Life

The UVA Shootings Hit Me Hard. I’m Starting to Understand Why.

How the culture war around gun violence intrudes on grief.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA - NOVEMBER 14: Students walk past a sign memorializing three University of Virginia football players killed during an overnight shooting at the university on November 14, 2022 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The suspect, Christopher Jones, was apprehended this morning following the shooting where 3 people were killed and 2 others were wounded on the grounds of the University of Virginia yesterday evening. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Win McNamee/Getty Images

“I was feeling like we’d have a reprieve,” mourned one colleague on Monday morning, after the news of Sunday’s tragic shooting, on a bus chartered by the University of Virginia, which resulted in the death of three of the university’s football players and the wounding of two other students. The Uvalde and Buffalo tragedies were in May, Highland Park in July, the Gun Violence Archive records many more incidents that have occurred in the interim, and just a few weeks ago gun violence, of the mass-shooter and everyday varieties, was on full political display in the course of the recent midterm elections. Yet it felt like it had been a few weeks since we’d had news of a major mass shooting to absorb. I was mourning the end of the reprieve too, entirely too fed up with news of shootings and violence to even click on the headlines being hastily Slacked. I knew they would break my heart, just as they would remind me of how past news cycles had unfolded.

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It wasn’t until Wednesday that I backtracked, clicked on some headlines, and learned more about this particular tragedy. Initial coverage described the victims as athletes and beloved members of the UVA community—which they were. I read accounts from my colleagues, who knew some of the victims personally, and of the surviving victims—and found out there’s still more grief to come. But when I read that the field trip the victims had just returned from was part of an African American theater class, I felt a new sense of despondency. This sounds like an idyllic experience: the students, many of whom had become good friends during the semester, attended a play about Emmett Till in Washington, D.C., feasted on Ethiopian food, and talked on the ride home about how moving the play was, listening to music and helping one another with schoolwork. These are the exact types of classes that helped me build my own identity as a young Black woman who loves storytelling, theater, and the works of the Black diaspora. These are also the college experiences that make Black students feel that they matter to schools. But at the end of this beautiful day, these particular students were left, instead, with devastation.

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Among all the things I learned about the incident, and the feelings that came along with learning them, what shocked me most was the fear I felt when I found out the alleged shooter of three young Black men was…a young Black man. Immediately, I was deeply afraid that the suspected perpetrator’s identity would be weaponized by culture warriors who like to redirect the conversation to “Black on Black” violence whenever a mass shooting occurs. How would the Blackness of this alleged shooter—an outlier among people who commit this particular kind of violent act—and the fact that he was arrested alive get leveraged by the kinds of people who would like to deny the argument that the media and police treat white shooters with more sympathy and care than innocent Black people?

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When it turns out that the suspected shooter in a high-profile incident like this one is Black, I fear that this fact just hands a talking point to the people who like to argue that gun violence is a Black problem, and that other mass shooters who leave behind evidence of their white supremacist beliefs are, in fact, the outliers. I’m not the first person to point out that it feels even more disappointing to learn that perpetrators of these kinds of violent incidents are Black, considering how often Black violence is brought up to legitimize institutional maltreatment and violence against Black people. It’s not a wholly unwarranted fear—there are already tweets using this shooting as an attempt to discredit the argument that white supremacy produces violence. There are tweets (wrongfully) claiming that there will be a lack of mainstream media reporting on the shooting because it doesn’tfit their narrative.” (What narrative? Pick and choose, I guess.) And conservative outlets chided The Washington Post for running a story with a headline saying the alleged shooter “had [a] troubled childhood, but then flourished”—a headline the Post has since changed. These publications maligned the Post for supposedly being too compassionate towards the suspected UVA shooter because he’s Black—a direct inversion of the claim that white mass shooters are shown more kindness by the media.

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So I was right that this shooting would get used as culture-war fodder, but I feel guilty about my reaction, anyway. It’s not fair that a fear that this tragedy would be used by conservatives to negate leftist laments against violent racism was among my first thoughts when I read about this story. People lost loved ones that day, and that grief is a mountain plenty of them will be climbing forever. I feel guilty that I anticipated this kind of debate at all, and a bit of shame that I still believe thinking ahead to such a battle is somewhat important—or at the very least, useful—if you’re going to be talking about gun violence online. But most of all, I feel resentment.

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The issue of gun violence has become a political issue, not a human one. And as a Black person, it’s incredibly hard to reckon with the idea that we can’t even grieve without shame. I want to be the person who gets to just feel devastated, without any caveats, without strategic planning or preparation for how the other “side” will use this tragedy to arm themselves. Though I know that’s a privilege, not a right, I can’t help it: When I read news like this, I want to be the person who can just leave the politics behind. I think we deserve to feel, deeply, the massive loss that’s befallen us.

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I’ll think about that class instead. I’ll remember my own college classes, where I read James Baldwin and Richard Wright for the first time. I’ll take my brothers to get Ethiopian food. I’ll recall my favorite school trips over the years: to see Porgy and Bess or The Colored Museum. I’ll ponder who I would be without those opportunities; who I would be if I had lost my friends in such a traumatic way. I’ll remember the names of Devin Chandler, D’Sean Perry, and Lavel Davis Jr.. I’ll start climbing that mountain—as weightless as I can.

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