Thinking, writing about racial justice is learning experience
November 22, 2017 Guest Commentary in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by Judy Arnold and Jeanne Bubb
“Ferguson” became a worldwide byword for racial injustice when protesters took to the streets after the policeman who killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, was not indicted. Three years later, people of all races were again marching in St. Louis to protest the acquittal of a white policeman in the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith. These are only two examples of a growing protest movement across our city and country.
These two events were catalysts for members of Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice, a St. Louis organization, to focus more than ever on racial justice and the systems and practices that have exacerbated inequities. As part of a new campaign to raise awareness of racism and its consequences, we recently released a position paper on racial justice. Crafting the paper became a true learning experience.
Our Racial Justice Committee wanted a document that would address the pervasive racism that infects public policies and use of resources. We believed that to be an authentic voice advocating for equality, we needed to present a comprehensive statement that dealt with a wide array of complex issues: disparities between African-Americans and whites in employment, wages, accumulated wealth, access to transportation and health care, and, especially, criminal justice. Read more
A CHILD IS SHOT
August 3, 2017 – Guest Commentary in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by Barbara Finch
He was ten years old.
As this was being written last month, we didn’t know much about him. He lived in a public housing complex just south of downtown. He was inside the housing complex Sunday afternoon, July 23. That’s when, and where, he was shot in the head.
He was ten years old.
Does it really matter if this shooting was accidental, or deliberate? Does it matter if he, or a sibling, or a friend, was playing with a loaded, unlocked gun? Does it matter if he was caught in the cross-fire of some adult argument, or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time?
At this point, the only thing that matters is that he is dead. He was shot in the head. And he was ten years old.
In a city where gun violence is becoming numbingly normal, this death probably won’t make much difference to most people. It garnered a few paragraphs in this newspaper, where reporters also described other incidents of gun violence in the housing complex where the boy lived. It may have been mentioned on television, where crime and violence often lead the news. Our media are saturated with stories of gun violence. Everyone agrees that “something should be done.” But as we discuss and debate and fume and fret, another child is dead. He was ten years old.
This particular death made a difference to members of Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice. A few weeks ago they were invited by the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment (SLATE) to bring their Lock It For Love program to this housing complex. Lock It For Love provides education about gun violence to children and adults. Members of Women’s Voices tell parents that their children are safer in homes without guns. And, for those who have unsecured firearms and youngsters in their homes, they provide a gun lock, free of charge, no questions asked.
To be honest: members of the organization discussed whether they should participate in an event at this location. They knew that it is a high-crime area. The representative from SLATE who contacted them about the event mentioned that gun shots are frequently heard in the neighborhood. Gun locks, they reasoned, would be helpful.
Members of Women’s Voices decided they would go. After all, if children live there, they could spend a morning there. So they took their educational materials, their dish full of candy, their disabled demonstration firearms, their love of children, and boxes of gun locks to the community center in the housing complex. They were there for two hours. They gave away nine locks.
Just 29 hours later, on a beastly hot Sunday afternoon, a child was shot inside a home there.
He didn’t live long enough to become one of the 16 children in the U.S. who are hospitalized every day suffering from gunshot wounds.
He has joined the 19 children and teenagers who are shot every day in America.
To most of us he is now a statistic: one of the mounting number of American children killed by firearms every year. Victim of an event that was entirely preventable with the use of a $5 gun lock.
To a few people, this child is more than a statistic. He was a son, a grandson, a brother, a neighbor, a classmate.
He should have been everyone’s child, the child of a caring community.
He was only ten years old.
Barbara L. Finch lives in Clayton and is a member of the Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice Campaign for Common-Sense Gun Solutions. During the past two years, the organization has distributed nearly 2,000 gun locks throughout the St. Louis area.
Put Trigger Warnings In Their Proper Place: On Actual Triggers
April 13, 2017 in The Occasional Planet – Barbara Finch
I’m sure that the college students and mental health professionals who have been leading the effort to impose trigger warnings on textbooks and reading assignments do not realize it, but they could be at the forefront of a massive public safety campaign.
For the uninitiated: Trigger warnings on books are designed to protect readers from harmful content or ideas that might contribute to pre-existing mental health conditions.They are controversial in higher education circles. Some colleges and universities say that reading assignments should stand on their own, and they are not supposed to coddle students; others say that they are trying to be sensitive to their students’ issues and that readers deserve a warning if something is likely to cause a panic attack or contribute to PTSD.
Well, here’s an idea and it doesn’t require a pesky reading assignment: how about trigger warnings where they really belong: on real triggers, on actual guns.
Americans have been spectacularly unsuccessful in legislating almost any kind of gun control. Maybe we should narrow our sights, so to speak. Maybe we could focus on trigger control.
In truth, it would be possible to do this tomorrow if the NRA (Normally Recalcitrant Assholes) got out of the way. Technology exists that would enable gun manufacturers to produce “smart guns”—weapons that could not be fired unless the fingerprint of the legitimate owner was putting pressure on the trigger. This would not solve the problem created when the gun owner goes ballistic and decides to invade a classroom, but it would certainly solve the trigger problem when a child obtains a gun or the firearm is stolen.
The idea of a smart gun seems especially relevant now, when the NRA (see above) and many Republican-controlled state legislatures are attempting to legalize guns on college campuses. What could possibly go wrong with this idea? Perhaps nothing.
Let’s put a trigger warning on every door and hope that the guns are smarter than the people who carry them.
Seeing the faces and knowing the lives of gun violence victims
April 13, 2017 in The Occasional Planet – Mary Clemons
Why do I know this? As a member of the Common-Sense Gun Solutions Committee for Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice, I monitor the on-line Gun Violence Archive to report on the number of people who have died as the result of gun violence. I learn their names. I find their photos. I gather information on their lives. Where did they go to school? Where did they work? What impact did they have on their friends, family and co-workers?
Women’s Voices is more widely known in the community as an organization that attends community health fairs to distribute gun safety information and gun locks to families with unsecured firearms in their homes. And that is a good thing; more than 1,500 locks are now with St. Louis area families. But we do more. We advocate for gun violence prevention.
When our elected officials and the public read a crime report that a 25-year-old woman was shot to death in Columbia, or that a 12-year-old in Otterville was killed by a bullet to his head, they may skim the article and move on. But if they see a photo of the proud, smiling young woman in her Hardee’s uniform and learn she had worked her way into a management position and leaves behind two young children; or if they learn the boy from Otterville played summer baseball, loved the outdoors and dinosaurs, they may take a few more moments and ask themselves: why did this happen, and how could it have been prevented?
When we read one day that a six-year-old killed herself with a gun left loaded and unlocked, but we never learn where she went to school or see a photo, how can we have any empathy for her grieving family? When a 15-year-old is shot down in a blaze of bullets and an eight-year-old is critically wounded, and the following day the story is dropped, what are we to understand?
Has gun violence become so common that just reporting when and where it happens and giving the number of dead and injured is enough?
We believe readers need and deserve more. We believe in vigils where people remember the victims. We believe in marches with posters of those lost. We believe the lives of the victims matter and their stories should matter to all of us.
If the print news media would give us a glimpse into their lives, tell us their stories, perhaps more of us will work to end the violence.
If we loved our children as much as our guns
April 12, 2017
The St. Louis American published the following commentary by Barbara Finch
What more can be said about children dying from gun violence in St. Louis?
We’re only three months into 2017 and already four children have been killed in the city this year. Others have been wounded, critically injured, or severely traumatized by violence generated by gunfire.
On Friday, March 24, as people were preparing dinner or shopping for the weekend or getting ready to go out, gunfire erupted (again) in North St. Louis. A 15-year-old boy was killed. An 8-year-old boy was critically injured. Five other people were severely wounded and taken to area hospitals.
In describing the mayhem, St. Louis Police Lt. John Green was quoted as saying, “We don’t know what caused the shooting.”
Really? Lt. Green may not know the cause, but other people may be a little more discerning. The cause of the shooting was a gun.
Is it so hard to figure out that, if a gun had not been involved, seven people would not have been taken from the scene in ambulances?
And does it really matter if there was an old grudge, perceived slight, debt, family feud, simple misunderstanding or long-standing vendetta? Without the gun, the problem may have been solved, or not. But life would have gone on. When guns are used to solve problems, life does not go on, not for the victim.
In St. Louis we are now witnessing the way that a gun at hand alters the chemistry of ordinary life. People are afraid of gun violence; therefore, they purchase firearms, which only increases their chances of becoming a victim. When a gun is within easy reach, a slight miscalculation or simple disagreement can quickly turn into a tragedy.
What we are now seeing is a civilian arms race, being played out in homes, offices, neighborhoods and public spaces throughout our community. Who benefits? Follow the money, from the guy who steals the gun from the car brought in from the suburbs, to the gun show dealer who sold the gun to the guy without a background check, to the firearms manufacturer whose stock price is rising monthly, to the National Rifle Association.
We know the cause of the shootings. So what are we going to do about it?
A look at New York City might provide some answers. According to a recent commentary in the Wall Street Journal co-authored by the New York City police commissioner and the Manhattan district attorney, New York has accounted for 25 percent of the decline in homicides nationally since 1990. During the last 15 years, murders in the city fell by 84 percent and shootings by 81 percent. The officials said there has been no comparable decline in gun crime anywhere else in the U.S.
So how did New York do it? According to the authors, “by enforcing some of the strongest gun laws in the country.”
This is unlikely to happen in St. Louis. Missouri has some of the loosest gun laws in the country, and the state pre-emption law prevents cities from enacting laws that are stronger than state statues. But at least the New York experience gives us a clue about what could be done, if only we valued the lives of our children, who are now afraid to play outside on warm spring evenings.
Barbara L. Finch is a co-founder of Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice and a member of the group’s Campaign for Common-Sense Gun Solutions, which sponsors “Lock It For Love,” a free gun lock distribution effort. For information about Lock It For Love events, email
The Names of the Dead Matter
February 15, 2017
The St. Louis American published the following commentary by Barbara Finch
Names are important.
Names are the first gifts that parents give their children. Names, chiseled in granite headstones, may be the last gift that children give their parents.
When names are grouped together, they can make a powerful statement. Maya Lin’s incredible Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., gets its impact from the list of names inscribed on its face. The memorial to victims of the 9/11 attacks in New York City has the same effect. Even if we didn’t know any of these people, we run our fingers over their names and remember that they lived, and how they died.
Members of Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice, a local grassroots education and advocacy organization, recognize the powerful impact of naming those who have been lost. That’s why the group has attempted to document the names of every individual in St. Louis city and county who was a victim of gun violence during 2016. This list, which has been carefully researched and compiled, was extracted from real-time data published online by the Gun Violence Archive.
The archive was established in 2013 to provide free online public access to accurate information about gun-related violence in the United States. Firearm violence and crime incidents are collected and validated from 2,000 sources daily.
Early in December, members of Women’s Voices began to compile the local list to post online as a “virtual vigil,” to coincide with vigils across the country on December 14, the 4th anniversary of the massacre of students and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The list, now complete for 2016, includes victims of accidental shootings, homicides and suicides. It contains 242 names and can be seen online at remember-the-victims.
Clicking on the list of names gives viewers the ages and dates of death of local gun violence victims; there also are short stories and photos of a representative sample of our neighbors.
We see 14-year-old Jamyha Luss pictured on her knees, hands folded, as if in prayer. We learn that Jose Garcia was a gift-bearer when Pope John Paul visited St. Louis in 1999. We note that 15-year-old Jorevis Scruggs was shot by police, and Police Officer Blake Snyder was shot while responding to a disturbance call. We learn that Joseph Reise was killed by his son, and 8-month-old Reign Crockett was killed by his father. We note that 15-year-old DaMontez Jones was able to obtain a loaded, unlocked gun in his home. And we mourn that Jamarr Mack Jr. 14, was killed while walking home from the library.
These names matter. These lives mattered, and how they died should matter to all of us.
One person who was personally impacted by the list is LaMena A. Smith of Conyers, Georgia. She wrote to Women’s Voices: “I am Rolando L. Bolden’s Mom. I want to personally thank you for bringing awareness online to this horrible violence that has to stop. The worst day of my life was December 3, 2016.”
December 3 was the day that her 23-year-old son was murdered while trying to help a woman who was being attacked. “He was standing up for her to save her life, and in return he lost his life,” Smith said.
The season of vigils for victims of gun violence is now over, including the annual New Year’s Eve candlelight vigil at Willliams Temple Church of God in Christ, which has hosted an event for 24 years. At the most recent event, St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson was quoted as saying, “Even one murder is too many.”
Members of Women’s Voices agree: Even one name is too many. But because 2016 brought 242 victims, their names and their stories will remain on the web site. Because these names mattered. So did their owners.
Barbara L. Finch is a co-founder of Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice (www.womensvoicesraised.org) and a member of the Campaign for Common-Sense Gun Solutions.