A feminist path out of our bullet-riddled hell

A feminist path out of our bullet-riddled hell

This story originally appeared in Ms. magazine on Mar. 29, 2021, and is shared with permission from Ms.

On the afternoon of Monday, March 22, there was a mass shooting at my neighborhood grocery store in Boulder, Colorado. I was still grappling with the tragic shooting in Atlanta, Georgia, just days before.

My initial response was emotional and complicated, because to grow up in Colorado is to know mass gun violence. Its devastating effects reach at least as far back into Colorado history as the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. More than once since the mass shooting in an Aurora movie theater in 2012, I have had to leave a crowded cinema before the end of the film because I felt unsafe. It was the 1999 Columbine High School shooting that launched my hometown of Littleton, Colorado, into international infamy.

I can remember at least three gun-related lockdowns at my schools. One time in high school, I was excused from class to meet my family away from home, because a troubled person suffering from a severe mental health crisis claimed to have obtained a gun and said that he planned to shoot us. Over the years, I have continued to heal psychologically and evolve politically.

Today, even as I grieve with my community, I can offer an explanation of how mass gun violence is important to feminism and why women who stand for social equality, in all our diversity, must alchemize our sorrow and rage into change.

“Tears well up when I think about returning to my King Soopers to shop for groceries, but I plan to—for personal and political reasons.” (Photo taken by Carolyn Elerding in Boulder, Colorado, on March 23, 2021).
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After a deep breath, my first thought was for the employees’ safety. I thought of each of the workers who, during the long months of the COVID-19 pandemic, have brightened my days with helpful smiles and courteous remarks. I have seen the King Soopers staff exhibit remarkable patience and diplomacy with nerve-wracked customers. The employees’ unflappability has been an important source of stability for me during these deeply uncertain times. I thought of the Asian American woman I have enjoyed warm and neighborly conversations with as she prepares my coffee. Her Monday must already have been difficult, in light of the racist and misogynist shooting in Atlanta.

Six blocks away in my home office space, I waited for hours until more information surfaced through the live news coverage provided by local stations. The on-site reporters and studio anchors, also waiting to learn more from law enforcement, filled the time with contextual banter about the rapid and multilateral response from law enforcement and the endangerment of shoppers. Tellingly, the early coverage included no discussion of the danger to essential workers’ lives, nor about the issue of gun control—a transparent example of how the profit motive can narrow and flatten understanding.

Although women-led social justice movements have leveraged vast progressive change in recent years, mainstream network news still has a lot of catching up to do. Feminists can help. We attune comprehensively and with nuance to the numerous intersecting social issues that affect women disproportionately, remembering that women who are non-white, LGBTQ, or immigrants are affected the most. To name just a few, these issues include the earnings gap, unpaid and underpaid care responsibilities, domestic violence, and how social differences like ethnicity can vary the experience of gender. Today’s feminists realize that women of color are overrepresented among the low-wage workers who, during the pandemic, we have finally learned to recognize as “essential.”

(Photo taken by Carolyn Elerding in Boulder, Colorado, on March 26, 2021)

Regardless of motive, these violent acts were committed by a person of white male privilege (defined in this sense as benefitting, whether one wants to or not, from having light enough skin to look European.) Research has repeatedly demonstrated this strong connection between race, gender, and mass shootings. Hence, when I, as a teacher in graduate school during the 2010s, received training on whether to hide, run, or fight in the event of an active shooter threat, it was in the form of a frightening video of a white actor in combat gear terrorizing my campus with an automatic firearm.

The links between race, gender, and mass gun violence are rooted in our society’s collective history of colonialism and patriarchy. For survivors like me, each large-scale tragedy can also reanimate painful personal memories of gender inequality compelled through individual threats of physical harm. For feminists, this serves as a reminder of the classic insight that “the personal is political.” My basic physical safety, and that of my community, depends on traceable—and changeable—power relations. It also means that, when communities are endangered by mass shootings, the harmful impacts are distributed unevenly. Mass shootings intensify existing exclusion and insecurity.

We may also be reminded of newer ideas, like those of feminist philosopher Kate Manne. Following Manne, survivors’ re-traumatization exemplifies how misogyny works on a societal scale as the unofficial “law enforcement branch of the patriarchy,” reinforcing sexist inequality through widespread threats and force. The increasing frequency of mass gun violence reflects a process of doubling down on social inequality. Indeed, as professor and political journalist Jared Yates Sexton has recently tweeted, mass shootings have become so common that many Americans now expect to be directly involved in a mass shooting.

Joining my community to seek healing and offer support for the survivors and the victims’ families, I have made donations, attended local vigils, and visited the memorial that has accrued around the fenced-off grocery store and parking lot. In doing so, I have noticed a widespread aversion to discussing “politics”—as though grief must remain “apolitical” at risk of seeming disrespectful. I am certain that I am not the only one who has wondered, “What could be more respectful than working to ensure that this never happens again?”

(Photo taken by Carolyn Elerding in Boulder, Colorado, on March 25, 2021)

At Thursday evening’s vigil, organized by the woman- and survivor-centered gun violence prevention group Moms Demand Action, there was scattered but loud cheering for Democratic Representative Joe Neguse’s insistence on improvements in gun control. In response, tearful criticism emerged from some in the crowd who, understandably, wanted to concentrate on the tender process of mourning lives. Is there a way, I thought, for these two dynamics to coexist? How might those of us who feel ready take action?

So far, few in my community seem willing to connect shock and sorrow to the righteous anger that might fuel a powerful new wave of resistance against the gun lobby. Yet, growing numbers in the media have expressed that, rather than “thoughts and prayers,” they want protective legislation.

Located in the traditional lands of the Cheyenne, Ute, and Arapahoe, the expensive and scenic university town of Boulder is known for its whiteness, as well as for its alternative and progressive cultures informed by New Age spirituality and its exemplary system of bicycle and hiking trails. Despite many Boulderites’ admirable pursuit of mindfulness and compassion, the city and county have seen a spectrum of violence and inequality.

As the Boulder chapter of Standing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) regularly points out, Boulder and the surrounding areas are, and have always been, much more diverse and unequal than its stereotyped public image might suggest. I can personally verify that biases such as ageism and sexism are common here—in fact, I’ve encountered them at the Table Mesa King Soopers (but never from employees).

(Photo taken by Carolyn Elerding in Boulder, Colorado, on March 26, 2021)

The mass shooting has changed the way that everyone in the area feels in public places, but this shift is particularly intense for women, people of color, and immigrants. We know, with unprecedented certainty, that we are not as safe as we could and should be.

Sue Coffee, director of Boulder’s 125-voice Resonance Women’s Chorus, shared in an email, “I haven’t been to my King Soopers all week, on the other side of Boulder. I suppose I will walk in the door before too long. It’s sort of about fear but maybe more, it’s a clouded and confusing mix of devastation and denial.” Coffee also remarked on how “witnessing tragedy elsewhere—as compassionate and aware as I felt myself to be, time after time after time—never took me to the overwhelming heartbreak this week’s tragic shooting in my own community has taken me.”

Emilia Semrau, who was working in a neighboring restaurant when the shooter attacked, has started ordering grocery deliveries online rather than shop. She now feels afraid of people in a way that she never has before.

Tears well up when I think about returning to my King Soopers to shop for groceries, but I plan to—for personal and political reasons. Given that so many Boulderites hesitate to mix grief with politics, I have tried to envision what a broad feminist response, firmly based in our particular community, might be.

I am reminded of my own experiences years ago as I took my first uncertain steps to become politically active. Over time, with mistakes along the way, I moved from a perspective based on individual experience into a personalized standpoint grounded in collective discussion and action. For many in Boulder, a situated feminist standpoint might center on politics that lead from the heart, incorporating trauma-awareness and actively practicing compassion.

(Photo taken by Carolyn Elerding in Boulder, Colorado, on March 25, 2021)

At Thursday night’s vigil, members of Moms Demand Action exemplified this approach by inviting mourners to join them in urging for gun control, while also encouraging the crowd to do so at our own pace, prioritizing self-care. Boulderites could also take inspiration from feminist traditions such as Take Back the Night marches that reclaim public spaces from violent aggression.

Violence, including mass shootings, is a feminist issue because it touches upon interwoven structures of gender, race, and class, as well as other inequalities. Even when mass shooters do not know their victims, their acts of violence are far from random. Rather, they are shaped by deeply embedded patterns in society.

As researcher and activist Jackson Katz argues, “Gender violence is a major problem all by itself, but there is a growing awareness that it also contributes to innumerable other social problems, including (to name a few) mass shootings, substance abuse, depression, homelessness and gang violence.”

Atlanta, Boulder, and all other public mass shootings are connected by more than egregious gaps in gun regulation. Practicing discernment when referring to mass shootings is crucial for identifying these links. The larger the number of victims, the more planning involved ahead of time. And the less the shooter is acquainted with the victims, the greater the likelihood that the shooter is not just any man, but one with white privilege.

Yet, acknowledging this fact can have unintended consequences when race in general, and whiteness in particular, are poorly understood. For example, USA Today diversity editor Hamal Javeri was fired this week for a tweet linking the Boulder shooter’s white privilege with the prominent pattern in the social identities of mass shooters.

The Boulder attacker was a fair-skinned man who immigrated with his parents from Syria as a young child. He has experienced white privilege due his appearance, but paradoxically, many have argued that because he is Muslim he cannot be described as “white.” Numerous tweets and news reports about him reveal many Americans remain confused regarding the distinction between human biological diversity (referred to, problematically, as “race”) and cultural differences such as religion. In this instance, the Islamic religion and its many related cultures throughout the world, as well as the richly varied racial and ethnic identities of Muslims—including the fact that Islam has many white practitioners—are all collapsed into one stereotype.

The widespread confusion about race and whiteness obscures an insight that could help to prevent further mass shootings. The shooter, who is reported to suffer from severe mental illness, may not have had a clear sense of his own purpose, and his motive currently remains unknown to the public. However, it is indisputable that his actions were enabled by the easy accessibility of automatic firearms and inspired by the actions of prior mass shooters and their aggrieved and enraged sense of white male entitlement. Violence is not inherently gendered or racialized, but in a society that is only beginning to address its foundational inequalities, no action exists outside the time and space of injustice.

Feminists understand that gun regulations, particularly for assault weapons, offer much-needed protection to the most vulnerable people in our communities. Without addressing gun violence, among many other overdue measures, social equality remains only a dream. Hence, for lawmakers to avoid offering this protection is itself a form of senseless violence.

As Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, tweeted recently, “Gun violence is political because NRA lobbyists pay our politicians for their inaction.”

Given that assault weapons can be obtained in one city and then used in another, as was the case with the Boulder shooting, municipal restrictions are insufficient. As an urgent first step, feminists must demand a national ban on assault weapons. There is no conflict between this strategy and leading with a compassionate heart.

(Photos taken by Carolyn Elerding in Boulder, Colorado, on March 26, 2021)

The other morning I visited the memorial site again. Among many people of all ages, genders, and racial backgrounds, I encountered a Mexican-American family. Three generations had traveled together by bus from another city to pay respects. Below his cowboy hat, the oldest man in the family wore a mask displaying a message in Spanish and English: “In this together.”

I was reminded that mass gun violence affects us all, even if some of us—essential workers, immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ people, and women—are haunted by it in additional ways based on our previous encounters with violence. How vulnerable we feel varies according to socially constructed differences like gender, race, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. Of course, the society I would like to see requires much more than better mental health care and responsible gun control, but these are basic necessities—now.

Perhaps what will most heal our communities is social change, so that the deaths in Atlanta, Orlando, Parkland, Las Vegas, and so many other places, as well as here in Boulder, will not have been entirely in vain.

May our sorrow blossom into loving rage that seeds action. May our vulnerability make us powerful.

jeffrey

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