Since I’m new to town I had yet – until Saturday night – to experience the block parties that are a part of our township’s culture. I thought we were simply showing up for a slice of pizza and to meet a couple of neighbors. But the block parties, it turns out, are quite the thing around here: the mayor stopped by, candidates for city council were meeting and greeting, and a firetruck even showed up (for fun, not flames). And folks from all over the block, longstanding residents and newcomers like me, all got together simply because around here that is what one does.
And now, suddenly, I feel that much more at home on my street, and a little less like a foreigner from a strange land. I didn’t walk away with ten new best friends, but perhaps I’d gained something just as valuable: I’d had a chance to simply make conversation with the anonymous dog-walkers, morning commuters and walk-to-schoolers who I’d seen for months but had never met. The evening was beautiful and the roads were blocked off, so I found myself I was sitting in lawn chairs in the middle of the street with former strangers who I could now get to know better.
This being a Saturday night I had to break away early to finish up my preparation for Sunday morning church. It was then that I learned of the mass shooting in El Paso. I went to bed saddened, and then, as so many of us did, woke the next morning to find out that another gunman had attacked in Dayton, here in Ohio.
As the day went on and the shock wore off, I thought back to the day before when we sat in the evening sun, in the middle of the street, with neighbors we’d only just met. I thought of the privilege it was to sit, without fear, in a public space where friends could simply be at ease with one another.
It is precisely those public spaces – spaces where we gather, learn, worship, dance, shop and work that has become the all-too-frequent target of men with very powerful guns. These are spaces where the building blocks of human community are put into play: the simple, informal “small change” interactions that make relationships – and normal life in general – possible.
Mass shootings are degrading this sense of public life, writes Alex Yablon. In as little as a minute, the murderers in El Paso and Dayton
tore new holes in the sense of safety and community that makes public life possible. Nothing endangers American public space in 2019 as much as mass shootings, says Yale sociologist Vida Bajc, who studies public space and security. In each of the four shootings, fundamental modes of our shared existence—eating, socializing, shopping, partying—gave way to blood, death, panic, and necessitated the response of a militarized police force.
We had none of this on my block, thank God: we simply had a fire truck that the kids and at least one dad (that would be me) could climb on.
Assault rifles are devastating weapons, but the mass shootings themselves are a kind of information warfare, frightening us away from the very spaces where might actually experience some healing around the issues that divide us.
But we need those spaces. We need churches and neighborhood blocks and parks and concerts and schools, where we can safely be together, grow together and even disagree with one another. We need places to sit and take a breath, away from the roller-coaster echo chambers of social and selective media, and simply be with people who live in different houses and live entirely different lives than us. We need to not only feel safe coming to church, but also safe being in church with the very people who, because they see they world differently than we do, are vital in our search for wholeness.
These spaces, spaces where we can sit safely with new neighbors, or worship in places that can transcend the divisions that otherwise define us, are part of what we lose in an epidemic of violence. Violence, of course, can only tear down and destroy. These spaces are worth saving because without them, we cannot grow.