Targets on Our Backs: From Charleston to Orlando

This time last year I slowly stepped out of my home, numb from shock.

My city, to all appearances, looked exactly the same — the sun had still risen, buildings still stood, and most people went about their day as though nary a thing wrong had occurred. It was this deceptive order and functionality of the seemingly normal environment that I’d stepped into that made it all the more disquieting — where others were wholly unaffected by the news that had just broken, I was left to navigate around their smiling interactions, frightened, as though a target had been placed on my back that I and those others who knew what had happened were hyper-aware of.

I’d ventured outside on the morning after June 17th of 2015, when nine people had been mercilessly gunned down by a white supremacist during their evening prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. It was a terroristic act that was called anything but in the media for the weeks of coverage to come; one that occurred shortly before a rash of Black churches burned to the ground, acts that also went largely ignored by those same media. These acts of violence called forth visceral memories of a United States that I’d never known in person, but knew bubbled just underneath the peeling veneer of polite society; I was aware of the ever-increasing number of places that I, as a black person, was unwanted and would be unsafe. Even with this knowledge gleaned from the oral histories passed down from my elders, and from my own knowledge gained from painful first-hand experiences, I was still numb from shock.

The type of fear that targeted terroristic acts inspires is very pointed, in that way. Hate sharpens its focus on one’s psyche beyond the abstract dread of being caught up in the random gunfire of a mass shooter, and pinpoints one’s specific marginalized community, that sacred place where one calls home in a world that detests one’s existence. It makes a person feel very pointedly less safe than the average person living in the US; on top of being an already oppressed other, they now must contend with a higher profile of violence and scrutiny that leaves them more exposed. The communities they were once able to run to for solace now feel stripped of their sanctuary.

I had naively hoped that this horrific event would be the last time that I would ever feel so vulnerable, afraid, hated and ignored by society at large, the media that selectively covered the shooting and politicians who tiptoed around the key issues that led to it. I had hoped, perhaps, that this textbook example of the United States’ bloody legacy of racism would call policy makers into action, to prevent the same thing from happening again. Despite these hopes, and the grassroots activism that called attention to the intrinsic role that racism played in this shooting, Capitol Hill and the structurally racist US culture at large remained unmoved beyond symbolic, but ultimately empty, sympathetic platitudes.

Now, a year later, we revisit not only this avoidable tragedy and the sickening nonchalance with which it was met by those who could directly affect institutional change, but a new one that occurred five days before this solemn anniversary: the shooting that left 49 dead and more than 50 wounded during “Latin Night” at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Another shooting, also avoidable, also met with calls for thoughts and prayers from otherwise complicit lawmaking bodies, and also painfully at the intersection of bigoted hatred and easy access to firearms that the US so continually finds itself. Another shooting that left me and others in the LGBTQ+ community numb, aware of the targets on our backs and afraid to run to our community for support.

At what point will we say enough to the bigotry that leads to these slaughters? When will the US admit that the racist, homophobic and transphobic fires so continuously and tenderly stoked by our media and lawmaking bodies cause this type of violence to proliferate? When will the dominant conversations and filibusters about gun control acknowledge the heavy hand that bigotry plays in many of these shootings, and that an assault weapons ban alone will not prevent future massacres? When will we stop allowing the media to shift the blame for these shootings onto our Muslim siblings, another marginalized group that also regularly sees its community besieged by bigoted violence? When will the media admit that the white supremacist mindset carried by the man who shot nine people dead in Charleston is something that the media itself nurtures with its dog-whistle rhetoric, and not an example of a tiny and violent fringe? And when will allies hold the media and legislature accountable for only feigning to care about our deaths when they’re high profile and en masse, while they’re silent and unmoved while we’re killed one by one, at the hands of a racist and legislatively unchecked police force and murderous bigots alike?

I’ve sadly given up on the hope of having these questions answered within my lifetime, but we owe it to our children, to the future of this country, to address them. We owe it to the communities so constantly under physical attack to ensure that they, and their children, no longer leave their homes numb with shock, and no longer have targets on their backs.

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