The debate over whether it’s appropriate to “politicize” the deaths of Americans in mass shootings is by now as customary a part of post-massacre fallout as vigils and Congress deciding, after judicious deliberation, that no one should limit the access that mentally disturbed loners have to lethal weapons. Bringing a darkly original perspective to the now-familiar back-and-forth is a site launched in fall 2017 called Politicize My Death, which is exactly what it sounds like: A list, open for anyone to sign, of individuals who’ve given pre-approval for their stories to be used by gun control advocates in the event that they’re killed in gun violence.
Says the pledge, in part:
Honestly, screw comity.
Innocent people are dying unnecessarily, and we want to stop it.
The people who have signed this pledge agree that their deaths should be politicized, in the event that they become victims of gun violence. Each person on this list realizes that easy access to guns is a fatal flaw in American culture, which causes us to have more mass casualty events than any other country in the world. We’re sick of dancing around the issue, and should any of us unintentionally make the ultimate sacrifice, we hope that those who survive us leverage our tragic ends to advance a political agenda that stops the violence.
I spoke to Justin Cohen, a writer and nonprofit executive who’s one of the members of the site’s “steering committee,” about its origins. Says Cohen: “After Sandy Hook, more and more people I talk to started pivoting from a shocked or a sad reaction to gun violence and started getting really pissed off. I think that was the first time I heard someone say something like, ‘If I die, I don’t want thoughts and prayers, I don’t want your bullshit, I want you to get mad and I want you to politicize my death.’ And right around San Bernardino a bunch of friends, colleagues, activists, people I know from different parts of my life came together and said, ‘Hey, it seems like the gun violence prevention project needs a more radical edge to it.’”
The resulting site—launched just before the Las Vegas massacre, Cohen notes—seeks to channel the visceral anger that many people feel about gun deaths in the way more established activist groups can’t. “We love Everytown, the Brady Campaign, we love what the different organizations are doing,” Cohen says. “[But] because they all have institutional prerogatives, they have to be careful about their rhetoric. We said, ‘What if there were a somewhat more radical component to this, and it didn’t have to be beholden to donors or the niceties of political conversation?’” While some (but not all) of the individuals who created the site work professionally in the activism/nonprofit sector, he says, Politicize My Death is being operated on a solely volunteer basis and is not funded by or affiliated with any other group.
The site has collected “close to 2,000 signatures,” Cohen says—and, to answer the obvious if morbid question, no one who has signed has yet been killed. “When we set this up, we had this moment of—if this ever happens, do we have the courage to follow through? I hope we never have to think about it, but the reality is we might have to cross that bridge at some point. If somebody [on the list] did actually get killed in gun violence, then we would publicize that.” (As Cohen alluded to, it’s unfortunately more likely that someone who has signed the list will be killed in a relatively low-profile incident—he mentioned that many victims of gun violence, such as children killed in high-crime areas and women killed by partners or former partners, receive almost no news coverage—than via an indiscriminate, headline-making attack in a public place.)
Politicize My Death, in its directness, seems of a piece with the way that many young victims of the Parkland attack have immediately and angrily demanded a policy response to the continuing problem of mass shootings. Says Cohen: “The reality is that [gun violence], I believe, is a purely political problem at this point, our steering group believes it’s a political problem, and a sustained movement of angry people is probably the only thing that’s going to crack this in the long term.”