This post is not about travel, it’s about home

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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.

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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.

Sarah Gardiner is an MA candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy. She graduated from Georgetown University last May where she studied Culture and Politics. Previous international adventures include a semester in Yaounde, Cameroon and a summer interning in Cote d'Ivoire. Things she gets nerdy about includes cross-cultural communication, media for social justice, international hip hop, feminism, and coffee.

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    1 Comment

    1. I thought he originally did graduate from MHS? I find the whole thing very dodgy. I saw a video today of the press trying to incite race into the issue by asking “were any of the victims african american?” and getting a “no” from the police. It’s hard to have african american victims at an all-white workplace, but it’s going to be spun out of context. Omar was the ONLY african american working there, and there was one other Jamaican.

      All reports in the beginning indicated that he used a rifle, and some papers reported police came in “with guns blazing” (all of these have been taken out of the current edited stories) and now reports are that these guys got killed by 9mm weapons… the same kind the police use, and there is no such thing as a 9mm rifle. All of that is a bit sketchy, how the story suddenly changes. No reports have come out about how he made the bare minimum the union allowed even after he should have gotten a mandatory raise, or how he didn’t drink or smoke, had no criminal history and supposedly was supportive of his family. Just that he was a black guy stealing booze (which he was selling on the side, probably to make a little extra money to support the people in his life). Instead the media turns a non racial issue (the only racial issue here is that the white people gave him shit where shit wasn’t deserved) into a very raciST issue.

      What’s interesting too is that while the AP/Honors classes were almost entirely white, the GS were almost entirely black and latino, the CP (and too a lesser extent CP) classes were fairly well-integrated and there weren’t a lot of problems in the CP classes at all. The only time anything was segregated there was at the cafeteria. I think the most diverse place at MHS was the track and field team. People from all walks of life went there and it wasn’t about being black or white or anything else, people just joined to compete. Oftentimes at the beginning of the season there would be more than one hundred kids on the team, and everyone except the distance runners were integrated and happy, and the distance runners (all of whom came from the Honors courses) were happy about that too. Looking back, I think it’s safe to say that the problems were really caused by the white folks hanging on to outdated and frankly ‘redneck’ ideas, ideas that I never thought people were even taught.

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