In the summer of 2016, I wrote about the spectral shadow of gun violence dimming the light of renewal in one of our historic neighborhoods. It was the second essay I wrote for the site.
Not one month later I wrote again about violence, as a pair of homicides in our city seemed of a piece with the endemic condition typifying these late stages of the American experiment. At the time I suggested that community—particularly exemplified by our community—was the only durable and lasting solution to the polarization and Othering that drove the unceasing anger and manifest violence along with it.
What a quaint idyll 2016 was, in retrospect.
Of course we know now that the flood tide of polarization didn’t ebb, but rather washed over us in an algorithmic deluge of bitter division. Of course we know now that gun violence and the cheap culture war rhetoric canonizing the martial posturing of our dumbest American entitlement has not in any way abated but only further metastasized. Of course we know now that our community has not been immune or special or spared.
This year in Alexandria has seen spikes in burglaries and DWIs, along with spates of vandalism and carjacking. Shots fired incidents have propagated into neighborhoods throughout the city, and singular instances of violence have shocked the public. Fights at the high school and middle schools have roiled social media feeds and local news coverage alike.
None of this is ok. None of us should pretend this is ok.
But even as we agree that we do not need to accept or tolerate this slow erosion of public safety we must also agree that we cannot seek a solution in the same dark torrent that has dragged us under to begin with. Our response to the challenge of this moment cannot—must not—be further acrimony and division.
The violence and disruption we currently face is not due to any local or state or national elected official, it’s not driven by the actions of any city department or staff, it’s not being catalyzed by the presence or absence of anyone’s pet public safety intervention. This is not a political problem, it is a human problem. It is a humanity problem.
We are coming out of—hell, are still stumbling through—one of the hardest and most tragic periods in most of our living memories. This public health crisis has cost people their jobs, their livelihoods, and for 147 of our fellow Alexandrians, their lives. Our school-aged children went nearly 18 months without seeing the inside of a classroom full-time. The financial, emotional, and mental toll that the pandemic has put on each of us individually and all of us collectively is genuinely incalculable. People are desperate. And desperate people do desperate things.
Our response to unthinking cruelty cannot be more unthinking cruelty. Our response to anger cannot be more anger. This is not a moment for grandstanding demands, or punitive crackdowns, or a return to failed police-state excesses; this is a moment to remember who we are and who we want to be.
I still believe even in the face of the past year—of the past four years—that coming together around a shared commitment to place is the surest foundation upon which we can build safety and prosperity. We have neighbors stealing because they are hungry, so we must address that hunger. We have neighbors abusing substances because they are in pain, so we must address that pain. We have neighbors fighting because they are grieving, so we must address that grief as surely as we must mitigate that violence.
Efforts like the basic income pilot, ongoing eviction prevention measures, and new investments in our early education and childcare workforce are not on the surface public safety measures but they will surely protect and strengthen our community as much or more than any armed agent of the state. Similarly, the dialogue around school resource officers and the recent fights in our schools is a genuinely complex issue—the notion of safety is profoundly complicated and unevenly distributed. Rather than creating a zero-sum political fight pitting the mental and emotional safety of some students against the perception of physical safety of other students, we must pursue a shared attempt to find solutions and common ground informed by the perspectives of those most impacted by these events: the students.
This is not a time for coming apart, it is a time for coming together. Do not sit safe behind a locked door and abjure the parts of our community that need each and all of us now more than ever before. Do not look at your neighbor and through a veil of long isolation see only the Other. We can overcome the transient anxiety and fear that has infected us over these long hard months. We can share a commitment to place again. We can be a true community.
It can feel like a frail thing, community. But it’s a deceptive frailty, particularly when measured by our individual resolve. By putting faith in one another—by understanding that it is not each of our resolve alone that must carry the collective weight—we find the subtle and quiet strength that was there all along, a strength that comes from our civic volunteers, from our faith communities, from our business leaders, from our elected officials and from every person that has decided that making a life here matters. It’s a strength that will be there when we call on it so long as it’s grounded in this sacred and powerful exercise of shared humanity. Community in the end, is not frail. Community—real community—is hard.
But then again, so is anything worth a damn.
– P.C. Publius
October 4, 2021