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.
“Make no mistake,” Saylor says. “The cameras are here, the nation’s attention is here, this week because of Newtown, because 20 white babies are dead. That’s why I stood up in Hartford this year and said what I said: ‘I’m sick and tired of Newtown.’ I knew that would get the legislature’s attention.”
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.
After Biden’s visit, Saylor joined the nonprofit Newtown Action Alliance, a group of mostly Newtown ministers determined to work with urban and suburban allies for policies that the group believes would make mass shootings less common and reduce the urban violence claiming mostly young black men’s lives. Those policies include implementing responsible gun registration after all gun sales and outlawing large magazines, which can delay the need for a crazed gunman to stop shooting and reload, Saylor says.
That list also includes better access to mental-health care and communication between mental-health officials and gun sellers, as well as stringent penalties for straw purchasers—people who legally buy weapons, sometimes entire caches, and then sell them out of the backs of cars, in living rooms and other informal private settings where a background check is not required.
Saylor is resolved now to making sure the nation knows that while there are socioeconomic differences between Hartford and Newtown, the pain that gun violence causes is the same. And any policy changes that ultimately happen need to address that reality.
“Are we frustrated by being a footnote to the discussion? Of course we are, when it is our children who are dying daily, our babies behind the numbers,” says Saylor. “But are we, the parents of the young black men who are dying in this country, going to sit silent and let Congress or the president forget the facts or any of our children’s names? Absolutely not.”
Janell Ross is a reporter in New York who covers political and economic issues. She is working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due to be published by Beacon Press next year. Follow her on Twitter.