No More Silence: We SHALL Overcome
This past weekend, I attended two musical events within twelve hours. Late Saturday night, Posie and I were at the BSP Lounge in Kingston for Jonathan Toubin’s Soul-Clap party. The event, including opening set by the band Mighty Fine, was a total blast, and I was thrilled to be invited as a judge for the Dance-Off because it was the only way of securing my attendance at one in the morning. (Also, I was able to help ensure that the best dancer won.) After way too little sleep, Posie, myself and our nine-year old Noel then headed down to the Towne Crier in Beacon for a ‘No More Silence’ lunch-time concert hosted by the NY Upstate Chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense In America. It featured a number of modestly known musicians from the world of folk music along with a fair share of speakers on the subject of gun violence and how to combat it, the whole thing headlined by the venerable Peter Yarrow though very much a tribute to the late, great Pete Seeger, a Beacon native who had passed away, at the grand old age of 94, a few days earlier.
Kingston and Beacon are both small cities along the Hudson River: each has suffered its share of urban decay over the last few decades, as manufacturing and industry moved away and retailers closed down as a result. Focusing on Kingston, my local urban hub, there’s no doubt that while it has always been home to a vibrant community from across all walks of life, the last few decades brought a major crime problem, with documented evidence that the Bloods from New York City had moved up the Hudson River to capitalize on the urban blight and deal hard drugs. With drug gangs comes violence and intimidation, and Kingston endured its share of gun murders, notably the 2009 mid-town assassination of a witness in an upcoming attempted murder trial.
Fortunately, there is now a sense that this particular high-profile gun murder was a parting shot in the tale of a storied city’s rise and fall. Aggressive policing (and there have accusations of over-aggression) appears to have reduced the drugs gangs’ influence, and as with other major cities across America, a commitment to getting guns off the street has reduced violent crime considerably. And now Kingston is enjoying a resurgence. Words can’t successfully communicate what a thrill it was to attend a proper soul party last Saturday night, propelled exclusively by 7” vinyl, with a crowd integrated in colors and ages, all happy to mingle peacefully inside and out. Still, the shadow of the area’s past was evident in a conversation I had with a woman round my own middle-age; living now in NYC, she’d been raised in Kingston and recalled being attacked in the past on this very street. That genuine fear of being held up at gunpoint, or being caught in gang-war crossfire – as happened to too many people I knew when we first lived in Brooklyn, in 1996 – has greatly dissipated up and down New York State. There are many factors at work, but it doesn’t harm to have some of the strictest gun laws in the country – and a willingness, from the Governor down to the various Mayors, to enforce them. Former New York City Mayor Bloomberg may be the enemy of the gun huggers for his financing of the movement Mayors Against Illegal Guns (although aren’t those 2nd Amendment absolutists all about upholding the laws of the land?) but New York City can now claim to be the fourth safest city in the USA. One would like to think there’s a correlation there.
As to be expected, the subject of gun laws took center stage on Sunday afternoon in Beacon, a City whose Main Street is not entirely dis-similar from Kingston’s Broadway: a patchwork of art galleries, nail salons, hipster coffee shops and ageing dime stores, evidence of a smallish urban centre in a similar state of transformation. Oh, and the Towne Crier, the former Pawling club newly ensconced in a large location, a venue whose booking policy (Poppa Chubby, Buckwheat Zydeco etc.) will bring me back there even though it is a 50-mile journey. Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense In America, whose NY Upstate chapter was the promoter and prime beneficiary of Sunday’s event, is the truly grass-roots organization that emerged overnight out of one mother’s reaction to the horrors of the Sandy Hook atrocity, and the focus of Sunday’s fund-raiser was largely on the safety of our children in the wake of that dark day in American history. (There have been at least 11 school shootings in 2014 alone, and even Fox News agrees that new security measure are doing nothing to halt them.) As such, the most powerful speech came from David Wheeler, who lost his son Benjamin to a combination of Adam Lanza’s madnss and America’s lax gun laws. Those who have followed any of the gun laws “conversation” this last year-plus will recognize David and his wife Francine as the most eloquent, compassionate, intelligent and informed of people. Indeed, it was David Wheeler who, speaking last January to the Connecticut legislature’s Bipartisan Task Force on Violence and Public Safety, skillfully and painfully put the 2nd Amendment in its rightful place, when he said:
Thomas Jefferson described our inalienable rights as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the rights with which we are endowed for the protection of which we have instituted Governments. I do not think the composition of that foundational phrase was an accident. I do not think the important words was haphazard and casual. The liberty of any person to own a military style assault weapon and a high-capacity magazine and to keep them in their home is second to the right of my son to his life. His life. To the right to live of all of those children and those teachers. To the right to the lives of your children, of you, of all of us, of all of our lives. It is second.
Wheeler’s testimony that day may well have influenced the Connecticut legislature to pass its own strict gun laws shortly thereafter, and in the absence of action from our truly shameful Republican-controlled Congress, he re-enforced for the audience in Beacon the importance of activism at the State level, citing a positive new bill in front of the New Hampshire legislature and the need for people there to voice their support. “Your intention is all well and good. But your intention must be your attention and you need to turn those intentions into actions…”
After speaking, David Wheeler came and sat with friends at a table right in front of us. Late into the three-hour event, my son Noel got into a particularly cuddly session with me, and of course it was impossible not to think of David and Francine’s tragic loss of a child only one school grade young, not to contemplate all their lost cuddles, those priceless moments of joy that hopefully every parent of a young child experiences, daily. And so, after Peter Yarrow, Tom Chapin and friends closed out the concert with two of Pete Seeger’s most well-known songs, “If I Had a Hammer” and “We Shall Overcome,” the latter for which he had the audience link arms as if this was the Washington Mall in 1963 all over again, I approached David and struck up a conversation. I wanted to thank him for his commitment; his refusal to give up and hide from the abuse that has been heaped on any of the Sandy Hook families who have dared to call for action on gun violence. I have found him to be an inspiration and, noticing that others had left him well alone perhaps for fear of what the hell you say to someone whose 6-year old was gunned down in a public school classroom, I just wanted him to know as much. He in turn, hearing my accent, wanted me to know that in the days after his son was murdered, when he was in his darkest hour, it was the outreach of families from the Dunblane Massacre of 1996 that truly helped him. We left unsaid the fact that the British Government acted immediately to avoid a repeat atrocity.
The No More Silence! concert served as a useful local boost for a movement that lacks the historical lobbying power of the NRA and its ilk, those who are funded by the enormous profits of weapons manufacturers quite content to keep making money out of blood-shed, quite willing to feed the paranoid thinking that the only way to prevent more of it is to pre-emptively purchase as much weaponry as you can afford to hoard and damn the consequences. To the 2nd Amendment absolutists who keep talking about the need to stockpile weapons to fight government tyranny, we were reminded that we live under tyranny right now – the “tyranny of the gun and the dollar.” There were reminders that it took Mothers Against Drunk Driving 14 years to achieve sensible goals that have reduced deaths on the roads by 20,000 a year. (This Op-Ed in the New York Times from 1984, from a professor no less, which makes many of the same arguments as the 2nd Amendment absolutists, serves as a useful reminder of how public attitudes can change.)
Most importantly though, for all the calls for activism and commitment, the lunch-time concert was one of peace and love. Yeah, I know, you might say I’ve been living in Woodstock for too long, but when you’re in the company of people like Peter Yarrow, and in the shadow of Pete Seeger (who had apparently intended to perform at the event right up until the end), you are reminded that for all the anger you might feel over these endless, senseless, gun deaths, for all the intransigence of those who put their interpretation of the 2nd Amendment before the right to Ben Wheeler’s life, for all the intimidation, threats, and vile insults that clog up the comments section of every single online media posting or article on the topic, it is love that will save the day. You can quote Seeger or Yarrow or any of the other old folk singers; by coincidence, I had been playing the James album Seven that morning in an attempt to energize myself after such a late night. It closes with the title track and these words:
Understand the world we’re living in, love can change anything.
I wish I could leave it there, drawing a connection between the peaceful but powerful atmosphere within the Towne Crier on Sunday lunchtime, and the equally powerful atmosphere within the BSP Lounge on Saturday night, in a neighborhood that has come alive now that crime has gone down.
Unfortunately, while at the Y in Kingston on Monday morning, I heard of a shooting that had taken place in the City around dawn. It’s interesting; despite all my proclaimed lack of prejudices, I confess that I instinctively assumed it was some residue of the gang wars. It turned out to be nothing of the sort. An employee at the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, a governmental agency, had shot dead another employee first thing that morning. He used a handgun. Here, in New York State, which now has supposedly the strongest gun laws in the country, he had legal permits for weapons. (It is uncertain as yet whether the gun he used was licensed or not.) He used it to kill 32-year old Aron Thomas, a resident of our School District, the father of a two-year old and a six-week old. Those two children will never know their father in person. That is so horrifically tragic.
Sadly, for all that the mass shootings get the headlines, and for all that it was Sandy Hook that inspired Moms Demand Action and brought us together last Sunday, it is the everyday killings – the work-place homicides, the gang killings, the domestic murders, the errant vigilantism, and the endless suicides by people for whom it’s all too easy to make a split-second decision – that claim most of the 30,000 lives we lose each year to guns. The American rate of gun murders runs 33 times that of England and Australia. To those who might wish to assume that’s merely because Americans have more guns: the overall murder rate is a solid 4.7 times that of England and Australia. We in America are murdering around five times more of our fellow citizens than any other country that considers itself a world leader, and every peer-reviewed study demonstrates that the availability of guns is the leading cause of this discrepancy. From afar, from England or Australia say, I appreciate the USA must look like a madhouse. It feels that way at times, too.
So while the party in Kingston on Saturday night reinforced the goodness in people, especially in a city where guns have been largely removed from the streets, the murder on Monday morning reinforced the potential badness in people when they have access to deadly weaponry. And the coming together on Sunday afternoon reinforced that everyday people are sick and tired of the bloodshed and are want to do something about it. David Wheeler was optimistic when he said, at the Towne Crier, “I have a tremendous amount of hope that my son’s death and the death of those other children and administrators and teachers will not be wasted; they will not have died in vain.” But he also stressed: “We have to think about this as a marathon. It’s going to take incredible energy for a long, long time…” Which makes it fortunate that so many of us these days choose to run marathons. To end on the words that got this country through a previous battle for civil rights: We shall overcome.