#Kzoostrong: A community in the aftermath

A few years ago my family had a Saudi Arabian student living with us. One day he told us that he was afraid to walk around in the United States because, he presumed, any person could be carrying a gun. He legitimately feared for his safety. From the vantage point of this Middle Easterner, the U.S. is a dangerous place to live. 

He was right to be worried. Statistically, a mass shooting – defined as a shooting involving four or more people – happens about every two weeks in the United States. According to an in-depth USA Today report, the majority of cases involve domestic violence situations; 1 in 6 are public massacres like the one that took place in Kalamazoo.

When Jason Dalton allegedly went on a shooting spree on Saturday, Feb. 20,  Kalamazoo became a number in the statistical reality that all residents fear, but believe will never happen in their community. The irrational, random attacks ended with six people dead and two more critically injured and a close-knit community shaken to its core. 

Since the mass shooting, only two weeks ago, Kalamazoo has had at least three more gun violence incidents, and, according to PBS Newshour, nationally, 2016 is on a fast clip toward being a more deadly year than last in terms of mass shootings, with 47 mass shootings already on record in only two months' time.

Last week, a man in Kansas shot 17 people, killing three at a lawn care company. And earlier this week, a school cafeteria in Ohio became ground zero for the latest school shooting rampage. That shooting injured four people.

As I began submitting stories on the Kalamazoo incident to various outlets mere days after the local killings, I found out a mass shooting is considered "old news" several days out from the attacks. That's how standard an occurrence it has become. If you don't have same-day turn-around on story about a mass shooting with a unique angle, forget it. It's just lost in the shuffle alongside the rest of the random acts we'll never be able to keep track of. There have been 142 school shootings in the U.S. since 2013 and most people could probably barely recall the names of three of them.

Trauma lingers for communities

For Kalamazooans, though -- and for any community faced with this kind of unexpected violence -- these incidents will take more than days, weeks, or even months to fade anywhere near the background of our lives. Residents in communities where these shootings take place are faced with new fears and an eroded sense of safety as the trauma of the violence ripples into our everyday lives. 

The day after the shootings, social media blew up with posts from Kalamazoo residents. Some were retracing their steps, eerily noting their unknowing proximity to the volatile shooter and thanking their lucky stars they were somehow spared. Others were reassuring loved ones of their safety, because the victim's names had not yet been released. It didn't take long for social media hashtags and vigils and even non-profit efforts to surge in the coming days.

In response to the tragedy in Kalamazoo, Battle Creek Community Foundation, Kalamazoo Community Foundation, and United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region partnered with area organizations to direct funds to areas of need. The funds are intended for the financial needs of the victims and their families, community counseling, community vigils and anti-violence education events and activities, citizen safety planning, and other activities working toward reducing violence.

Lacee Lyons is the assistant director of Gryphon Place, a crisis intervention program, serving the Kalamazoo community and beyond. Gryphon Place has been called on by the Kalamazoo community to help process trauma in the aftermath of the shootings. 

Gryphon Place administers and coordinates a Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Program using community volunteers. CISM teams quickly respond to groups that are feeling the repercussions of a traumatic event, helping them to process their reactions and educating them on stress symptoms. CISM helps people in schools, businesses, hospitals, neighborhoods, and police and fire departments. 

Lyons says that "trauma is trauma," and while there is no distinctive marker about random gun violence in a community, she says that there are nuances to the markers of violence of the magnitude that Kalamazoo has faced in the aftermath of the mass shootings. 

Lyons explains that the trauma that residents experience after these kinds of occurrences are not just grief, but broader stress symptoms that are normal reactions for community members.

Trauma and stress symptoms

"We automatically think of -- and our hearts go out to -- those most impacted, of course," Lyons says, "but, anyone in a community may experience a stress reaction when something like this happens." She says that "above and beyond grief, there are physical symptoms and emotional symptoms that can pop up for lots of people." She wants people to know that it is very common and normal to experience.

Those symptoms include things like sadness, anxiety, fear, anger, headaches, stomach aches, difficulty concentrating, an inability to focus, difficulty sleeping, eating, and more.

Lyons wants residents to know that there are many, many resources available for those dealing with crisis, trauma, and grief. Gryphon Place's 381 helpline (269-381-HELP)  is there for that, and residents should use that whenever they feel like they need help. It's also important, she says, for people to talk to one another.

Various modes of healing

Like many of our local leaders following the shootings, State Representative Jon Hoadley has been a strong advocate for the Kalamazoo community. He says he was honored to be part of vigils and services and he notes the need for healing spaces for prayer and meditation. And he also acknowledges the importance of space for people who want to talk about change and action in order to reduce the possibility of gun violence in the future.

Hoadley says "people grieve in lots of different ways." And "as we move forward we need to give everyone a space to heal in whatever feels authentic to them."

But what happens when what feels authentic to one person feels like an infringement on his or her space to another? Often the conversations in the wake of gun violence break down quickly. Hoadley's official Facebook page became a prime example of this following his post of an op-ed he had written for the Detroit Free Press, calling for stronger measures for gun violence prevention. 

Hoadley said his piece was met with "passionate" responses. But he thinks it's possible to move forward and have civil, adult conversations related to proposed solutions.

"We have faced other cultural problems that were deemed to be pervasive and unable to change, yet we have created a culture that said enough was enough," says Hoadley. He cites drunk driving as one example. 

A new cultural awareness – gun violence prevention

"Our country, as long as we've had automobiles and alcohol, has had a problem with folks choosing to use transportation -- a tool -- inappropriately because they were incapacitated due to alcohol," he says. "But then, there was finally a movement that said, 'enough is enough.'" 

Hoadley points to organized efforts, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) who worked to create cultural awareness around the dangers of drinking and driving. And their influence was huge.

But it wasn't grassroots efforts and cultural awareness, alone that brought about change. Those efforts were paired with legislative initiatives that addressed both individual responsibility and the responsibility of systemic contributors to the problem, by setting lower legal blood alcohol levels in the former case and making bar owners and bartenders legally culpable if they over-serve people in the latter.

"Not any one of these solutions, independently, would have solved the drunk driving epidemic," Hoadley says. "But taken in total, we created a cultural shift that started to reduce drunk driving. We're going to need that cultural shift when it comes to guns."

The data on gun violence is irrefutable. When guns are present in violent situations, the likelihood of death or injury is greater. "The presence of a gun in domestic violence situations increases the risk of homicide for women by 500 percent," according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

The response to gun violence often circles around whether the presence of and access to guns can keep people safer. In fact, following the Sandy Hook massacre, some pushed hard for teachers and staff to keep guns in schools, as a form of protection. 
 
But those arguments are not supported by data. "These are the facts," Hoadley says. "It does take a cultural awareness that some of the things we have assumed with guns have not turned out to be true and we need to see that cultural shift away from it."

Part of creating a cultural shift involves sharing stories. It is in sharing and listening to how gun violence has altered our lives that the personal, indeed, becomes political. 

"And that's how it's supposed to be," says Hoadley. "The laws are supposed to be reflections of our lives." Hoadley says he believes it is possible to come together around gun violence prevention because, no matter one's personal views about guns, we all want safe communities, free from violence.

#kzoostrong

The residents of Kalamazoo are strong. Historically we come together when we need to, and this act of violence is no exception. As we each continue to process our ongoing grief, trauma, and stress, these are some practical things we can do:

• Communicate with your state representatives. Hoadley says it's less important to know details of the myriad bills about gun legislation and far more important to discuss with your legislators how you feel about gun violence prevention. You can find your representatives here and your state senator here.

•  Take care of yourselves and look out for your neighbors. (269) 381-HELP is the crisis helpline, and Lyons says that there is no severity level in terms of when to seek help. If you are struggling – or know someone who is struggling – reach out to someone or call 381. Lyons says that for some initial stress symptoms will pass and improve with time, and others will struggle longer and differently. You can find an even more extensive list of resources by visiting the Gryphon Place website.

As we work toward a culture shift that will make our communities safer, remember that language matters. Talking about gun control versus gun rights isn’t working to bring practical solutions to the table. 

Everyone can come together, though, under the umbrella of gun violence prevention. Culture shifts start with how people talk about things, and if we want a country where everyone feels safe walking the streets, we’re going to have to start with choosing our words carefully.

Kathi Valeii is a writer, speaker, and activist living in Kalamazoo. She writes about gender-based oppression and full spectrum reproductive rights at her blog, birthanarchy.com.
 
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