Innocence Lost in Colorado? For Whom?

The violent killing of 12 people and wounding of 58 in Aurora, Colo., has, not surprisingly, prompted national attention. And while the concern and unease are understandable, I ask why this moment compels national conversations about life and death, about guns, about safety, about mental health, and about tragedy, when countless other horrific moments don't elicit similar sadness and outage. Clearly, all of these emotions, the shock and the desire to understand how/why this happened stem from a belief that such violence is not supposed to happen "there," that it is not supposed to impact suburban communities, that it is not supposed to involve shooters who look like James Holmes. Although the media imagines this act of domestic terrorism as "unthinkable" and "beyond explanation" -- since Holmes is just a normal (white, middle-class) kid -- it also portrays the violence as extraordinary, as fostering fear and anxiety where it didn't exist before.

Ian Landau epitomizes this sense of innocence lost that pervades the media coverage with "Colorado Movie Theater Shooting Shatters Our Sense Of Safety": "Traditionally in America movie theaters are a safe, family environment where everybody goes and settles down into the dark," notes New York psychiatrist Alan Manevitz. "You can watch a scary movie because you know you're safe in the movie theater and can enjoy the experience. The Aurora shooting has suddenly turned that upside down. That presumption of safety gets shattered and you feel the vulnerability at that moment."

Beyond the erasure of cinematic violence and a larger history of racist images on screen, the imagination of lost innocence speaks to the powerful ways that race and class matters. For communities of color, innocence remains a dream deferred. In America, only certain kids are entitled to "innocence," so much so that denied innocence and systemic exposure to violence is both normalized and accepted.

Normalizing the experiences of (white) middle-class suburbia, the media response has not only privileged this idealized space but has imagined it as a tragedy of immense proportions because of the shattered innocence that is predicated on an assumption of white privilege. "Is there anything more innocent than a child eating popcorn and sipping Coke with the lights of a movie screen reflecting off his face?," writes Bert Weiss. "Is there any place I can feel my children are totally safe? Rather than being excited to share this movie together, now I'll spend a considerable amount of time addressing what happened in that theater with my sons. Frankly, I wish someone could explain it to me. As a parent, I wish I could postpone the reality of conversations like this for just a little longer; keep my kids innocent for as long as possible." Would Mr. Weiss describe a movie theater within America's inner cities as "safe places"; would he paint such a rosy picture if his children ran the risk of being stop and frisked on their way to the movies? Within the national imagination, there remains a dividing line whereupon violence at certain premiers and at certain theaters is both expected and accepted.

Erasing the fears produced by racial profiling, stop-and-frisk policies, political brutality, extrajudicial killings and the violence that plagues communities throughout the United States, the heightened media and political concern points to the power of whiteness.

"The horror is touched, inflected, by the way that the killings now intertwine with the everyday details of our lives," writes Adam Gopnick in The New Yorker. "The killings will go on; the cell phones in the pockets of dead children will continue to ring; and now parents can be a little frightened every time their kids go to a midnight screening of a movie designed to show them what stylized fun violence can be, in the hands of the right American moviemaker. Of course, there have been shootings at school, too. We're a nation of special effects."

While the sentiment offered in The New Yorker is not one that I disagree with, given the impact of gun culture, this sort of argument also erases the many forms of violence that plague communities of color as well as the terror that results from sexual violence, domestic violence and a culture of violence. To conclude that "NOW parents can be a little frightened every time their kids go to a midnight screening of a movie designed to show them what stylized fun violence can be, in the hands of the right American moviemaker" is to erase how racial profiling, state violence and other forms of violence produce terror and fear within many communities. In doing so, this also erases the larger culture of violence and punishment that provides the rationale for abusive practices and police state tactics in certain communities.

Kismet Nunez brilliantly illustrated the wages of whiteness (white privilege) in this way:

I have nightmares around scenarios like this. And when I heard this was happening in New York, I didn't feel better. I felt worse. There is no question that all of my thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims, the survivors, their kin, and with the city itself. But there is also no question that in a city where the mayor and police department are under fire for using 'Stop and Frisk' to harass, beat, and kill young black and Latin@ residents, increasing the police presence doesn't make me feel safe. It makes me feel terrorized. Who do we think they will target first if they (think they) see something amiss at the movies this weekend? How many young people will be killed and how many more will be frisked, placed in handcuffs, or publicly intimidated and made to feel violated and shamed in the name of public safety?

What happened in Colorado is a great tragedy; what happened in Colorado is yet another symptom of a culture of violence; what happened in Colorado should compel change; what happened in Colorado was an act of terrorism. Yet, let's be clear, the consequences of gun violence, the feelings of terror and anxiety, and the struggles with senseless death are a daily battle for communities of color. Rather than elevate what happened in Aurora as exceptional, as worthy of reflection, introspection and explanation, can we not talk about the fears resulting from police violence, the anxiety ushered in by racial profiling, and the shattered communities stemming from systemic neglect, poverty, and divestment? The tragedy of Colorado is that the death, the fear, and the pain that are all too common.

However, the rendering the shooting as an "exceptional" media event not only erase the systemic violence facing communities of color/poor people, but also provides a ready rationale for expansion of the police state. As evident in the aftermath of Columbine, this enhanced power will invariably lead to greater policing, surveillance, and abuse of youth of color. White racial profiling, metal detectors in suburban movie theaters, and stop and frisk at the mall are clearly not in the future, so whose innocence will be truly lost?