Blog Gun Violence Initiative Violence & Abuse

Bite your tongue. (I’d rather be offended than shot.)

Written by Bob Hansman, associate professor emeritus in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts

I am standing here at the door of my studio in the Clinton-Peabody housing projects (“the Peabodies”), looking across St. Ange Street to the playground.

J’Nylah Douglas’ grandma used to live right there, across the way, her front door facing the playground, just a couple car lengths from my studio. In 2011 J’Nylah was visiting her grandma and was outside playing with water balloons with some of the other kids when two grown men, one of them from up north trying to collect on a fifty-dollar drug debt, started shooting at each other, right through the playground where the children were playing with water balloons. J’Nylah was shot in the head as the children screamed and ran. She died about a week later. I went to her funeral. Her parents called her “our little princess.” As I recall, she had a little tiara on in her casket. She was seven years old.

As I look to my left, I see the low seating wall where, in 2010, Darnell was shot. He wasn’t the intended “target.” He was sitting next to some guys who had been elsewhere earlier in the day, shooting off their mouths, stirring up trouble. When the inevitable retaliatory drive-by happened later that day, they were expecting it, but no one else was; they hadn’t told anyone else what they’d done. They scattered, and Darnell was hit. Darnell used to come by the studio and play with the kids.

I remember hearing, afterward, that one of the shooters’ girlfriends lived in the Peabodies. The boyfriend called her after the murder and said, sort of casually, “I didn’t know him. Who was that guy we killed?”

Behind me, around the other side of the building, on 14th Street, is the stretch of sidewalk where, in 2011, a young man named Anthony Eanes was shot and killed. I didn’t know Anthony, but a lot of the kids did.

As I look down the lane, a little past the wall where Darnell was shot, I can almost see the apartment where Yvette Gray lived. A middle-aged woman, a helpful resident, she was shot—“collateral damage”—while she was out on her front porch.

A few blocks south of there is where, just last year, Angelica was killed. When I mentioned her during the Mr. Wash U event last year, a couple of the little girls from City Faces, whom we’d brought to the show, teared up and held onto Jovan. Angelica, whatever else she may have been doing, was their Auntie.

Last year one of our little girls showed up here at the studio with bandages on her leg—where she had been shot in a drive-by.

Several years ago, in retaliation for—again—some fools shooting off their mouths, “representing the hood”—some other fools drove through Peabody intent on shooting anyone—anyone—they could. It didn’t matter if it was the fools who had shot off their mouths, or even someone related to them, or friends with them. Anybody from the Peabodies would do. They came through while people were out barbecuing, and kids were playing and lining up at the ice cream truck. They shot three little kids—all of whom, thankfully, survived, physically.

I have a binder of the obituaries of the funerals I have gone to. There is hardly anyone in there over 25 years of age.

For some years I kept my funeral suit in the studio.

This—and much more—happened in just my few small blocks, in an area that, statistically, is not one of the highest crime areas.

Having said all that, I really wonder what is left to talk about.

But talk we do.

We accuse, we blame, we posture, we sort ourselves by ideology, we go off if anyone says something we take to be ideologically wrong, and we damn the facts and nuance if they don’t fit… and in the process wind up allowing to continue the very things we say we are working to prevent. Some of us are so intent on being ideologically insistent, or consistent, that we would—let’s face it, folks—rather let people die than entertain a solution or viewpoint that we find ideologically offensive: Let them die, if the alternative is to go along with someone who said or did something we take offense to.

If I sound angry, I am. It really does seem that, in some circles where people ought to know better, maintaining philosophical decorum (not “blaming the victim” on one side, not “blaming the system” on the other) is even more important than our professed goal of saving lives: We will try to save lives, yes, but only if we can do it our way, within our (not your) ideological and philosophical guidelines.

I’m burying my children while we have this “conversation.”

Hansman (right) and his son, Jovan.
Hansman (right) and his son, Jovan.

Having said that, what we clearly need are better conversations. Complexity, contradiction, paradox, and nuance should all be part of the conversation. We must quit assuming that, because someone uses a phrase or floats an idea that we don’t agree with, they necessarily believe the opposite of what we believe. We must give other people room for complexity—and exhibit it ourselves. We must quit exaggerating what people say and then attacking that. We must quit pretending that people espouse some horrible viewpoint when we know they do not really espouse it; we’re just posturing at that point. It breaks my heart when I see otherwise good people posturing like that. I expect it from some people, but not from others. I want to ask them, when they do that, “What exactly is your point? What, really, is your goal in saying that?”

You can talk about personal choice without being blind to structure; you can talk about structure without absolving people of any responsibility.

Everyone knows you can find some evidence that seems to support this conclusion, some that supports that. You can pick at people’s words. But going looking for any evidence you can find just so you can try to “block” the “other” side seems, again, a rather childish way to spend one’s time—when other children are dying.

I often wonder what would happen if my WashU students were dying out at the rate of my other kids….

The truth is that my kids live in a culture where, if they simply lower their hand, they are likely to hit a gun. They didn’t choose that; they are just growing up around it as their norm. Their brains aren’t even formed yet. But they’re being formed…

Anybody with a brain knows that the problem is structural. My kids downtown are handed a whole different world than the one I was handed. It has nothing to do with better / informed / adult choices. It has nothing to do with believing or not believing in bootstraps…

And anybody with a brain knows that the problem is personal. My kids downtown live in a whole different world than the one I live in. You can change all the policies you want, and provide this and that, but until there are personal decisions made, at home…

So Jovan is back down in the projects, where he grew up, but now supported by an amazing team of university students, working on the parts he and they can, that is within their reach… the personal decisions, the daily life, the neighborhood values. I don’t know of any other housing project, anywhere, that is as blended with university students as Clinton-Peabody is. But Jovan is being undermined in the projects, as well, by some of the very people he grew up with, whom we had hoped would work with us—for the community, not against it. We had hoped their goal would be, like ours, to save the children’s lives, not jeopardize them for a little local fame on YouTube, or a little bit of money to post hanging out of their mouths on Facebook.

Astonishingly—and here is a challenge—they often don’t even think they are doing anything “wrong,” “negative,” “destructive”—choose your word. The words fall out of their mouths—“keeping it real” chief among them—and are followed by the deadliest stereotypes and behaviors one could imagine, guns and drugs looming large among them. The guns. Always, the guns. Waving them around at the clubs, for the cameras. People have taken notice…

Now might be as good a time as any to point out, though, that the guns I am seeing, and the drug dealing, are often unrelated; and the situation, in any event, is nothing like it was down here 20 years ago, when the Bloods and Crips accounted for most of the gangs and drugs and violence. New heroin notwithstanding, it’s harder to make a living selling drugs out of the projects these days. But the guns are everywhere, and are used for anything. Representing your hood at school or in a club, breaking up with someone, or just saying something stupid are among the main reasons people are shot down here these days.

In a perverse way, a lot of us almost long for the old days of the big, hierarchical—and more predictable—gangs. At least you knew then who might get shot, and why. The little wannabe gangs are in many ways more frightening than the big, older gangs. It seems like every generation accepts as the norm the level of violence they grew up in, and then ups the ante. So now, if you want to shoot somebody, and there are people between you and them, you just spray the whole group. Many of the older gang members are appalled.

A couple days ago I saw a car pull up behind a truck at a stoplight. The passenger jumped out of the car, stole something from the back of the truck, and the car began to spin around to get away. The truck driver jumped out, grabbed ahold of the car’s open door, and the car driver roared off, dragging the guy a distance before he let loose and fell off and nearly got run over. A bystander, who also saw it, immediately observed to me that it must have been some guys down on their luck and trying to make ends meet. Well, that may well be, but they were also thieves. The guy who spoke to me couldn’t even bring himself to say that part.

It is weird to find myself on this side of the “argument,” having made the opposite point for years, as well.

We need to be able to talk about this. We need to be able to talk about things like this, and gun violence, in any way necessary, tell any story that is true, cite any fact or statistic that is true, no matter how uncomfortable or offensive. One “side” does not have all the answers. You can talk about personal choice without being blind to structure; you can talk about structure without absolving people of any responsibility.

Spike Lee gets this; he’s not blind to structure, but he can also call out “self-inflicted genocide” when he sees it. James Clark, here in town, gets it; he is not blind to structure, but he speaks about what happens in the home as being something policy cannot reach.

Likewise, there are people who are not blind to the personal part, but also see that people make their choices in a structure that metes out different choices to different people.

When people ask, Well, which is it? the answer is obvious: It’s both. It’s all of the above. It’s always every scale, every discipline, every idea. We need to start at both ends, everywhere. We need to get these people to the conversation.

At least if our goal is to save lives, and not just stick to our manifestos.

And if your goal isn’t to save lives, by any means necessary, but simply to pick at words and try to undercut the “other” side, then please shut up and sit down.

While we bite our tongues—and each other’s tongues—my kids are getting shot.

While we argue and equivocate, my kids are dying.