By Elayne Clift
As I watched the flag-draped coffin of the late Billy Evans, the second Capitol Police officer to lie in state, descend from the Capitol steps, I wept — and wondered how much longer we would find ourselves living in a country that has become so violent.
As I saw the photograph of the deceased Dwayne Wright holding his 1-year-old child and heard the wails of his grieving aunt, I also wondered how much longer we will go on living in such a violent country.
As I heard witness after witness in the trial of Derek Chauvin, who was charged with killing George Floyd, I asked myself again: How much longer must we live with the massacre of Black people, mostly men, by aggressive, out-of-control, incipiently violent police?
And when I read David Gray’s stunning Facebook post, I wondered again: How much longer such hideous racist behavior would prevail?
Gray’s post was about his day, one in which he would take all manner of precautions to ensure that he, his wife and his child would make it through another day without being shot by police. He would, he said, not take public transport. He would not hang an air freshener in his car, and he would double-check his car registration status. He would be sure his license plates were visible, he would carefully follow all traffic rules, keep the radio down, forgo stopping at a fast-food restaurant, forgo prayer, and simply hope to God that his car didn’t break down.
His wife would take another set of precautions when she picked their young child up from day care. They would not play in a park or go for an ice cream. Once the child was in bed, neither of his parents would leave the house to run errands or jog. “We will just sit and try not to breathe and not to sleep,” Gray wrote.
And in everything he and his wife would do or not do, there was a name attached: Lt. Caron Nazario, Philandro Castro, Sandra Bland, Rev. Clementa Pickney, Elijah McCain, Tamir Rice, Ahmaud Argery, Breonna Taylor, and many more because of what had happened to each one of them.
But it isn’t only police violence that makes the burning question linger in my brain and bruise my heart. How much longer, I ask myself over and over again, must we live with so much violence that results in the massacre of the innocents?
Several days before I wrote this commentary, a woman in Virginia was killed by a stray bullet. The same day, eight people were also wounded by gunfire in a separate shooting, and a mother of six was fatally wounded in North Carolina while on an anniversary trip with her husband, shot in the head in a drive-by shooting in an act of road rage.
How can it be that we live in a country so barbaric that you take your chances just going grocery shopping, attending school, showing up at work, being on vacation, having a night out for drinks or dinner, or standing in your own backyard? How much longer can we live like that?
How did we become a banana republic in which our own house of parliament could be stormed by insurrectionists calling for the death of elected officials and a state congresswoman could get arrested for gently knocking on the governor’s door as he welcomed Jim Crow home? How did we reach the point where Asian Americans are beaten on the streets of America and trans kids are denied health care?
Gun violence is not only a physical threat. It’s a public health emergency that threatens our emotional wellbeing and fills us with anxiety. Some of us get emotionally crazy. I actually ask my adult children to text me when they get home from being on the road, walking in the dark, jogging in the park, or working late at night.
According to the Gun Violence Archive as reported by The Washington Post, in 2020, gun violence killed nearly 20,000 Americans, more than any other year in at least two decades. The U.S. experienced the highest one-year increase in homicides since it began keeping records last year, and large cities had a 30% spike in gun violence. Gunshot injuries also rose dramatically, to nearly 40,000.
This year, following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, over 2 million guns were sold in January alone. That’s an 80% increase in gun sales and the third-highest monthly total on record. All of this while the outdated Second Amendment is invoked in the 21st Century, hundreds of years since muskets went out fashion and military weapons became vogue.
Writer Mary McCarthy once said, “In violence, we forget who we are.” America, it seems to me, need not remember who we are so much; that would reveal the “400-year lie” that current writers admonish us to remember.
Instead, America desperately needs to think about what we have become. Only then can the country heal, reinvent itself, and emerge from the darkness that is rapidly enveloping us. Let us begin with a question: How do we stop the massacre of the innocents?
Elayne Clift is a resident of Saxtons River who writes about women and social justice issues.