In the Shadow of Newtown, a Father Grieves and Fights

With gun violence claiming young black lives every day, families wrestle with the attention paid to the massacre in Newtown, Conn.

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To be clear, Saylor says that he has made peace with the relative gap in public attention. That peace came in February when Vice President Joe Biden spoke at an event for the parents of gun victims in Danbury, Conn. Danbury sits about 60 miles south of Hartford and 12 miles from Newtown.

Biden spoke to Newtown’s grieving parents first, in a separate room, Saylor says. Then he addressed the parents from Hartford, a group so frustrated by the silence around their children’s murders and a multihour wait that Saylor thought the Secret Service might intervene.

Biden came in and almost straightaway acknowledged the insulting imbalance: Young black men in America’s cities are the most likely to die as a result of gun violence, but the unusual and extreme nature of a rare shooting incident in suburban Connecticut had shaken the nation out of a long slumber. Gun control was back on the national political agenda. Those who believed that gun control was essential needed to push for all sorts of reforms now, Biden told the crowd.

Even for those inclined to object to Biden’s quick pivot from tragedy to politics, or the direct line he drew between race, geography and national concern, the truth about violence in the United States is hard to dismiss.  

Young black men in particular live in the awkward space where they are the nation’s most frequent victims of deadly crime but are also feared and believed to be its most frequent perpetrators. When they are shot and killed, many law-abiding Americans who may consider themselves “ordinary” often assume that these young men are thugs engaged in crime, who were killed while engaged in something they should not have been doing, says Laurence Ralph, a Harvard University anthropologist who studies gang violence, public sentiment about crime and those who have been disabled as a result of it.

“There is absolutely a kind of discrepancy between the way we see spectacular events like Newtown,” says Ralph, “their visibility in our consciousness and mainstream culture, and the everyday kind of violence that is seen almost as normal, perhaps even deserved. The idea that threats exist elsewhere and the people who face them most often do so because of choices they have made can be comforting.”

But behind this kind of thinking are the beliefs that make people say things like “This isn’t supposed to happen here” after incidents such as the massacre in Newtown and simply shake their heads about a death like Oliver’s. It is a presumption that some people are unquestionably innocent, or at least deserving of protection and safety, and some people are not, Ralph says.

Oliver, a young man with a hand crippled by a stroke at birth, was deeply in love. He died trying to defend his girlfriend from the unwanted and crude advances of the man who killed him, says his grief-stricken father. Oliver and his girlfriend were at the apartment complex where Oliver was shot picking up a payment from one of Oliver’s customers. Oliver had a fledgling business buying, fixing and selling cars.

“That’s the kind of young man he was,” says Saylor. “He had had some troubles. But he was trying to make something of his life.”

When Saylor stood outside Hartford’s City Hall last year, a few local reporters showed up pushing Oliver’s name onto the pages of the Hartford Courant, a local newspaper. That same day, the Hartford Police Department made an arrest, charging a 20-year-old Latino man, Luis Rodriguez, in connection with Oliver’s death.