One evening in the spring of 1993 I took a bus across San Francisco, leaving the troubled, largely impoverished neighborhood of the Western Addition, populated mostly by the descendents of African slaves, in which I lived (representing, I suppose, the artistic hippie beginnings of the gentrification process which has since pushed most of San Francisco's Black population across the bay). My closest friend at the time was someone I met because we were housemates in a big apartment. He was a tall man with a long, thick red mane and beaming eyes named Eric Mark. (A brilliant engineer with a promising career as such who quit his job and became a cab driver in the interest of experiencing life more fully.) Eric and I, along with one friend and two of his acquaintances, were headed to the Mission District, another troubled, impoverished neighborhood, this one populated mostly by the refugees from the wars in Guatemala and El Salvador, generally known as “immigrants.”
Had we been just a clueless bunch of outsiders maybe we would have been fine, but two members of our party were of Mexican origin, and there was a gang war going on. It was the wee hours of the morning on May 1st and several of us were decorating a nearby abandoned building with political slogans appropriate for International Workers Day, while Eric and Alfredo were keeping watch, ostensibly for cops, on the sidewalk three stories below. A group of kids with a gun pulled up in a car and demanded the contents of Eric and Alfredo's pockets, which were promptly delivered. One young man then pointed his gun at Alfredo, who looked suspiciously Latin but was apparently causing offense because he was dressed entirely in black, which was not either one of the gang colors. Eric stepped in front of the gun, asked the kids what more they wanted now that they had taken their money, and the kid pulled the trigger.
A madman with a gun killed Eric. He didn't use an assault rifle, just a shotgun, and it didn't even make the news. The police investigation seemed to last a few hours at most, with no one identified, arrested, tried, or any of that. And although it was a somewhat unusual case in that Eric was white, he was otherwise just another one of many thousands of mostly young men killed that year, and every year since – one of many, many times more innocent people killed this way by guns, and as shocking and life-shattering for his friends and family when he was shot as it has been for those close to the stolen lives of Newtown, Aurora, or Blacksburg. The motivation for the crime? Gang initiation, perhaps. The motivation for the gang? Poverty, racism, drug prohibition – what you could call the madness of our society. A madman with a gun killed Eric, but what was it that drove him mad? Was this a “senseless murder”? “Senseless” meaning we can't make sense of it, it's so crazy it can't be understood?
Now there's been a massacre horrific enough to sustain the attention of the media as well as the general population for more than a few days, and there's a lot of talk about banning assault weapons, what to do about gun violence in the US, and how to improve mental health services for the sociopathic killers in our midst.
Banning assault weapons is a very good idea, no doubt, and I don't want to set up a straw man in order to knock it down, but a simplified version of the argument I'm hearing from a lot of mainstream as well as progressive media is if we had the gun laws of “other developed countries” we'd then have a similar homicide rate to those countries. While I'm sure that a lot fewer people would die on the streets and classrooms of the US if we could effectively ban assault weapons, what seems equally obvious is once such a ban went into effect we would still have a far higher homicide rate than “other developed countries,” because we are not one of those “other developed countries,” we are a banana republic.
I have spent several months of almost every year since the late 90's playing music in those other developed countries, mostly in northwestern Europe, and I can tell you from abundant first-hand observation that it is not just our gun laws that differentiate us from “other developed countries.” I hear the talking heads making noises about expanding mental health services. Sounds like a nice idea, if you're into rearranging deck chairs on sinking ships. The elephant in the living room is we don't live in that kind of country. This isn't a country where people get “services.” This is a country where you work or die, where you are denied essential surgery for not having insurance, where even if your insurance covers mental health care, that means three appointments with a psychiatrist and a prescription for Prozac. Not all deranged American mass murderers are from privileged suburban communities with parents who can easily afford them “mental health services.”
This is America, this is a banana republic, this is a country with two oscillating ruling parties who both agree we should spend half our tax dollars on the military while governing over a country which has entire cities where the average lifespan is significantly lower than in many impoverished African countries. This is a country with four million people living on the street. You gonna give them mental health services? Before or after you find them a place to live and enough food to eat?
But it's a nice fantasy. We need lots of mental health services. And after we ban assault weapons it would be nice if our society didn't systematically breed alienated young men who learn to resent the more privileged and more attractive people they seem to be surrounded by, who ultimately dehumanize the socially more successful girls and women who are usually their targets when they snap and bring assault rifles and bombs to their schools. But once these people have been produced by our pathetic, jock-worshipping suburban school systems and our culture of commercialism and greed which constantly tells these unstable young men that they're not pretty enough, not sociable enough, or rich enough to ever get anywhere in life, then there's a lot more than some mental health services that they will need.
I know what it's like in countries where there is no underclass to speak of, where the social atmosphere in the public schools is much more reminiscent of a Waldorf school than a typical American public school, where people can talk sensibly about “improving mental health services” for an entire society. In the social democracies of Europe where most government housing is indistinguishable from privately-owned buildings, where almost all the jobs pay a decent wage and include at least several weeks of paid vacation every year, where any citizen can get a college education for free, where you can get across town or across the country more cheaply and faster in a train than in a car, people talk about “improving mental health services.” It seems half the people I meet in places like that work in mental health services, it's like my own private joke, one that only visitors from a banana republic can understand. You ask a Scandinavian what they do for a living, and you'll see – a shocking amount of the time their answer will have something to do with caring for people. If they're older than their early twenties, they'll usually be highly trained experts with college degrees specializing in something having to do with education, taking care of the elderly, or helping drug addicts and people with mental problems. The conversation usually goes something like this:
Me: What do you do for a living?
Scandinavian: I'm a pedagog.
Me: Oh, I see. Do you specialize in children, the elderly, or drug addicts?
At which point the Scandinavian will respond with one of those three options, generally.
But the only reason they can have a society like that in those “other developed countries” is because they have a certain fundamental thing that we lack: democracy. For all the hype to the contrary, we live in the least democratic “developed country” around. You need go no further than the following for the evidence: while polls have shown consistently for decades that most Americans would rather spend their tax dollars on things like education, health care and housing, we instead spend half of our taxes on the military, sending generations of young men all over the world in order to learn how to be sociopathic killers. We spend more on taxes than the average Japanese. Whereas the Japanese get space-age mass transit and universal healthcare, we get Amtrak, prisons and an abundance of fighter jets and nuclear bombs to defend us from an enemy that has never really existed, that has always been nothing more than an excuse for a nakedly imperial, extremely violent foreign policy.
If any political party in Europe even talked about changing the system there so half of the taxes went to the military, they would be voted out of office in the next election. But they have multi-party democracies with political groupings that have radically differing opinions – we don't. It is our lack of democracy, the fact that we are a banana republic ruled by a consortium of energy companies and banks, that prevents us from “improving mental health services.” “Improving mental health services” in America is like putting a new coat of paint on the Supermax penitentiary. It's a sick joke. We are not one of those “other developed countries” – we are a country with a huge portion of the population that lives with levels of violence that have far more in common with Bogota than Berlin, and for the same sorts of reasons. Inequality, poverty, lack of opportunity.
We can take away the assault rifles, and I hope we do, but until we develop a real democracy, stop spending all our money on bombs, and eliminate poverty – all of which can and has been done by many of those “other developed countries” – the innocent children and adults like Eric Mark and so many others will continue to be killed by “madmen” in “senseless acts of violence.” And while Anders Breivik is evidence that even in a democratic, egalitarian society where assault weapons are not available over the counter, a dedicated fascist can still manage to import some guns from the USA and kill lots of innocent people if he really wants to, it is only once we have a democratic, egalitarian society ourselves that we will be able to stop the majority of the violence so rife on the streets of America: the violence caused by American poverty and American racism.
David Rovics is a singer/songwriter who grew up in suburban Connecticut, currently based in Portland, Oregon. Songs and poems he's written relevant to gun violence and modern-day massacres include “Song for Eric,” “All the GhostsThat Walk This Earth,” “I'm Taking Someone With Me When I Go,” “Aurora Massacre,” and “Breivik.” All of these songs can be found at www.davidrovics.com for free download.