How my grandma's words tell the truth about America and gun violence.
If I close my eyes, I can still hear it.
Nat King Cole plays quietly from the living room, the faint smell of cigarettes wafting in with perfume from the balcony where my grandma had taken a quick smoke break, far away from me and my baby sister.
She is now in the kitchen, draped in her blue silk robe, snapping her fingers, nodding her head, and turning steaks on the stove. She cracked open an ice cold Pepsi and began our secret ritual of her talking to me about life like I was her oldest, closest girlfriend and not her 12-year-old granddaughter.
On this particular day, she turned to me and said "People, do what they want, dear heart. Never let them tell you otherwise." Her best life-lesson gems came while she was in the kitchen, sometimes with no context at all and always with the nickname "dear heart."
I listened, wide-eyed as she stopped, this time pointing her finger, and said, "People will tell you they can't. They will make excuses, they will give you reasons, but the truth is that if they want to change something bad enough they will do it. People do what they want."
"People, do what they want, dear heart. Never let them tell you otherwise." — Mary Elizabeth Flack
On Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015, 27-year-old artist Antonio Ramos was painting a mural on a highway underpass in Oakland, California, as part of a public art project aimed at fighting violence in the community. Ramos was to be joined later that day by schoolchildren as part of the nonprofit project — but that never happened.
He was shot multiple times in a random altercation in that underpass by a shooter who is still at large.
Antonio Ramos was shot and killed while painting for peace.
Two days later, on Oct. 1, pandemonium erupted as shots rang out on the campus of Oregon's Umpqua Community College. Students huddled in classrooms of the North Umpqua River Valley school, called 911 and their loved ones and feared for their lives as a gunman shot 10 students dead and left 20 more injured.
It was the 294th mass shooting this year.
In Oakland, Oregon, and communities all across the country, the death toll from gun violence rises day by day. In spite of our nonprofits, our institutions of learning and our values, the epidemic rages on. And whether the death of one or the death of many, we shake our heads at the insanity of it all.
How can this happen, we ask? We hold up our hands, helpless and hamstrung. We rant on Facebook and write columns like this one and stand amazed at how we could have let things get this bad. Why can't we stop it?
"This a political choice we make to allow this to happen every few months in America. We are collectively answerable to those families, who lose their loved ones, because of our inaction." — President Obama
For seven years, I had a thriving career in Washington politics, but secretly, I never really fit in. I understood the inner workings of Capitol Hill and the painful bureaucracy of Congress yet never quite adopted the cynicism and resignation of many of my colleagues. I never believed that a government that orchestrated putting a man on the moon — that masterminded the subjugation of an entire people and then somehow remained standing when those same people rose up and abolished the system that sustained its economy — couldn't figure out how to get a simple bill passed.
I believed that if those in power cared enough about people and their lives, they'd figure out a way to make whatever needed to work work. I guess I took my grandma's words to heart.
She didn't think that much else was stronger than the human will. And history confirms her hunch. When we — as a nation or as people — want to change something badly enough, we make it happen. It might take a while, the progress might be painfully slow, it might cost blood, sweat, and tears, but progress will be made.
Now, far away from my old life in politics, I find myself with the same thoughts as we meet, yet again, at the national altar of grief and outrage to watch President Obama's address, pray for the victims and cry, "We must stop this!" before turning around and doing nothing. We blame politics and money for our inaction.
America, as a nation of power, pride and privilege does what it wants. And today, as individuals, so must we.
If my grandma were here today, she would say she doesn't buy it. America, as a nation of power, pride and privilege does what it wants. It protects who it wants, educates who it wants, operates how it wants. It begins what it wants (see War on Drugs), and it ends what it wants (see polio). And when America the state doesn't, America the people rise up time and time again.
We've been taught that grit and determination are "the American spirit" but it is also, to some extent, the human spirit. We are driven to make choices, prioritize, fight for what we believe is necessary, determine what matters most, and then act — or not act — as a result.
So what does that logic mean for us today in the face of staggering amounts of gun violence?
It means that our legacy as it stands, shows that we do not care enough about human life to stand up and do what most experts agree it takes to protect it. And those of us who do care enough must start acting like it.
A Facebook status or tweet when 10 whole, precious lives are snatched at once will not do. We must also make the same impassioned cries for reform every time an Antonio Ramos is killed just as senselessly.
We must put our money where our mouth is and invest in organizations that lobby for bold legislation, violence prevention programs, and mental health support.
We must ask politicians the hard questions at every turn and say to them, "Do not talk to me today about political realities. Do not tell me about limitations and restrictions. Talk to me about possibility and how we can help you realize it."
And we must each personally make a commitment to work to end gun violence. Because when enough of us do, with enough effort and sacrifice, we will succeed. Why am I so sure?
Because the same power of human will that indicts us today for allowing our lives and the lives of our children to be put at risk in this way is the same power that points towards endless possibility.
Somehow, someway, this country will do what it really wants. And so, dear hearts, in the aftermath of our grief and frustration, will we.