moment when we’ve come across something that is both illuminating and shocking—an essay, a news story, a work of art—and we wonder to ourselves, “Why isn’t everyone talking about this?”

Of all the things we are wondering about the deadliest mass shooting in American history, we are surely not wondering about that: almost everyone is, rightfully, talking about it. Still, there is plenty to be said about how we are talking about the massacre; what we leave out when we do not acknowledge the specificities (i.e. sexual orientation) of those lives taken and the specificities of the killer who took them. And yes, we should be speaking more about the role of toxic masculinity in this (and, really, all of America’s mass killings), although there is some discourse taking place.

Liike all discourse, power determines how we talk about violence in America, and which acts of violence we consider tragic. Last month, a tragedy of epic proportions rocked the city of Chicago. In a single holiday weekend, 64 people were shot. But “only” six people died, which is perhaps one reason why you didn’t hear much about it, unless someone pointed you to the powerful New York Times story. That too—the silence surrounding the events—is another tragedy, another form of violence that has become the American norm.

From Friday evening to the end of Monday, 64 people will have been shot in this city of 2.7 million, six of them fatally. In a population made up of nearly equal numbers of whites, blacks and Hispanics, 52 of the shooting victims are black, 11 Hispanic and one white. Eight are women, the rest men. Some 12 people are shot in cars, 11 along city sidewalks, and at least four on home porches.

It is a level of violence that has become the terrifying norm, particularly in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. With far fewer residents, Chicago has more homicides than Los Angeles or New York.

Gun violence in America has become such a powerful force that we (as the media, as a society, as individuals) now all but completely ignore stories where multiple people are shot, but no one is killed. A campus shooting where “only” two people end up dead is sad, but certainly not a national tragedy that has the masses up in arms, demanding a change (or otherwise, defending that blessed second amendment). And impoverished black people shooting other impoverished black people is even less likely to make the news cycle. Ask yourself, how many bodies need to be lined up now in America (and, perhaps, what those bodies need to look like), before your eyebrow will raise, or your jaw will drop in shock? I think you’ll find that the number is only getting higher. And it will keep doing so.

It’s sick to think about the fact that, now that an Orlando has taken place, our emotional bars have been raised. It sickens me to know, deep down, that the next shooting will have to top 49 lives for all of us to rage again. It’s been said before and by many others, but we are now all participants in a mass shooting cycle in America (shooting, outrage, discourse, no policy change, repeat). And all cycles—deadly and otherwise—begin to feel, at a certain point, comfortable for those participating in it.

One way to defeat such a cycle, might be to exist in a constant state of awareness about how violent America really is. And when I say “America,” I’m not talking about the America you live in, or the America on shows like New Girl or Scandal, or the America you imagine for the future, but the all-across-America, America. Those pocketed, marginalized, forgotten places so many of us would rather not have to face. It’s frightening to attempt such awareness—to acknowledge that those places are America too, and their problems are, as a result, American tragedies too—because it almost guarantees that you’ll be in a constant state of anger or disgust. But what’s more important is that you’ll find it far more difficult to shed that something must be done energy (that so many of us have right now), when the news cycle moves on.

See, those of us who read every word and watched every heart-wrenching video from A Weekend in Chicago are just as outraged about the events in Orlando. But, in a strange way, we were also already in a certain state of mourning over a group of lives wrecked by gun violence. It doesn’t make the news of Orlando a numbing experience—paying attention to both at the same time does not distract from one or the other; rather, it gives both narratives more weight. We who are bearing witness to both Orlando and Chicago are aware of the fact that lives everywhere are at stake. Chicago and Orlando are just two more examples of the fact that we need to start seeing the connections between all forms of American violence:

1.) Where guns—whether they be handguns or assault rifles—are accessed with ease.
2.) Where men are raised by a culture where exacting deadly violence against others is a means of asserting oneself and obtaining some kind of agency.
3.) Where politicians and leaders will offer prayers and positive thoughts before addressing either of these issues with policy changes.

And it should be said that such prayers and thoughts—useless though they be in resolving these issues—don’t even make their way to places like the South Side of Chicago.

According to the rules of our discourse about mass shootings, I’m not supposed to make a connection between a series of “unconnected” shootings in Chicago (perpetrated by different people, taking place over the course of three days) and the Orlando massacre. What happened in Chicago is supposed to be entirely different, and by “different,” I also mean the obvious—not nearly as tragic. But this conversation cannot come down to weighing one tragedy against another; the rules of this discourse must change if the sicknesses in this country are ever going to be seriously addressed. If we can talk about toxic masculinity and mass killings—and we are only just beginning to do that—we should be able to make the connection between toxic masculinity, mass killings and gang violence.

Unlike what happened in Orlando, what happened in Chicago on Memorial Day weekend (and what has been happening in the city—and so many American cities like it—over the years) also requires a conversation about poverty, systemic racism and its destruction of the black family and failing educational systems. But like Orlando, guns—and that horrifying ease with which we are given access to them—are not solely responsible for these lives lost. When we talk about Orlando, we must be nuanced in our interpretation of what happened, and we must understand it as a hyper-violent example of the homophobia that exists at so many other levels in this country’s cultural and political climate. That same nuance must be extended to Chicago—lest we wave such a weekend away as mere “gang violence,” as if gang violence itself isn’t cultural and political (and American made). We don’t have to talk about every Chicago when we talk about every Orlando, but I know we do ourselves and our fight a disservice when we pretend that one doesn’t have anything to do with the other, or like one violent, American tragedy deserves our attention above another.

Whether we are talking about black people and people of color killing each other, or cops killing blacks, or cops killing members of other races, or individuals killing large groups of people at a time, or individuals “only” killing a small group of people at a time, we are talking about this violent place we call home. America is not like so many other countries, in the midst of a civil war acknowledged by the rest of the world, or in a longstanding religious-based fight with another nearby country; but that doesn’t make America a peaceful place. It doesn’t make us free, much as the red, white and blue has become a symbol of freedom to many.

The America I see has always been violent and has always been defined by its violence; and with such violence (especially against so-called minority groups like blacks and gays) there has always been resistance. Resistance requires awareness of the myth of peace in America, and awareness of a public discourse that demands that you respond to one sort of violence, but not another. Resistance requires us to see the devastating parallels between Chicago and Orlando, between Charleston and Sandy Hook, between mass killings and rape culture, between gun violence and domestic violence—and to accept the discomfort that comes from knowing that none of these things are strange, rare phenomena. They are all homegrown, American traditions (inspired by traditions of patriarchy and violence that have been around since before America was wrought); traditions that would have been plucked at the root long ago, if they didn’t continue to empower those select, privileged few who actually experience “freedom” in America.

Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based writer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.

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