Saturday, June 18, 2016

All This Talk About Guns

In all my years on social media, I have avoided, for the most part, speaking about guns. My Facebook page, for example, is strongly divided between my friends who are liberal and advocate frequently for stronger gun control measures and my working class family, neighbors, and friends who hunt, collect guns, and often carry them. There never seems to be a good time to talk about this divide in my life, never a good time to tell my part of this story. In the wake of so many tragedies, so much death, I just want to grieve. But I also have decided to tell this part of my story.

I grew up working class, in a predominantly white rural community, and I work in those communities now. I suppose a lot of people, looking into the place I grew up, would label us as gun toting, backwards rednecks.

I learned to handle weapons long before I learned to drive and it was a point of pride for me that I could handle rifles, handguns, bows, and bowie knives with ease. I was taught, like most working class kids, that guns were tools and were dangerous weapons. We used them for butchering animals on the farm, we used them to defend animals against wild dogs, we used them for hunting, and we learned to use them for self-defense.  We never waved them in the air, never pointed at anything we didn’t intend to shoot, and kept them safely stored and cleaned.

The world I grew up in was never safe, much like the world everywhere else. Living on the edge of the wilderness meant that wild animals were always a threat and once, I was trailed by a pair of cougars who had been hunting livestock in the valley. Violence was common. Some of it involved guns, like when a friend was stalked by her ex-boyfriend threatening to shoot her. Much of it did not—the neighbors kids getting sexually assaulted, neighboring men breaking into fistfights and feuds. I learned early and thoroughly that the world is not a safe place and that evil is real.

I never had the illusion that weapons kept me safe, particularly. They were simply tools that gave me an advantage in a world that was dangerous and sometimes very evil. To this day, I still own a gun and, as a single woman living alone, it makes me feel safer. Not safe. Just safer, depending on luck and skill.

Now, as a priest, as a pastor in a rural community, I struggle with how to talk about weapons. Everyone I know carries some kind of weapon--  all sorts of hunting blades or pocketknives, mace, machetes, occasionally guns. I ask people not to carry weapons openly in our spaces, but I also know that people need these tools—for putting up tents as much as for defense. Young women come to me and ask my advice about carrying weapons, because they know that the rate of sexual assault for women on the street is officially at 100%.  People (including many of these women) who are caught with guns and have a felony record spend years in prison. Those who advocate for stronger gun control laws rarely understand that the people who usually are convicted and imprisoned as a result of such legislation are not mass murderers—they are mostly poor, mostly desperate, disproportionately people of color trying to survive a bitter, deadly world.

Theologically, there are two points I think we don’t always consider.

First, even though I strongly believe in human capacity for goodness, even though I even lean Pelagian in my understanding of human nature, I am also aware of the tremendous human capacity for evil. The world is not, and never has been, safe for most people. And people living on the edge are especially aware of that. Fighting for survival in a capitalist society where there is not enough for everyone forces you to confront evil in a way that people living comfortably don’t always have to see. That evil is up close, in the person of your neighbor, and even your friend, who might be hungry enough to slice your tent and steal your food or angry enough at the world to fight you for your last cigarette or suffer from PTSD so badly that he thinks you are an enemy soldier. That evil is up close in the black market you are forced to participate in, where marketers battle for space and clients and resources. Your ability to defend yourself can mean life or death.

Evil is also structural. One of the ways that manifests is in who gets protected in our society. Our police and protection systems are meant, first and foremost, to protect property and its owners. If you do not own property, or are a threat to property, then your life is not necessarily protected. It may in fact be, and often is, targeted. With weapons and guns. In the hands of law enforcement. I’m not suggesting that AK-47s should be in the hands of private citizens, but I am wondering if they should be on our streets when police conduct a standoff in a rural neighborhood.

When I see blanket calls for more gun control, I wonder.

Do we intend to disarm law enforcement too, with 1,000 people shot by police last year, mostly young, mostly poor, disproportionally people of color, many mentally ill?

Do we intend to do something more to insure that people are not in constant competition for basic needs, which leads inevitably to intense interpersonal violence on the streets and in poor communities?

Do we intend to actually address the root causes of violence? Violence and death are always specific. The young man who went on a shooting spree in sororities in California targeted women because he felt women didn’t give him enough attention. The 49 people killed in a gay bar in Orlando were killed because they were queer and immigrant and brown and black. What do we plan to do about that kind of hate? Because all the laws in the world are not going to keep an assault rifle out of the hands of a private security worker who wants to kill a lot of people.

Sometimes, honestly, a call for gun control in our world feels like a cop out. I have no illusions that guns are going to save us from anything. I am not opposed to laws that regulate the sale of handguns or assault rifles. But I’m not sure that any of those measures would change the violence that I witness or the violence that we as a nation witness. I know for sure that these laws further criminalize poor people and fill our prisons.

There is harder work to do. People need access to enough, so they are not in constant competition for space and resources and black market cred. People need to be seen as human. Misogyny and racism and homophobia are real and deadly, folks. Law enforcement needs to be held accountable, especially for poor lives. Passing a few laws about guns is too easy. If we really want to stop violence, we need so much more.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Have We Turned Against Our Children?

“Setting our children free will make us safer, not less so… Raze the buildings, free the children, and begin anew.” Nell Bernstein

I spend a great deal of my ministry listening to the stories of young people--on the streets, in jails, in camps, and on street corners. When I listen to their stories and witness their courage, I always feel like they have the courage, the hope, the will, the vision to change our world. It is no secret young men and women have always formed the backbone of movements for change around the world. It also seems that they face the most repression and hatred.

While juvenile detention rates are falling in the US, they have not been falling in Grays Harbor County. This county in particular has been known for strict adherence to juvenile justice codes and one might say these policies left their mark on several generations of our children. Most of the crack down has been on status offenses (offenses that would not be punishable if the offender were an adult: truancy, drinking while underage, running away), giving Grays Harbor the dubious distinction of incarcerating the highest rate of child status offenders in the country. 

I remember, as a child, living in a rough neighborhood in central California. The couple next door would frequently lock their daughter, just a few years younger than myself, in her room or in a bathroom for extended periods of time as punishment, or simply as confinement when they left the house. As a 10 year old, what I remember most was her endless screaming and crying.  No one, but especially not a child, is designed to be locked alone in small places.

A practice well known to break adults, isolation is a widespread and common practice in our juvenile justice system. Recently, the juvenile facility in Junction City came under fire when family reported that their son was kept in solitary confinement for a week (a practice that many consider torture), leaving him suicidal and depressed. While the behavior of the parents in my childhood neighborhood was eventually reported and investigated as child abuse, the same behavior in a juvenile jail or prison has been considered not only legal but normative.

Nell Bernstein recently published an expose called Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison. She documents the beginnings of the juvenile justice system in the 18th century “as a mechanism for gaining control over the children of the poor.” Relying on extensive interviews and data collection, she documents story after story of isolation and dehumanization and abuse. For example, 1 in 5 children reported sexual abuse at the hands of guards. For many children, the trauma is too great and, in some states, the recidivism rate for juvenile offenders was 80%. Bernstein argues that the very act of isolating and locking children up just when they most need relationship and love is in and of itself traumatizing and destructive.

Bernstein's documentation squares up with the stories I hear on the streets and in jails. Across the country, young people have told me about their experiences in juvie: getting their bones broken during arrest, spending so many months in solitary that it permanently affected their mental health, being told by judges and jailers over and over that they would never amount to anything, learning to defend themselves because they have no other choice, recognizing that as children they simply have no rights (legal or otherwise), spending more of their lives on the inside than out, losing hope in any possible future, losing faith, developing a consistent fear and hatred for authority. Many of these children have already endured significant trauma in their lives—they have been handed around in foster homes, they have been sexually and physically abused, they have lost significant numbers of family and friends, they have lived on the streets. Sometimes, juvie is the thing that breaks them.

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl writes that “there will always be individuals and societies that turn against their children.” This is overwhelmingly evident on the streets of Grays Harbor.

In Grays Harbor, judges are quick to defend the extensive use of the juvenile justice system. We, and the system our society has created, seem to have forgotten that our children are our future. A community that victimizes them, jails them, beats them, leaves them living under bridges, and hands them from foster home to foster home, labeling them criminals, predators, and dangers to society will one day reap what we sow.

For me, on my end, I watch kids leave the system and enter early adulthood with few resources. As young adults, they often hustle on the street to survive and they continue to fill the jails on a regular basis, creating an endless cycle of street to jail or prison. 

I watch these young people, with a courage born of desperation and an indomitable will to survive no matter the odds, desperately fight for life in a world that does not seem to care if they live or die. And I wonder: why have we turned against our children? How can we possibly expect a bright future if our young people are relegated to the margins without any future or hope for something better? How do we listen to the voices of our children, of our future?