This is an excerpt from reporter Scott Johnson's blog, which focuses on the effects of violence and trauma on the community.
During a Friday morning ABC News segment, George Stephanopoulos interviewed a man named Christopher Ramos, who was inside the Aurora theater in Colorado Thursday night. Toward the end of the interview, when Ramos started to break down crying, in effect reliving the horror show he had survived, he says something I found to be incredibly revealing. "I see this on TV, a shooting in a mall or a shooting in a bookstore," he said. "I see it but I actually don't feel it ... it was the first time I saw something that was real."
Ramos said he had never seen blood from a human being before, presumably in violent circumstances, not obviously from a minor cut. And now here he was describing in grisly detail how he and his sister dove for cover inside a darkened movie theater as a man stood in a nearby doorway calmly firing dozens of rounds at the unsuspecting moviegoers. There was blood everywhere, he said, and bodies lying on the ground. People trampling over those bodies and over each other to get to the exits. There was screaming, shoving, mayhem, in other words.
Ramos' comments put me in mind of something I've written about in these pages before, notably that violence remains an abstraction until it happens to you. The movies that Ramos has seen, the portrayals of mass shootings, the news stories, none of those depictions, as vivid as they may be, were particularly real. Not real enough to "feel" anyway. Even we in the audience watching him as he spoke, he very presciently pointed out, were many degrees removed from the nightmare he is still living.
The reason I found this comment about the "real" interesting is because it highlighted to me how varied is the experience of violence. Right here in Oakland I speak to people all the time who live day to day in very close and explicit familiarity with all kinds of horrific violence. I spoke with a man in West Oakland on Wednesday who told me about seeing two people get killed in broad daylight 20 yards from his front door. And a woman, also in West Oakland, who said gunplay in her street is a normal occurrence. We all know this. But we get inured to it, numbed, paralyzed by both the proximity and the banality of it.
Twelve people died Friday in the Aurora shootings. Twelve people have been killed in gun violence in Oakland within the last month alone, including seven in one seven day stretch this month.
Take each of these individual murders as single events and start to picture them. Imagine the man sitting in his car when someone walks up and calmly shoots him dead, or the woman gunned down on a street corner, or the man who kills his friend in a garage after an argument. Imagine sitting in your living room and seeing two people lying in a pool of blood across the street.
These events can be real if we cast ourselves outward into the experiences. But who wants to do that? There is a risk of being traumatized. And so the experiences remain anonymous to a certain degree, abstractions. And words like "senseless" and "meaningless" -- when they are used to describe the violence -- become, themselves, both senseless and meaningless as well.
In Oakland, there are people who are standing up to violence and taking steps to combat it. These are people who live in the most dangerous neighborhoods, who take on enormous risks to raise their families and secure their property against the constant onslaught of drug dealers, criminals and gangsters. For these people, the violence is real, but their understanding of it, and response to it, has real meaning and integrity, just as Ramos's experience in the theater now does.
And yet large scale traumatic events like the Aurora massacre always seem to evoke the same response in this country. How could this have happened? What is wrong with our culture? Are our laws, policies and mores corrupted? And while those may be legitimate questions, they also allow us as a society to continue to cast violence as something so foreign it almost cannot be understood. And this is a mistake, I think. The fact is that the "reality" Ramos saw in the theater is playing out every day, day after day, in minor tones, on streets and corners across America. Look at that. Imagine that. Let it sink in. And then let's talk about violence.
Contact Scott Johnson at 510-208-6429 or firstname.lastname@example.org.