“Do Something Instead of Sending Prayers”

When I was a student in the 80s we debated gun control– the gun homicide rate in the United States had grown rapidly since the 1960s, and was 6.6-7 per 100,000. The 80s were a crime-heavy time in this nation– politicians often ran for office by promising to be tough on crime. We used the issue of gun control to learn the art of debate, arguing the controversial sides of handgun ownership, along with others issues such as abortion rights, euthanasia, and pesticide use in agriculture– we were taught to research, create arguments for both sides, and be able to deliver regardless of one’s own personal viewpoint. While there were many points to argue about gun ownership, the guns we argued about were handguns and rifles, and the idea of a mass shooting as we have started to see unfold in our nation did not hover over our minds, classrooms, or teachers as a ‘what if’.

I look out into my seventh grade classroom today, and  I am overwhelmed when I think about all that my students need to filter on a daily basis. I started teaching before smart phones and 9/11, and I have seen anxiety levels steadily rise in my students every year since. The accelerated growth of mass shootings since Sandy Hook, and the inundation of media imagery has placed my students in a world where they ask each other when will such a shooting occur in our school, instead of if.  And as a teacher, I am now instructed to stand by the door should I need to act against an active shooter, as if my pencil cans or milk crate file cabinet is any match for an AR-15. The policeman tells us it is really a last resort, and shakes his head while he speaks as if saying, “Yeah, good luck with that.” So we practice crouching in the dark and pretending we are not really there, which feels as futile as when we see images of the drills for the drop of a nuclear bomb, children tucked under tiny desks and holding their heads, waiting.

There are so many debatable questions:

How do we approach a topic that already creates heightened anxiety with or without speaking it? How can a teacher or parent discuss the issue while at the same time promote a sense of well-being? Should we discuss mass shootings at all, or plan and practice for the improbable, or should we focus instead on building the deep connections needed to help prevent such tragedies in the first place? Or is there a shade of gray, somewhere in between?  And, since crime in the United States has actually decreased over the last quarter of a century, why do we feel things are so dangerous and uncertain?

One way to explore the issue in the United States is to examine gun violence and ownership as compared to other nations. Here are 17 charts that explore America’s unique problem in relationship to other nations.  “America is an exceptional country when it comes to guns. It’s one of the few countries in which the right to bear arms is constitutionally protected. But America’s relationship with guns is unique in another crucial way: Among developed nations, the US is far and away the most violent — in large part due to the easy access many Americans have to firearms.” What about the constitutional right to bear arms in other nations? Do other nations allow gun ownership protected by law? What does the 2nd amendment really mean, anyway? 

According to a study by the Pew Research the rate of US gun violence had actually fallen 49% from 1993 to 2013.  Yet since Sandy Hook, there have been 1,500 mass shootings. (Defined by the Gun Violence Archive as all shootings in which four or more people were shot but not necessarily killed, excluding the shooter.)

“So many people die annually from gunfire in the US that the death toll between 1968 and 2011 eclipses all wars ever fought by the country. According to research by Politifact, there were about 1.4 million firearm deaths in that period, compared with 1.2 million US deaths in every conflict from the War of Independence to Iraq.” According to the Gun Violence Archive, America’s firearm deaths total more than 32,000 each year.

And it is a hard fact that the more guns there are in an area, the more gun deaths will result. Not only do guns kill people, but so do people with guns. “States with higher gun ownership rates have higher gun murder rates—as much as 114 percent higher than states with lower gun ownership rates.” Fewer guns in a state or more legislation, lead to fewer gun homicides.  Mother Jones magazine’s 10 Pro-Gun Myths, Shot Down, uses infographics and data to fact-check and explore the pro-gun myths that the NRA uses to argue their stance.

Perhaps the latest mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida will be the tipping point this nation needs to make positive change. Many students are using their experiences and survival as a platform to promote social change and call for tougher gun laws.  These brave youth are calling for politicians to take a stand, planning walkouts, and asking our government and citizens to do something instead of sending prayers. It is time we all listen.

Social Activism in the Olympic Games

In the 9th century BCE, the “Ekecheiria”, or the Olympic truce, was a time period when the  ancient Greeks created a temporary peace; they put down their weapons and allowed athletes, families and spectators to have safe travel to and from the site of the Olympic games. The Olympics were to be a time to celebrate sport, and a time to have peace between warring city-states.

Over two thousand years later, some Olympic spectators believe that there is no room for politics at the games– that the athletes should show allegiance only to their sport, and leave their political and personal opinions our of the arena. The IOC themselves in rule number 50, state that “No form of advertising or other publicity shall be allowed in and above the stadia, venues and other competition areas which are considered as part of the Olympic sites. Commercial installations and advertising signs shall not be allowed in the stadia, venues or other sports grounds.” This rule is an attempt “to prevent the Games from being used as a platform for protests, demonstrations or the promotion of political, religious or racial propaganda.”

Yet throughout history, the Olympics have set an international platform for political activism.   18 Times Politics Trumped Sport in the Olympic Games History includes a timeline of politics in the Olympic arena, and   A Not So Brief History of Politics and the Olympics explores a history of social issues such  gender, race, and LGBTQ, as well as the issues surrounding the geography of the games themselves, and boycotts.

In the article 7 Of the Most Memorable Olympic Protests in History we see a wide range of political activity, ranging from 1906, when Peter O’Connor, an Irish long jumper, wanted only to wave an independent Irish flag, to Jewish athletes boycotting Hitler’s 1936 games, to the Cold War Boycotts in 1980 when the US persuaded more than 60 countries to boycott the games.

In her recent article, Athletes Don’t Have to Win Gold To Make a Statement, Amy Bass, author and history Professor, explores contemporary protests in sports such as the “Take a Knee” movement in the NFL, openly gay US skier Gus Kenworthy critiquing Pence, Lindsay Vonn’s politically charged words against Trump, and concludes that, “Rather than worry about who may or may not take a proverbial knee with a medal around their neck, maybe we need to understand that protest is the best of us and US — taking a stand, expressing an opinion and bringing home the gold.”

The history of protest and activism in sports allows for many engaging questions with youth:

What is the role of sports in a society?

Should athletes be involved in protest, or should they only perform in their sport?

Are athletes change makers in society?

Should athletes be sensitive to the views of their paying fans?

How does the nationalism of the Olympics both divide and connect people?