Today I am having a hard time thinking about conflict resolution in Côte d’Ivoire. I spent Sunday-Tuesday in Bouaké, the stronghold of the Forces Nouvelles, a rebel group which is in the process of demobilizing. I spoke with community leaders about the process of rebuilding in a post-conflict environment, the politics of constructing a future when all the guns aren’t put away yet. I left feeling inspired, a little more in awe of the organization I’m laboring freely for this summer.
When I got back to an internet connection, a friend sent me an article about America’s latest killing rampage – nine dead in a workplace shooting. The picture showed a group of people praying outside of my high school. The title read “Massacre in Manchester,” my hometown in Connecticut. Although I do not know any of the victims, I find myself needing to take a moment.
Today, I’m confused and sad. I’m thinking about how Manchester was when I was growing up. I remember it being a good place to be a kid. I remember neighborhood block parties, summer days spent at the pool, little league practice, swim team, the high school homecoming parade down Main Street. I’m thinking about the contrast with this image and the way I see it now. The last time I was home, I noticed two new jail bond offices blocks from my house, my mother tells me the owner of the corner convenient store was pistol whipped, drug addicts randomly started shooting down the block, there are less families moving in, more moving out. My mom has been talking about how Manchester is changing for a while, but I never thought it had changed this much.
Before Omar Thornton, the 34-year-old shooter in Tuesday’s tragedy, was called in for a disciplinary hearing and shown video footage of his theft from Hartford Distributors, he had complained to friends and family about racial harassment in the workplace. He said there were racial epithets written on the bathroom wall, and a stick figure drawn with a noose around it. He said his supervisors made racially charged comments. He called his mother after he had shot and killed eight people to say that he had taken care of the racists who were bothering him. Then he turned the gun on himself. His family and friends cannot make sense of his actions.
I got on facebook this morning to read the reactions of my community. I saw one post expressing frustration with the press “pulling the race card.” Comments agreed, most saying there was no good excuse for killing eight innocent people. One comment, however, read, “Whenever they do something wrong and get caught they try to blame the white man.”
I don’t know the specifics of Omar Thornton’s life. I do not think senseless violence is ever justified. But when I start to think about race dynamics in my town, I find it hard to just dismiss the racial overtones in the press coverage I’ve read. The racial composition of my town has changed substantially during my lifetime. Although my high school had failing test scores, we boasted the “highest diversity rates” in the state. If you took a walk down the hallways though, you’d quickly notice how segregated it was. Honors and AP classes were mostly white. General studies courses, on the opposite end of the spectrum, were mostly comprised of blacks and Latinos. The cafeteria was equally segregated.
This must have bothered the school because they created a mandatory class called “Race Relations.” All freshmen were required to take it. My little sister still had to take it five years later when she arrived at MHS. From the way she describes her experience, it sounds about the same as I experienced it: a few clichéd videos about diversity and togetherness, one exercise where we wrote all of our races on the board and then shouted out stereotypes, white kids getting defensive about how not-racist they are, kids of color getting frustrated about how much that misses the point.
One of the few truly honest discussions I ever had about race during my time at MHS occurred at the bus stop with a kid down the street. He told me that he was sitting on his porch and a passing motorist shouted “nigger” at him. I was incredulous – that stuff still happens? He answered, all the time.
I am not trying to draw a cause-effect between the Manchester education system and the tragedy that took place this week. (Omar Thornton wasn’t from Manchester, for one). But seeing pictures of the family’s of the dead crying on the lawn of my high school started me on a thought flow which lead to this obvious epiphany: there is a lot of conflict in my hometown. There was more shooting in Manchester this week than there was in Bouaké.
I am realizing that there is a need for conflict resolution in my back yard. There is a need to do what I have spent my summer encouraging others to do: look to the roots of the problem. Do not adopt an “us” versus “them” attitude. Be honest. Realize that questions like, “What is happening to my town” miss the point. “Why is this happening to our town?” and “What can we do to make things better” can help us start to get there. I’m grateful for the distance that has helped me to see this.