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Public Violence, Our Trusty Companion 

by Katrina Spencer
This story was published as a part of Charlottesville Inclusive Media Project’s: First Person C-Ville

“A billion people died on the news tonight
But not so many cried at the terrible sight…
Who’s the one to decide that it would be alright
To put the music behind the news tonight…
So baby close your ears
On the news tonight…
The unobtrusive tones in the news tonight…
Why don’t the newscasters cry
When they read about people who die
At least they could be decent enough
To put just a tear in their eyes

Jack Johnson, “News Tonight” from Brushfire Fairytales (2001)

The author in elementary school, about 8 years of age

The author in elementary school, about 8 years of age.

 I thought that my earliest memory of a public act of violence was Columbine in 1999. I was wrong. Was it the Oklahoma City Bombing of 1995? No. I was too young to decipher the Gulf War, so it was likely the Los Angeles Riots of 1992, about 7 miles away from my home. I was 7 and a half. I knew that Rodney King was a Black man and he’d been beaten by several police officers and it was filmed and those officers weren’t to be punished. I understood that Black folks were upset at the ruling and that looting, fires, property damage, and violence followed. The riots and their aftermath were aired on TV. The chaos reached us, my family, in a symbolic way, as we were (and are) Black folks, but it didn’t make it to our zip code. Wikipedia– something we didn’t have then– tells me that 63 people were killed and over 2,300 were injured over a 6-day period. “Can’t we all just get along?” became the refrain we held onto from that era.

What stands out in my mind from that time? Mostly the reigning Disney princesses of the 90s: Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine. I remember my unhealthy reliance upon circulating ice cream trucks for my sugar fixes. Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” would be released and we’d all lose our minds. Soon enough thereafter my father would invest in a navy-blue bound World Book Encyclopedia set for us consisting of over 15 hardback volumes. We would consult them when we had questions about world events, animals, historical figures, and the like. Then we could not get enough of Sade, and Boyz II Men was about to captivate the world.

A Pokémon logoWe were with Mommy for a portion of ‘95 when the Oklahoma City bombing occurred. This was a time following Hungry Hungry Hippos and Skip-Its, and after the height of Supersoakers. This was before Giga Pets arrived and Pokémon [“Gotta catch ‘em all!”] was just over the horizon. Nintendo and Sega would soon bring our play and recreation indoors. We were still mesmerized by Jurassic Park. Pogs were fading into the background. We still remembered jumping rope, and playing foursquare and handball at school. The Babysitters’ Club, Sweet Valley High, and Goosebumps were in the midst of their heyday. It was near the time we waved goodbye to the antics of Zach Morris, but before we were wizarded awake by Harry Potter. “Hit Me, Baby, One More Time” had yet to arrive on the scene. And Monopoly was still around. Kato Kaelin, Marcia Clark, and Johnnie Cochran had become household names. Robin Williams was a phenomenon unto himself. Cassette tapes and VHS, too, remained in daily use. And Discmen, the latest, were soon to come. AOL was just being advertised on television, and when it did make it into our homes, a telephone call would throw us unceremoniously offline. You remember? We can still hear the chipper “You’ve got mail!” We still called our parents using payphones to pick us up from social events. 

I learned that if we shared seemingly heartfelt words in a public way, the extent of our civic duty would be complete.

A photo from the Oklahoma City Bombing by Charles Porter taken in 1995 of a child held, dying, in a rescue worker’s arms.

A photo from the Oklahoma City Bombing by Charles Porter taken in 1995 of a child held, dying, in a rescue worker’s arms.

An American Online logoI was a 5th grader in Santa Ana when 168 people were killed in the Oklahoma City bombing and 608 were injured. My class was really engaged in discovering the world and all it had to offer. We were into all types of activities like planting a garden, reenacting life on the [actual] Oregon Trail, and staging a rendition of Charlie & The Chocolate Factory. We 9, 10 and 11-year-olds also wrote into the local newspaper expressing our condolences and lament, mentally incapable of understanding the magnitude of loss and destruction. I didn’t know what domestic terrorism was then or mental illness, but over time, the media would introduce me to both. I learned that if we shared seemingly heartfelt words in a public way, the extent of our civic duty would be complete.

When we moved in with Daddy at the beginning of middle school, he used to bring us loose gummy bears home to share that were sold by weight at the store where he worked. His benefits allowed us to get braces, so we did. HIV awareness was a big part of science class. I consumed as many Hot Cheetos and Reese’s peanut butter cups as possible. Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Friends were dominant, without question. This was long before Netflix became popular and before streaming was even possible. It was the time of the Backstreet Boys and Busta Rhymes. We weren’t texting then, and for those with cell phones, we were still trying to make calls late nights outside of peak times. Do you remember? J. K. Rowling was known in a major way. Ricky Martin gyrated his hips on TV to “Livin’ La Vida Loca.” The Macarena was a fad that held awhile and eventually aged. “Talk to the hand” was the height of sass. Home Alone was long in our wake but still very much in our hearts. MySpace would soon make its way into our homes, and Tom was all of our friends. None of us knew of the unrelenting chokehold social media would have on us for the next 20+ years. Oprah was still on TV five afternoons a week. We remained in love with Mariah Carey, a veritable hit factory. Titanic had already come out, making Leonardo DiCaprio the new blond to drool over– not to exclude Jonathan Taylor Thomas aka “JTT” and the MmmBoping Hanson, who were new on the scene. Tupac and Biggie were gone. But Aaliyah and Left-Eye were still with us. Kazaa, Limewire, and Napster made a way for us to download all the number ones. No more recording them from the radio. We’d start burning CDs soon. Ricki Lake would come to an end, as did Jenny Jones, but Jerry Springer held on. The Ellen DeGeneres show would pop up a few years later and Judge Judy endured. As we waited for them to beat each other senseless, Mike Tyson would bite off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear as we watched in awe. Punching someone in the head in a controlled environment was fine but biting an appendage was not. There are rules to this, after all.

As we waited for them to beat each other senseless, Mike Tyson would bite off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear as we watched in awe.

A video still image of the two armed gunmen from the Columbine High School massacre of 1999

A video still image of the two armed gunmen from the Columbine High School massacre of 1999.

As we churned towards the turn of the century, I became a first-year student in high school, and that’s when the massacre at Columbine happened in 1999. Two students, Eric and Dylan, walked into their high school and killed a dozen classmates and a teacher, injuring many others. And not long thereafter, the date “9/11” would take on new meaning. Two thousand nine hundred ninety-six would die and an estimated 25,000 would be injured. Both events made violence and loss an ever more intimate albeit unwelcome companion. I remember not knowing what the Twin Towers were– I’d never been to New York. Now, a structure I’d never seen in real life, was seared into my memory as the media played spooling reels of planes crashing into the buildings. I had to turn the TV off. The visuals were a constant assault and networks were indifferent or unaware of their traumatizing impact. I was conjugating verbs then: hablo, hablas, habla, hablamos, habláis, hablan. I was graphing parabolas then. I was detaching from the onslaught of grief that struck the nation then. Was this what they called a “coping mechanism”?

The Twin Towers of New York City with billows of black smoke following the 9/11 attacks of 2001

The Twin Towers of New York City with billows of black smoke following the 9/11 attacks of 2001.

The author graduating from college, age 21

The author graduating from college, age 21.

If we subtract the War on Terror, which, of course, we cannot, domestic attacks seemed quieter and farther in between while I was an undergrad. Bush #2 was searching for WMDs in Afghanistan and Iraq and I was enrolling in more general ed requirements than I can count, waiting for somebody’s son to take me out, studying abroad, or sometimes both at once. Destiny’s Child was shutting down and Beyoncé was on the rise. John Mayer couldn’t miss. I got my first cell phone and a diploma in exchange for a couple decades’ worth of debt. Music no longer came primarily in formats you could physically handle. We came to forget James Van Der Beek, yet another blond heartthrob presented to us. Steve Jobs was an icon. We were introduced to Adele, Taylor Swift, the Biebs, and reggaetón. The Obamas then stood at the helm. We lost James Brown and Michael Jackson. And later Prince, Whitney, and Aretha. Fifty Shades of Grey had us hot and bothered. The age of the “influencers” was born. Ta-Nehisi Coates would start publishing things the hegemony paid attention to. Jay-Z introduced Tidal. Ibram X. Kendi was embraced. And Will Smith remained fresh but would get a bit less princely. And things started to get blurry.

Adulthood felt like an amorphous mass with no crisp edges and no blueprint for a neat way forward. Grad school determined a great deal of what I read as I tried to form the foundation of a career. I wasn’t issued report cards anymore to tell me whether I was doing well. The days, months, and years bled into one another with hardly any first-time experiences left that made them feel unique. But the violence didn’t go away. As my knowledge of the world increased, so did my awareness of a variety of violences in a variety of places. They were widespread and it became impossible to maintain a mental catalog of which were to be considered the most significant, memorable, distinct, “worthy” of our attention, our grief, our collective pésame. I continued to block it out. A backlog of unprocessed violence stacked up. My mental health couldn’t afford to be sensitized to that much despair.

Sorry. Who was killed? Why? What was the motive this time? Did he kill himself or did the police shoot him? Was he apprehended? How many casualties? Where this time? 

I’ve lost track of certain public acts of violence. They come so fast and so furious, I literally cannot keep up.


In the 15+ years that have followed my college days, I’ve lost track of certain public acts of violence. They come so fast and so furious, I literally cannot keep up. My mind can only hold so many at any given time. And as my awareness of world geographies and events grew, so did my sense of being overwhelmed and ashamed, inundated by knowledge that would hurt me if I tried to hold onto it. Which causes was I supposed to fight for? What conflicts was I to be against? When? How? A fraction of events, ours in bold:

  • Madrid train bombings (2004)
  • Virginia Tech shooting (2007)
  • Norway attacks (2011)
  • Sandy Hook shooting (2012)
  • Murder attempt on Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan (2012)
  • Gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in Delhi (2012)
  • Boston Marathon Bombing (2013)
  • Westgate shopping mall attack in Nairobi (2013)
  • Schoolgirls’ kidnapping in Nigeria (2014)
  • Church shooting in Charleston (2015)
  • Terrorist attacks in Paris (2015)
  • Orlando nightclub shooting (2016) 
  • White supremacist terrorist attack in Charlottesville (2017)
  • Mass shooting in Las Vegas (2017)
  • Murder of Ahmaud Arbery (2020)
  • Homicide of Breonna Taylor (2020)
  • Murder of George Floyd (2020)
  • United States Capitol Attack (2021)
  • Shooting in Buffalo (2022)
  • Shooting in Laguna Woods (2022)
  • School shooting in Uvalde (2022)
  • Chattanooga shooting (2022)
  • Henderson shooting (2022)
  • Tulsa shooting (2022)
  • Houston murders (2022)
  • Philadelphia shooting (2022)
  • Ondo State, Nigeria shooting and bombing (2022)…
The author in Wisconsin headed to her first full-time job, age 31

The author in Wisconsin headed to her first full-time job, age 31.

I’m not sure I have any more reserves of grief. I’m depleted. I have fatigue, pity, hopelessness. But no fresh tears. I don’t want to be heartless. I also don’t want to be heartwrenched every few days coping with the emotional turmoil of another news story as we send “thoughts and prayers” to the families and victims. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. Thirty years as we moved from print to digital. Thirty years as we went from in person to online. Thirty years as my knowledge of the world ballooned and my capacity to manage the emotional legacies and traumas in turn shrank. According to the Gun Violence Archive, we’ve had over 230 mass shootings this year alone. At this rate, we can expect about 500 in 2022. And that’s to say nothing of rape, beatings, brawls, homicides, domestic abuse, stabbings, drug-related violence, etc. Is this the profile we want for “the greatest nation in the world”? And if I say we are a nation that glorifies guns and violence, I run the risk of being called unpatriotic. How does one win?

I’m not 7 anymore. The door to my youth is tightly closed. There is no button to rewind. I’m 37, but perhaps just as lost in managing the incessant barrage of violence confronting me non-stop. My moments now are spent reading the ingredient labels on beverage bottles like Simply Light’s because my sugar intake is regularly too high. I pass the Hot Cheetos with longing knowing that they’ll taste great, but I will live a fiery, moaning regret the morning following consumption. I take glucosamine now to keep the joints mobile. And the only men who come close to activating my salivary glands go by “Mahershala,” “Idris,” and sometimes “LaKeith”– not “Johnathan,” not “Taylor,” and not “Leo.” The music that moves me represents throwback sounds to classic R&B like H.E.R.’s, Giveon’s, and Khalid’s. I haven’t owned a television in 14 years, but am glued to screens, nonetheless. The only new phenomenon that has excited me in a while comes in three-letter form: WFH. Friends from college send me Christmas cards with their kids on them. I have white hairs. The era is new, yet some things haven’t changed. 

A new song came out recently by Aliah Sheffield and en masse we reluctantly agreed with its lyrics:

Earth is ghetto I wanna leave
Can you beam me up?
I’m out on the street
By the corner store
You know the one on 15th
Got a bright shirt on so I’m easy to see
I been down here stranded indefinitely
I can’t reach my planet,
But I need to leave
You should see these people
It’s hard to believe
How they treat each other
It’s hard to conceive

How well adjusted can a citizenry be after witnessing non-stop violence? When you think of how we started, how could it be any different? When will we stop pretending ours is a peace-loving nation? Three decades have taught me that part of being an American from the United States is fishing deep down in your purse for the right platitude to deliver at the right moment when faced with yet another tragedy that numbs you. It’s brushing your brow in relief and thanking God that it didn’t happen in your town or on your block or to you or the people you love this time around. It’s hoping that politicians will use their power to enact change when decades of records tell you they won’t. It’s understanding that though they’ve told you that you live in the freest democracy on the planet, you haven’t got the time, energy, attention, or know-how to take off of work and dedicate yourself to testifying before Congress on behalf of your beliefs and the interests of your loved ones. It’s preparing to memorialize 19 lives we failed to protect and obligating women into birthing new ones into the same circumstances that will not guard them. It’s seeing the cycles and not being able to wrest yourself from them. It’s understanding that “society” is a misnomer we use because we don’t have another to better describe the scenarios in which we live. It’s somehow, uncomfortably, begrudgingly, keeping public violence as our trustiest companion on a journey called life where the scenery constantly shifts but the backdrop somehow remains stubbornly — violently– the same.

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