Wednesday, January 16, 2013

History: What the NRA Fails to Understand

In the wake of the killings on December 14, 2012 at Shady Nook Elementary School and in the town of Newtown, CT, among the the things I pondered was the four young girls killed in 1963 in Birmingham, AL when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed. There were many events that led to that horrible September 15, 1963 day just as there have been many horrible events that led to the Newtown murders.

I found National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre's December 21 response to the Newtown murders chilling. It reminded me of another equally chilling moment in my life.

There are moments in life when experience, personal history and events collide to provide insight and perspective. In short, the long view. As we begin the serious walk toward curbing gun violence, I think we need to look back and see how far we have come as a country on another complicated issue. In some ways, the horrific events of resent months remind me of horrific events of 1963.

To be honest, I no longer remember if I actually saw the broadcast or if I just saw the newscast. I know I was sitting with my parents when I heard "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" coming out of the mouth of a white man that my mother explained to me was the governor of Alabama. I remember the sea of white faces cheering, wildly. Though I was sitting on the couch safe between my parents in California far away from Alabama, it was terrifying.

That speech was made 50 years ago this month. I was in fifth grade in a predominately white elementary school in Cupertino, CA. My sister and I had had run ins with some of the white boys on the bus. Though the incidents had stopped by the time of the speech, the bus ride was still tense.

A lot of scary things happened after Wallace's speech throughout the country, including the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the assassination of Medgar Evers. The national focus was on the South. I remember watching TV and seeing Black people being chased and bitten by police dogs, watered down with fire hoses, and hearing about people disappearing and later found dead. While Wallace was not the inventor of racial violence in the South, his words seemed to unleash barely pent-up emotions determined to maintain "a way of life."

In retrospect, I am sure that Governor George Wallace was aware that January 1, 1963 was the Centennial Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation - all the more reason for him to lay down the proverbial gauntlet and encourage numerous stumbling blocks to change. This past January 1 marked the 150 Anniversary, and how things have changed over the past 50 years - even as some things have not.

We are hardly post-racial; however, official segregation has died and we are much more integrated. A strong majority of Americans from a huge variety of backgrounds re-elected Barak Obama as our President. Yet, citizens from 30 states have filed petitions to have their states succeed from the United States.

In his later years, Wallace mellowed. In the late 1980's, he met with Congressman John Lewis and apologized; asked for forgiveness. He understood that he had hurt people. Sometime after that, he traveled throughout Alabama meeting with Black constituents to apologize and asked forgiveness. He won his last election as Governor with 90% of the Black vote.

I don't know if Wallace ever grew to understand he was on the wrong side of history. However, he and the segregationists were. Time has proven that.

I firmly believe that time will prove that the NRA is also on the wrong side of history. The NRA believes that the only way to uphold the Second Amendment to the US Constitution is unfettered gun ownership. LaPierre might as well be saying "unregulated gun ownership today, unregulated gun ownership tomorrow, unregulated gun ownership forever! (Oh, and by the way, you will never be allowed to do any kind of research to counter my opinion!!)"

I really do not understand how LaPierre can propose armed guards at all schools as a serious solution to protecting our children, their staff and teachers! Even the most casual watcher of espionage, war or crime television and movies knows that you plan for there to be armed guards intending to prevent you from doing whatever dastardly or noble thing you want to do. Therefore, the first thing you do is plan how to "neutralize" them!! (BTW, the NRA's new ad promoting this idea dares to ask "Are the President's kids more important than yours?" Well - yes!)

In 1963, my child self didn't know about all of the White Southerners who stuck their necks out and said segregation had to end - but they were there. On Monday, NPR's David Folkenflik did a wonderful salute to one such hero who recently died, Eugene Patterson.

In 2013, we have responsible gun owners saying, we need to discuss curbing gun violence. Among them are Virginia Senator Mark Warner; Richard Feldman, President, Independent Firearm Owners Association; and former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her husband, Captain Mark Kelly.

I now understand than curbing gun violence is more than gun control. We need cultural shifts on mental health, violence against women, and violence in our society as a whole. Most importantly, we need a sustained, massive mobilization of people to make changes in laws and permit research to determine the multiple factors that appear to celebrate violence, including celebrating responding to violence with more violence.

Yes, LaPierre and those who agree with him are much better prepared than those of us who want a thoughtful, sustained shift in our culture. According to messages to NRA members, LaPierre is ready to stage "the fight of the century". In every interview he has given since December 21, he has asserted that no changes in legislation will pass through Congress. The NRA believes they have already bought their votes and that there is nothing that any of us who want something different can do in 113th Congress.

I am not willing to cede that to him. We ought to be able to get universal registration, thoughtful changes in mental health laws, and reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. However, I am willing to go into the push for those items with the recognition that defeat on each of these is likely. That is why I will also:
  • Give what I can when I can to the Giffords/Marks PAC Americans for Responsible Solutions to enable them to "encourage elected officials to stand up for solutions to prevent gun violence and protect responsible gun ownership by communicating directly with the constituents that elect them." 
  • Dialogue with my gun-owning colleagues and friends - many of whom disagree with the NRA. I will encourage them to switch their membership to IFOA or to join a membership group for the first time. And,
  • Encourage my gun control friends to add reducing gun violence to the list of items on which they are active. I want them to call, email, fax and tweet their members of Congress, sign every end gun violence petition that comes their way - no matter how repetitive. Additionally, I will ask them to give to organizations and PACs lobbying to curb gun violence.
I do not want to live in a society that believes that the only answer to gun violence is to arm every citizen. I do not want have to go through security checks to see my grandson's play, go to a movie or to get groceries - we really are better than that. Instead, in January 2063, I want a currently frightened and confused 10 year-old to be able look back at this moment and see how our society and the world has changed for the better because so many of us took the long view regarding gun violence, mental health and the safety of our society. 

(c) Copyright Sabrina Sojourner 2013

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Entertainment - PLEASE! or Why I still Like Spaghetti Westerns

When I saw the preview two weeks ago for Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained with Jamie Foxx in the lead role, I knew I would see it - even though it promised to be a graphically violent film. However, it also promised to be entertaining with Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Christopher Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson joining Foxx in the latest remake of the classic.

I am of the spaghetti western generation. I saw the morality plays on Saturday afternoons as part of some series of movies. Or, Friday or Saturday nights from the backseat of my parent's car at our favorite drive-in - the one with the playground that allowed rambunctious kids to tire themselves before settling into the backseat with some combination of homemade picnic food and snack stand treats (popcorn and Drumsticks). I can still hear the announcer giving us the warning countdown: "Five minutes to showtime!" "Showtime" meant the lights on the playground would go out and we needed to be quietly seated in our parents' car. As kids, most of us waited until the one minute warning or until a parent or two arrived before making the mad scramble back to our special treat: the family car, front wheels resting perfectly on a hump such that most seats were great; the one directly behind Dad being the exception.  

Released in 1966, the first Django was directed by Sergio Corbucci and starred Franco Nero. I was making the transition from eight grader to high school freshman and no longer had to pretend to fall asleep to watch the late feature. Besides Nero's piercing eyes, the things I remember most are the coffin that Django dragged around, the violence (less graphic but still shocking for the time) and that good after-being-damaged-by-playing-with-evil, triumphs.

For those of you who don't know, "spaghetti western" refers to a series of American-west themed films made in Italy and other parts of Europe with primarily European directors from about 1960 to about 1980. In addition to Corbucci's Django, probably the best known by non-aficionados is The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. (Yes, this is an over-simplistic explanation.) 

Over the years, there have been several westerns with Django in the title. However, none tempted me to see them until now. Django Unchained delivered on its promise: wildly entertaining, graphically violent (I covered my eyes several times) and true to its spaghetti western roots. It is a romp through our American historical minefield (western morality meets plantation brutality) that can cause moments of squirming. From the earliest moments of the film, everyone's nature is exposed and everyone's nature is exploited. There are lots of great cameos. My favorite was Franco Nero (his eyes are still piercing) and most unexpected was Don Johnson (yes, that Don Johnson). It's too simplistic to say that in the end "good" does triumph over "evil", and yet (spoiler alert) it does relative to the events of the movie. 

Django Unchained is not - nor does it to pretend to be - a story about slavery, a psycho-drama about race relations, a commentary on black exceptionalism or more than superficially thoughtful or thought provoking. I mention this because Spike LeeSalamishah Tillet, and other cultural commentators, seem to mistakenly believe that was the movie's intent. Sometimes, thankfully, a movie is just a brilliant piece of entertainment!

(c) Copyright Sabrina Sojourner 2013