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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

October 23, 2012: Adverse Reactions, Part Two

[This AmericanStudier is going through a very, very tough time; at times like this, AmericanStudies becomes something different for me: a source of inspiration, an opportunity to remember some of the moments in which Americans have faced great adversity and responded with great power. In this week’s series I’ll highlight a handful of such moments, and would love to hear your nominations and thoughts for the weekend post.]

On the moments in which great tragedy turns to powerful activism.
Earlier this year, I blogged about the Trayvon Martin shooting, and more exactly about the American narratives and realities of race to which that shooting connected. Preparations for the 2013 trial of Martin’s shooter, George Zimmerman, are underway in Florida, and so many of those narratives and realities have returned to the conversations and debates surrounding Zimmerman’s actions, Martin’s death, the media coverage in the aftermath, and more. Yet amid all those narratives and debates, and even amid the (what I hope are) more measured analyses such as those I offered in my initial post, it can be easy to lose sight of the case’s two simplest and most profound truths: the inarguable tragedy of Martin’s death, and of the death of any 17 year old; and what such a tragic loss means to those who knew and loved Martin, his parents most especially.
Moreover, if we can focus on that tragedy and on Martin’s parents, we will do more than do justice to those horrors: we will be able to see how they are working to turn tragedy into activism, to respond to their loss not only with the inevitable grief and anger but with impassioned efforts to make the nation and world a better place. His parents have focused those efforts on the so-called Stand Your Ground Laws (also known as the Castle Doctrine), the laws that have been passed in more than twenty states over the last few years and that allow armed Americans to shoot and kill their fellow citizens in increasingly broadly defined situations of “self-defense” and thus avoid criminal charges or prosecution. Whether or not Zimmerman’s actions fell under Florida’s such law is an open question, and one on which his trial will certainly hinge; but Trayvon’s parents have not in any case limited their efforts to that question and case, choosing instead to challenge the legality and rationality of the laws throughout the nation. Whatever your position on the laws, I believe those efforts, to seek what his parents call “change for Trayvon,” embody the best kind of response to such an unthinkable loss and tragedy.
In responding in that impressive way, Martin’s parents join a list of Americans who have done the same, turning tragedy into inspiring activism. Near the top of that list, for me, would be Jim and Sue Brady; Jim was the Reagan Press Secretary who was seriously wounded in and permanently disabled by the 1981 John Hinckley assassination attempt on the president, and in the years after that shooting, both Jim and Sue became vocal and committed activists for gun control and reform. Those efforts, which became known as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and led to the passage of the 1993 Brady Bill, are of course as controversial and open to debate as any gun control measures, or any social and political activism at all for that matter. But I would hope, again, that all Americans and people, regardless of our positions on particular issues, can be inspired by Jim and Sue Brady, and by the way in which they responded to a great and defining tragedy with lifelong activism, not so much for themselves (no gun control legislation will change what happened to Jim nor ameliorate his present situation in any way) but for all their fellow Americans.
Next inspiring response to adversity tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Powerful responses to adversity you’d highlight?
10/23 Memory Day nominee: Johnny Carson, who redefined a television genre but whose influence on 20th century American culture and society went far beyond just late nights.

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