The death of Skittles-eating teen Trayvon Martin, shot by a neighborhood watchdog in an upscale community, has shaken U.S. citizens enough to catalyze a national movement against hate.
A good thing, since children are watching. And people everywhere, of every age, seem ever more numb to violence.
Seasoned police chaplains aren’t easily shaken, either. But about a year before the Florida shooting, one group from Minnesota was shocked into silence by disturbing photos depicting a full-sized image of Hillary Clinton decimated by bullet holes.
Posed by the secretary of state’s gutted likeness was a 40-something white man. His arms were around two youth drawing them into the scene. They could have been anyone’s children. Another child and a female adult in some photos appeared, like the man, to be laughing.
The chaplain group includes full-time pastors and police who volunteer their spare time and ministerial touch to officers and others after unthinkable experiences — deadly accidents, domestic assault, drug abuse. Though comforters and caregivers by temperament and training, they struggled to articulate their reactions to the pictures. One former pro-football playing captain, one rector of a large local parish called Grace, one state senator whose church community supported his knock-down political campaign, one practicing therapist, two energetic young officers — all speechless.
The photos illustrated a culture coming undone by vitriolic norms.
Children inserted into depravity
Which seems illogical and incomprehensible, until witnessed up-close — as it was by children posed in the ugly tableau. Children unwittingly, if not unwillingly, inserted into depravity, immersed in hate we’ve all witnessed, coming from multiple corners of the partisan continuum. Leaving us half paralyzed, half paranoid while it soils our national esteem and degrades into a national pastime.
It’s easy to see how, with nonstop pathogens of rage-rhetoric emitted round-the-clock to all in range of a computer screen, cell tower or radio antennae — perpetrated by professional personalities, politicians and real people. Many carry the corrosive themes into online incivility campaigns. Others perform them for pay. Some spread them in social settings gone seriously anti-social, including events intended to uplift our national ideals, like this one family’s Fourth of July celebration. Where grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends gathered for a picnic and fireworks. And, apparently, to obliterate Clinton’s image. While children watched.
Apparently some at the reunion thought it was funny. Most adults there were professionals not generally perceived as fringe-types. Past family gatherings might have included nothing more dangerous than teaching kids how to shoot clay pigeons. But the man in the photos, a Rush Limbaugh fan, has been known to deride Clinton and other women with Limbaugh’s trademark slur “femi-Nazis.”
Police chaplains aren’t quaint idealists. They’ve seen too much. Still, those who saw evidence of the effigy were head-shakingly stunned. When they finally spoke, sobering words: “sad,” “sick” and “Why?” were uttered.
They worried for the children and despaired about today’s polarizing tones that find seemingly respectable people at historically friendly events blatantly, brutally caricaturizing our country. Though our Constitution (and common sense) calls all to identify as proudly diverse, and yet all the “same” people, called to see and synthesize our abilities with and for our common “Oneness.” Co-caring for our place, country, people, children, not destroying our undergirding by un-righting our shared rights — rights meant to ensure that all have a say and all succeed.
To ignore is to condone
The chaplains spoke of consuming lives and work that offer little opportunity to change a country that’s slipped over the edge into craziness. It’s a reaction too many of us harbor. But, if we ignore destructive behaviors, we imply we condone them. Say nothing to indecent, imbalanced behaviors and we legitimize them. Don’t do all we can to end uncivil, undignified behaviors, and we betray cowardice unbecoming a “country of the brave.”
If we let hate thrive in our own backyards unaddressed, we are complicit in the spread of more.
In fact the chaplains are known to make uncommon efforts of support. So, though struggling with their emotions, they offered reassurance. That people like the man in the photos are unfortunate anomalies.
But they know more. They know that guns are the weapons most likely to succeed in U.S. malevolence. That anti-government hate groups have grown eightfold in three years.
The photo was taken on July 4, 2010. Six months later an Arizona congresswoman was gunned down and a grandmother, little girl, judge and others were killed.
Ominous trends presaged their deaths.
A rise in hate crimes
Arizona hate crimes rose dramatically between 2008-2010. A 2009 warning by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security cited the “charged economic and political climate” as “fueling a resurgence of Rightwing radicalization and recruitment.” It outlined how groups were “broaden(ing) their scope and appeal through propaganda (…) across the country. The overall number of hate groups in the U.S. grew again in 2010.
The gunman was a “lone wolf,” an anomaly. The county sheriff acknowledged the killer’s “mental instability,” adding an often-overlooked detail: “People who are unbalanced are especially susceptible to vitriol (…) we hear day in and day out.”
The FBI agreed. “(H)ate speech and other inciteful speech,” said its director, Robert S. Mueller III, “absolutely presents a challenge to us.”
Just weeks before the shootings, an unavoidably vitriol-inciting message was erected just five miles away. The billboard featured pictures of stray bullets holes, with the words: “Rush Limbaugh Straight Shooter.”
“[Limbaugh] attacks people, angers them against government, angers them against elected officials,” said the sheriff, adding such rhetoric “is not without consequences.”
How many lone wolves drove by the billboard? For that matter, how many children were driven by it?
‘A mecca for prejudice and bigotry’
“I think of how our youngsters are being raised,” said Sheriff Clarence Dupnik. Arizona has “become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
As, it seems, has the rest of the country.
Whether young Trayvon Martin’s death was a hate crime has yet to be determined. But the possibility must be considered in a country where non-reflective “shoot first” reactivity is now justified by powerful voices that whip up fears so fierce once-reasonable people are all but coerced to play along.
Meanwhile one Arizona sheriff is playing a different tune, in his words: “It’s time that we all do some soul-searching.”
Andrea Morisette Grazzini is a writer, consultant and participatory researcher. Her work has influenced numerous global and national conversations on co-productive change. She founded the cross-partisan initiative DynamicShift in 2009. Some of her essays can be found at the DynamicShift Blog.
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