November 22, 1963, is for those of us old enough to remember a dividing line– the day our country was robbed by the bullet of a leader we had won by the ballot. Ask, ‘where were you?’ and you’ll hear a story. I was in third grade the day President Kennedy was shot, and my teen years were marked by the terrible series of political assassinations that followed. The attempted murder of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the murder of six citizens who came to hear her speak is only the most recent undoing of democracy.
Reverend Martin Luther King, also taken away from us by assassination, was such a powerful nonviolent leader that his image today is shorthand for the peaceful exercise of free speech. The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice was an Occupation not universally popular, or uncontroversial in its time, no matter how we love to quote, ‘I have a dream.’ The general support of the Occupy movement today exceeds the support in the 1960’s for Civil Rights, though today most like to believe they would have been on the right side of history.
If you say that ‘Jobs and Justice’ are at the core of the Occupation, you will not be wrong. Fifty years on we are still striving for a more just and equal society.
I got out of work and walked downtown to Burnside Park, where a plywood Info Booth has sprung up. The tents are moved together into rows. General Assembly was in progress– about 15 people were meeting at the statue of General Burnside. The topic was planning actions to draw attention to the issues of homelessness and foreclosures, and collaboration with other community groups. I stood on the fringe and listened, and thought about all the people I’ve talked to who support the Occupation.
There’s many ways to support the cause of greater economic justice, and the recent action by the Mayor, I believe, was expedited by the political energy of the people committed enough to stay in tents to maintain a center of organization.
From the park to Kennedy Plaza I waited a long time for the #42, and when the bus pulled up it was #1– the driver was having a meltdown and the sign was stuck. Just then explosions vibrated off the buildings and fireworks lit up the sky.
“Crowds, creatures dancing around, the dancing cop, fireworks–it’s the 375th Anniversary! Happy Birthday, Providence!”
She steered around the congestion and slowly we got on our way.
That night I dreamed that I was on a train to New York City, surrounded by people in distress. I felt the spirit of 9/11, in the first days, when we all felt an urgency to come to the aid of our country. That spirit of common humanity has burned low since the days of Roger Williams, through American centuries, following the arc of history, which bends toward justice because it must. People will always strive for what is right. That spirit illuminates the Occupation today.
Where were you on Friday, November 22, 1963?
I was a second-grader in St.Benedict’s School, playing at recess when a boy ran up to me and said, “The President’s dead! He got shot!”
Then he pointed his finger at his temple and laughed.
We lined up, boys and girls separately, and went back into class. The nuns were perturbed. The nuns were inscrutable women swathed in black with only their faces and fingertips showing. They had a short fuse and flew into rages frequently and randomly, so in my child’s mind there was no way to understand that the assassination of President Kennedy was more unusual than any other unpredictable event that might set them off.
I walked home, and mentioned it to my mother, who fell to the couch in utter shock. For the next few days, my mother sat glued to the set, weeping as her handsome, first Catholic, Irish-American President was buried in the ground.
There were other assaults on Democracy, and martyrs to the cause of justice in that time.
June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers shot outside of his front door, with his wife and little children as horrified witnesses.
September 15, 1963, four little girls, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair, murdered by domestic terrorists in opposition to rule of law and civil rights.
February 21, 1965, Malcolm X shot because he he had a wider vision of racial equality than the Nation of Islam would tolerate.
April 4, 1968, The murder of Martin Luther King. I had recently read a book about him from the library. I was saddened by his death, and said so to a classmate. “We’re white. You have to stick up for your race,” she said.
June 6, 1968, Robert Kennedy took up the torch of his martyred brother and had just won the California primary. He was out front in the Democratic run for the presidency, when a bullet ended those hopes.
George Wallace, shot and paralyzed by Arthur Bremer on May 15,1972. He was taking his second run at the presidency on a racism lite platform. Put in a wheelchair for life. George Wallace committed crimes against humanity, but I wouldn’t wish paraplegia on a dog. Better he were tried in the court of democracy than that democracy be wounded by a failed assassin.
September 5, 1975, Gerald Ford is in the sights of Squeaky Fromme, a Manson Family disciple with a gun. She fortunately fails in her attempt to murder the President. September 19, 1975, a secret service on high alert foils a second attempt.
March 6, 1978 Larry Flynt, (a boil on the body politic whose contribution is only that his Supreme Court case affirmed freedom of speech for people who have something better to say), is paralyzed by a sniper. Words hurt, but putting a bullet into someone’s spine is an unforgivable violation.
March 30, 1981, John Hinkley tries to get famous by shooting President
Ronald Reagan. Reagan survives and recovers. His press secretary, James Brady catches a bullet in the head and is permanently disabled. His wife, Sarah advocates for gun control and becomes a political target of gun rights organizations.
We fast-forward twenty years, and the question for today is, “Where were you, on September 11, 2001?”
It’s not that our most visible public servants don’t live under threat. We assume that. We’re not some small-time country where our leaders can take the public transit and meet their constituency face to face without the guys in dark glasses and the wires in their ears.
We’re important. We’re advanced. We’re scared. Because any lunatic with a gun can murder a ten year old girl or a Federal Judge or their Congresswoman or the President if they just get lucky. We love our Second Amendment, the right to bear arms.
The First Amendment, read by Congresswoman Giffords in Congress this week, guarantees the right to peaceably assemble. In the real world of competing claims, will we decide that the Second Amendment protects the right to arm madmen and accept the carnage as an act of nature? Or will we come to an agreement to tone down the violent speech and demand that gun owners take responsibility for the power they can’t feel safe without– to take or destroy a life?
American Democracy has some bullet holes in it. Some deep wounds, some close calls– all harmed us. All violence against speech and Democracy leaves us more frightened and less free.
Gabrielle Giffords is not going to be fine. If she makes a miraculous recovery, she still suffered major brain trauma. One moment changed her from a public servant and mother of children to a woman clinging to life in a hospital bed. One act of malice from a young man with a weapon of mass destruction. I wish her the best but don’t be fooled. Brain injury has effects that devastate years after. Our veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan know that well.
Now is the time to say, ‘never again’. Let those who think it’s glorious to wield a gun take the same place as child molesters in our public life if they ever fire that gun for any reason other than self-defense. Get real, and face the damage it does to the individual and society when a bullet cuts the flesh of a fellow-citizen. It’s a last resort, only justifiable to save a life.
In 1963, when we discovered that the President was only a man, who could be taken out by a sniper hiding behind a window, the Season of the Gun lasted twenty years. Let the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords be not the beginning, but the end. Let it stop now.