Yesterday I read about a new project of the Equal Justice Initiative organization to place memorial markers at the 4,000 sites where Blacks were lynched in the South. This project follows from the Initiative’s publication of a report, Lynching in America, that documents 3,959 lynchings between 1877 and 1950, at least 700 more than previously known. As I read the interview with Bryan Stevenson, who founded and heads the EJI, it awoke the emotions I felt when I first viewed plaques on buildings in Paris memorializing Jews who were sent East by the Nazis and never seen again.
So in the words of Jonathan Swift, I want to make a modest suggestion to the folks who have committed themselves to bringing an end to gun violence in the United States. And this suggestion is aimed primarily at organizations and individuals who are working against gun violence in communities where the human toll from guns – Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, DC – is a ceaseless and unending event. Why not consider placing a permanent memorial marker where someone has been gunned down? The markers in Paris are no bigger in many cases than six or eight inches wide; a gun-violence plaque that size could easily be affixed to a wall or a tree. And I’m thinking this might be an interesting way to draw more attention to the scourge of gun violence, in particular because it would build a permanent consciousness about what gun violence really means.
Last week I drove through the North End of Springfield, MA, where the gun murder rate this year will probably be the highest of any city its size in the United States. As I went past a particular corner, I could tell from the yellow tape, the cop cars, the onlookers, the ambulances and the body covered by a sheet, that a shooting had taken place within just a few minutes before I arrived at the scene. I drove past that same corner thirty minutes later and everything that had marked the spot as a murder scene was gone; someone walking down that block for the first time that day would never know that a human life had brutally and tragically ended on that sidewalk the very same day.
Physically memorializing the place where someone was gunned down would not only raise and retain consciousness about gun violence, it would also be an appropriate way to counteract the pro-gun argument about guns which rests on the notion that most perpetrators and victims of gun violence, particularly inner-city gun violence, are criminals who got what they deserved.
That argument happens to be often tinged with racism and is simply wrong. Don’t be fooled by the fact that a majority of gun shooters and victims are, chronologically, young adults (although many are still in their teens). Mentally and emotionally, they are kids. And like all kids they are impulsive and have no awareness of risk. They carry guns because it’s “cool,” or because some older kid told them they should carry a gun, or for some other stupid, childlike reason. But most killings and injuries from guns do not occur during the commission of other crimes. To quote the brilliant Lester Adelson, “With its particular lethality, a gun converts a spat into a slaying and a quarrel into a killing.”
In memorializing the victims of this particular form of infantile senselessness, we aren’t paying homage to the work of street criminals and thugs. We are saying that every human life is sacred, everyone needs to feel safe, and people who lose their lives to guns deserve to be remembered by the community in which they lived. There’s one block in Springfield – Franklin Street – where two people were murdered in two successive May weeks. The first victim, a woman, was remembered two days later when classmates from the commercial college she attended released some balloons in her name. Now the street’s back to “normal” until the next killing takes place.