By Jenny Ruth
Sixteen years after the death of her only child, Valerie Dixon speaks of the loss with composure. She knows her grief well. The crowd at Pittsburgh’s Wear Orange event to commemorate National Gun Violence Awareness Day in June of 2017 is captivated by the measured tone with which she recalls the violence that changed her life. For any mother, the loss is as unimaginable as the strength Ms. Dixon summons when speaking. But she isn’t just any mother: Ms. Dixon is a black mother to a black son. She lives in East Liberty, the same historically black neighborhood where her son was murdered.
Her resolve to find justice didn’t end with the conviction of her son’s killer. Dixon is an activist working on the causes she believes led to her son’s death. Occasionally, this work takes her out of her own community, into others where her tragedy may be dismissed. People have at times been unmoved, unsurprised, responding, “That’s just what happens there.”
White Americans are joining the gun violence prevention movement in droves, propelled by the statistically unlikely fear that we’ll be gunned down in the parking lot on our next Target run. That our kids will be massacred in the well resourced schools we’ve worked so hard to cultivate in our segregated towns. It was my own preschool-aged son’s insistence to me that his locked daycare, with its entrance protocol and high fences, was safe. He said this the Monday after the June 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. I thought about the way a semiautomatic rifle throws your shoulder back after you pull the trigger, stretching the ligaments until they feel like they’ll snap, the soreness you wince through for days. An eight-foot-tall chain link fence is nothing. A locked door with a secret combination doesn’t mean jack. So I couldn’t agree and assure him he was safe. That Thursday, I dragged him downtown for a rally with local politicians and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
As a gun-owning, white, suburban mother who grew up hunting in rural Pennsylvania, I’m sure the NRA thinks they speak for me. So it’s my responsibility to speak up, to raise my voice and say, “Not in my name, not in my community, not in my country.” It can be scary. Nothing brings out the crazy in some people like talking about guns. But nothing can comfort and empower more than knowing you are not alone. In my work with Moms Demand Action, I organize like-minded people, teaching the vulnerable to effectively lobby their elected officials. Sometimes it feels like nothing in the face of immeasurable loss. So I aim for the small victories and celebrate the work itself.
In December of 2016, about a dozen of us in my Moms Demand Action chapter attended a memorial for gun violence victims at a community center in the Hill District, another historically black neighborhood in Pittsburgh. We were the only white people. The program that night was to honor all victims, but it was billed as marking the anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre. One speaker asked, “Why is it that people mourn the privileged children at Sandy Hook, but not the poor kids of color who are gunned down every day?” Another speaker said, “I was so happy to see all your white faces here tonight. I thought, ‘Oh good, the white people care. Maybe now something will happen.’”
It may be tempting, but #NotAllWhitePeople is never appropriate, especially not that evening. The speakers voiced a resentment born of despair, held captive in their hearts for years. And while I alone am not guilty of the violent indifference they have endured, neither am I innocent. So none of us argued, or disagreed, or played on our phones. We listened. We cried. We believed what was said.
A woman I met that night, Wynona Hawkins-Harper, also lost her son to gun violence. She said, “We need to do something about the guns. Our children are killing each other on the street.” We do need to do something about guns. I agree with her even though I came to this understanding for different reasons. The kids of my community aren’t shooting each other on the street. They’re shooting themselves in moments of irrational despair. My neighbors are killing their spouses in domestic incidents that privately escalate.
We don’t have a gun violence problem in America; we have several of them. When our communities look different, our gun violence problems look different too. These differences are real, measurable, systemic, and important, but they create no hierarchy. We have no time to ask which tragedy is worse. A pediatrician and fellow member of my Moms Demand Action chapter says that, when she sees a patient with a gun shot wound, it doesn’t matter if it was self-inflicted or accidental or from some fight on the street—they all look the same lying on her table.
The indifference Valerie Dixon experienced, the invalidation of her loss, stuck in my thoughts the way a greasy meal floats in your throat and burns your heart. Despite our differences, we’re still sharing a parallel experience. Haven’t I, too, heard the dismissal of the violence that hurts my community? Haven’t we all? As a country, we share the experience of these widely-covered mass shootings. Their sheer volume creates few degrees of separation. Yet after every one, we are told nothing can be done. Criminals don’t follow laws. The mentally ill will find a way to hurt others if they want to. President Trump tells us, “Believe me, it could have been worse.” Thoughts and prayers are offered, but they’ve proven to be as effective as an all-caps tweet. After the Las Vegas shooting this fall, the largest thus far in modern American history, Bill O’Reilly summed it up with: “This is the price of freedom.” In other words, this is what happens in America. This is what happens where you live.
Let this be our rallying cry. Gun violence happens where every one of us lives, so we must fight it in union. Let all the ways in which we are different be reflected in the strategies and styles we bring to the battle. Believe in the cause, the work, and the progress that’s possible. Believe that peace can happen where you live.
About the Author
Jenny Ruth’s literary work has appeared in Waxwing, Streetlight, The Hopper, and Gravel’s post-election blog “All Trumped Up.” A native of rural Pennsylvania, Ruth now resides in Pittsburgh, where she is a lead in the local chapter of Moms Demand Action, a gun violence prevention and lobbying organization. You can find her online at jennyruthwrites.com or @JennyRuth81.