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.

The Rev. Samuel Saylor
The Rev. Samuel Saylor WFSB Hartford

When Hartford, Conn., police arrived on the scene, they found Shane Oliver lying on the ground.

The 20-year-old had been shot twice in the back. One bullet had pierced Oliver’s muscle and bone, perforated his heart and lungs and pushed its way out of the right side of his chest. Two-and-a-half hours later, Oliver—a young black man—was dead.

Oliver was the 20th person killed in Hartford in 2012, a year in which Hartford and just about every other city in America saw its crime rate continue a multiyear slide. Days later, Oliver’s father, the Rev. Samuel Saylor, stood on the steps of City Hall with members of Mothers United Against Violence—a local group of Hartford moms and dads who have also lost their children to gun violence—to make a heartrending plea: His son should be the last person to die unnaturally, prematurely and violently in 2012.

Just 55 days later, Adam Lanza stormed into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., about 50 miles from the apartment complex where police had found Oliver shot and bleeding. Inside the suburban elementary school attended by mostly white, wealthy kids, Lanza unleashed a tidal wave of bullets—slaughtering 20 children, six teachers and school administrators and finally himself—during his rampage.

First came the shock, then the disgust and the global media glare. Finally, Congress—long unwilling even to discuss, much less vote on, gun control measures—weighed an ill-fated attempt to mandate background checks before a larger swath of gun sales. After Newtown, discussions about gun control, the relationship between mental illness and guns and the horror of outliving one’s child occupied real estate in almost every U.S. newspaper, website and magazine. Cable news channels offered wall-to-wall coverage of the human suffering in Newtown.

But as the nation marks the first anniversary of the Newtown massacre this weekend, parents like Saylor—people who loved young black men shot and killed in a U.S. city in 2012—are left to wonder what, if any, notice is being paid to their children’s murders.

Saylor, a pastor gifted with the kind of poetic speech that seemed predestined for the pulpit where he can often be heard at Hartford’s Blackwell Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church, was perplexed. Then the grieving father grew frustrated, even angry.

“It was just difficult as a man, as a father, to see the very different response to Newtown,” says Saylor. “But there was also this piece of me who could look at those fathers and see that we were living in the same black hole, crying the same kinds of ceaseless tears for our children and very much struggling with the same kind of pain.”

This year, Saylor has found himself the subject of a long piece on CNN and has been quoted in major newspapers; he has also seen his photo splashed all over the Internet. That he is the father of a murder victim is always mentioned. That is, after all, one of the reasons he was invited to a vigil at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., this week to remember the 30,000 people killed by guns this year.