Umpqua Shootings Seen in Context

I teach at a community college and this morning had in my email a long letter from another faculty member who found the shooting at Umpqua College to be a “clarifying moment.” This caught my attention but as I read through I became more and more angry and puzzled. My world view does not correspond to the majority of folks around me, this I already know, yet the analysis presented in the email reminded me once again of how little many folks think about what to me are major societal issues.   Characterizing school shootings as a regular occurrence that are a national tragedy and disgrace, the email focused on the fear my colleague carries around much of the time, imagining shots ringing out on campus. This fear was projected onto the students, who are unsafe and vulnerable on campus, along with faculty and staff.

Hearing how immediate this threat feels to this faculty member truly surprised me, even though I have seen several announcements for faculty and staff workshops on “How to survive an ‘active shooter’ on campus.” I have no interest in attending such a workshop, and do not devote any time or energy to worrying about my safety while I’m teaching. The threat seems minuscule, probably less likely to kill me than an automobile accident. Certainly school shootings are a problem, and indicative of societal ills, and likely related to our gun culture and the easy availability of weapons intended only for killing people.

However, school shootings are the work of individuals acting alone, without any institutionalized support. In the Chronicle this morning they listed shootings back to Virginia Tech in 2007: 53 people killed. Each one of those 53 killed was a tragedy to their family and friends. Each one is a sign of deep problems in the US. What bothers me about the email I received is the focus on school shootings as a regular occurrence, as a national scourge, as routine mass murder, and on the need to focus on our own safety. I can’t help but compare this (although I know comparison of atrocities doesn’t make sense) to the ongoing killing of black men by police: 314 in the year after Michael Brown. Statistics are not easy to obtain but around 300 every year. Including all races brings the total to around 1000. (See The Guardian, “US police killings headed for 1,100 this year, with black Americans twice as likely to die.” This is carefully researched with details on each killing.)

The killing of black and brown young men by police is not the work of an individual acting outside institutional support. These killings are part and parcel of the white supremacist system we live in. Young black men do live in fear for their lives, have to modulate their behavior in any encounter with police or armed security in ways I never have to think about for myself. We do have students and faculty of color on campus, yet I have not seen the equivalent of “how to survive an active shooter” workshop offered. Faculty are not filling my in-box with discussions of this national tragedy. This morning’s email suggested we close school for a day rather than continue business as usual. When a Sonoma county sheriff killed Andy Lopez, no one suggested a day to contemplate the failure of the institutions meant to protect us. Or when Sherriff’s deputies shot Jeremiah Chase—after his parents called them to HELP him. (Here’s a carefully documented list of all 56 officer involved deaths since 2000 in Sonoma county.)

I believe that until we change the basic institutions of this country, dismantling the system that creates structural economic violence as well as overt physical violence in the interests of a small minority of our population, the complex morass of resentments and fears we live among will produce individuals who act with deadly violence. Focusing on self preservation, our own safety, seems to me a dead end path. The question is how to transform our society so everyone can live in safety.

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