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Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Not a book

Hey everybody it's Tuesday, which means blog time! But I didn't read a book this time. I'm halfway through one, I guess, but honestly I can barely read anything. Usually comic books are a good break when I get overwhelmed by the combination of life's logistical challenges along with just its good old fashioned emotional challenges, but honestly I haven't even been able to read those lately either.

Here are things that are bothering me (in no particular order): hurricanes, wildfire, DACA, Puerto Rico, white supremacist rallies, and officer-involved shootings. CHIP, subsidized health insurance that saved my family when I was working hard but still couldn't afford insurance, has had its funding expire. Oh, and nuclear war. Then yesterday we experienced the worst mass shooting in recent history and it's so ho-hum that it didn't even seem to take halfway through the news cycle before we were moving on to another rock star who died (and then didn't, and then did). I was wondering, by the way, why everyone points out that this was the worst mass shooting in recent history. As a naturally curious person, I thought, how recent is recent, and how bad have they been before?

Well, buckle up. Like, have you heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre? I wouldn't be surprised if you hadn't, since it wasn't included in any history books and was almost completely buried until 1996, the 75th anniversary of the massacre. With eyewitnesses dying of old age, a group called The Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 was formed to interview survivors, study documents, and hear testimonies from the public. Their report found that "After three and a half years of intensive research, the commission found what had been hinted at for four decades. There had been a pattern of deliberate distortion of facts regarding the riot and even the destruction of vital documents and a subsequent coverup."

The build-up to the "riot" is complicated (generally considered an argument between a black teen boy and a white teen girl in an elevator followed by threats from the community of lynching), but the upshot is that the thriving oil community of Greenwood, often called "Black Wall Street," where hotels, restaurants, and fur stores thrived was burned to the ground by National Guardsmen opening up on the crowd with machine guns, private and police planes dropping balls of turpentine and dynamite. Approximately 300 were killed, 800 were admitted to hospitals, 6,000 black citizens were arrested, and 10,000 black residents were left homeless.

What about the Colfax massacre of 1873? A bunch of crazy election stuff happened that I don't have the time or energy to relate, but the upshot was that Southern Democrats were ticked and tried to take over the parish by force. Republicans recruited black soldiers to defend the place, and the Democrats organized a militia of confederate war veterans and locals called the White League to attack. 60 black soldiers fled into the woods and were shot in the back and thrown in the river. The remaining defenders surrendered in the parish and stacked their guns, but were shot anyway. White soldiers ran down the fleeing men and shot them from horseback, some were hung. It's estimated that up to 150 were killed. In a Supreme Court case in 1876, the case against the insurgents was thrown out and no one was convicted.

There's the Mountain Meadows Massacre, when Mormon settlers, perhaps terrified of American troops threatening the new settlements and after hearing rumors of a party set to attack, dressed as natives and attacked a group of over 100 settlers. When someone in the party recognized the "natives" as white men, the plan to just scare them away turned into a massacre. Every man, woman, and child was killed (sometimes with clubs and knives) except for children deemed to young to remember. These were adopted by Mormon families. The church tried to blame it on nearby Paiutes but eventually pinned the blame on John D. Lee, acting on his own.

Massacres are one thing, the systematic genocide of native tribes from the state of California another. A conservative estimate puts the amount of Native Americans killed just in California by state militias, vigilantes, and federal officers somewhere between 9 and 16,000. In one instance, after native slaves rose up and killed two slave masters, US Infantry and Cavalry troops fired into a village, killing approximately 800 Pomo villagers.

I don't even have a point here, other than this: when you're an inquisitive person who asks a lot of questions you find out quite quickly that some of them have very, very bad answers. Those stories are the tip of the iceberg. Most lists of American single-shooter mass killings start at 1949 with Howard Unruh, a decorated World War II sharpshooter who left his house one morning at 9:20 AM, and shot 13 people dead and wounded two others with a German Luger.

I've been reading a lot about other countries this year. IndiaSouth Korea, China, Nigeria, and Cambodia, just to name a few. We're all kind of used to it by now. Every day or two (most times a few times a day) we're hit with a headline that makes our heart sink. 50 killed in an ambush by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar by Theravada Buddhists. 300,000 dead in Syria with another 135,000 missing. For my whole life when I read these articles, I think, that's terrible, I'm so grateful that I live somewhere safe.

But I don't. We're that country, too. We have massacres and genocides. We have racial unrest. We have sectarian violence where a majority religion oppresses a minority. A white supremacist stabbing two men defending a Muslim woman on a train in Portland. A young man who loved posing with guns and a Confederate flag shooting worshipers in a Black Christian church. Three men who called themselves The Crusaders caught planning to bomb an apartment complex housing 120 people, most of them Somali refugees. We have terrorist attacks from foreign extremists.

And for a relatively young country, we've got a history of atrocities that rivals all but the very worst. We don't have a Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot, but we do have Andrew Jackson and James Buchanan.

I don't even know what to say, you guys. This sucks. I don't have any way to wrap it up in a bow that makes us all feel good about the future. This has been a huge blow to Howie's Optimism Club. I seem to rebound, sure. But how much can we put up with? Perusing the headlines today, apparently it's a lot.

ADDENDUM: Rereading this on Wednesday morning, I can see a couple of themes. First of all, as we can see from most of these massacres, the feeling of safety I was talking about has always been a myth. I'm safe because I'm white and a dude and have spent most of my time in middle to lower middle class neighborhoods where the police are our friends and the government was designed to help me succeed. Sometimes these shootings are shocking because they effect people we don't normally associate with getting shot.

Obviously mass shootings make up a tiny fraction of gun deaths in the United States (most of them are suicides). Maybe the most pernicious of human biases is the one that tells us that we're safe because we don't belong to a certain group. We think women who are being abused are married to alcoholics, because that's what movies tell us. We think that rapists hide in dark corners and target women dressed in tube tops. And we think that we're safe from gun crimes because we don't live in housing projects. Until we start seeing ourselves in every person who is suffering in America, instead of thanking God that we aren't at risk, every one of us has something to fear.

I also recognize that there are places less safe than here. Of course there are. This isn't Mexico, it isn't Syria, it isn't Venezuala. In my neighborhood we don't have concrete walls with glass embedded in the tops. There aren't bars in the gas station windows. But I also believe that one of the least effective ways of dealing with problems is to point out that someone else is suffering even more. Everyone deserves to be able to improve their lives. Whatever the current state.