Hello, my name is Jenna

T.A. Barnhart

Hello, my name is Jenna

Penny Okamoto, Rep Alissa Keny-Guyer, Sen Ginny Burdick, Cmsr Deb Kafoury & Andrea Paluso of Mother PAC

I’ve been to dozens of these: forums, town halls, “conversations”. An issue arises — we have no end of issues arising e and a group holds a meeting to inform the public. Generate support. Engage a few people in action. Get something meaningful done. There’s never an end to the meaningful to get done.

Family Forward Oregon (aka The Mother PAC) held a forum/conversation about gun violence on Tuesday evening at Bridger Elementary. The invited speakers were Sen Ginny Burdick, a long-time advocate of “gun control” measures; Rep Alissa Keny-Guyer; Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury; and Penny Okamoto, Executive Director of Ceasefire Oregon. For over an hour, in front of a group of people of the size I expect to see on a cold Tuesday evening, questions were asked, issues discussed, ideas shared. The discussion was excellent; I had almost no clichés or talking points, and I learned some valuable things. Okamoto praised Sam Adams for his efforts to address gun violence: “that dude was brave”. I got to say my own piece (we have to stop using the words “gun control”; all people hear is “we’re coming to take away your guns”).

And then, a young woman was handed the microphone so she could speak. She was nervous, shaking a bit; many people do when addressing a group of strangers, even a small group like ours. Finally, in a quiet voice, she said,

“Hello, my name is Jenna, and… my… sorry…. My mother was killed at Clackamas and I just wanted to say, Thank you to all of you for being here. Um… It’s nice to see that community coming together and having these discussions. And I think it’s really important. And I think it’s unfortunate for these kinds of events to happen for these discussions to happen. But I truly hope we can see some kinds of changes. So, thank you.”

As she spoke, I set down my camera, put aside the iPad i was taking notes on. I bowed my head and tried not to cry. I’ve heard people tell painful stories, heart-rending accounts of what they’ve gone through in life. I’ve had each of my parents taken away in the space of a few words over the phone. But I’ve only once experienced anything like this, and that’s a story that won’t be told for some time. This was not “emotional”. What I felt as Jenna spoke those first few words carried an impact from which I am still reeling.

On the day of the Newtown killings, I had gone early to Crossfit so was home and had on MSNBC when the news started to trickle in. I rarely watch these things on cable news, but that day, I watched almost the entire day. I could not believe that extent of the tragedy. Living in a world where, in my lifetime, millions have been brutally murdered by tyrants, thugs, killers and careless corporations, where innocent people are butchered daily, routinely; the idea of a young man gunning down twenty first-graders was beyond comprehension.

And for Jenna, Newtown came as she was still trying to come to grips with her mother’s death at the hands of a young man using a gun to act out on his pain, or madness, or cowardice, or whatever it was that led him to the mall that afternoon. Yet in the weeks since, she’s found the strength and the grace to step forward and say, Thank you for at least talking about why my mom was killed.

Emotion is not a good basis for law or policy. We send our ideas for laws through the sausage-maker, not so everyone gets a chance to stuff it with pork, although many do exactly that. We go through the convoluted, ungodly process so that by the time we’re done and the president or governor is ready to sign the bill, enough different eyes and minds, and hearts, have looked and thought and spoken; that we have a bill that, we hope, is good policy based on good reasoning. Not the quickfire of emotion.

Listening to Jenna’s simple words tonight was not an emotional experience; it was something far more profound. The politics of reducing gun violence is exactly the same for me as it was before: educate people, engage supporters, make phone calls to key legislative leaders, get as many people to hearings as possible, etc. Work the bill. (Tonight, at an event following the forum, I got to speak about this with Val Hoyle, Tina Kotek and Ellen Rosenbaum, all of whom spent some thoughtful time with me. I did not let a good opportunity to advocate go to waste.) I will continue to discuss this issue with people on Facebook and elsewhere. I hope to connect with Ceasefire Oregon and help in their efforts. I want to know how various bills can pass through a Legislature with Democrats in control but representing such diverse communities; that won’t be easy.

Tonight was not an emotional experience, but it has left me shaken to my core. While I was busying doing my thing, snapping photos and thinking politics, I was just a few feet away from a young woman suffering one of the most terrible pains any human can. Fifteen months after my father’s sudden death from cancer, I’ve still barely scratched the surface of my own grief, and yet his death was natural and not completely unexpected. Before tonight, I would have said that I can only guess at what Jenna might be feeling. I now know that’s not true.

Deep down inside, I am sharing some part of her pain. I just don’t have any words for it, and my mind has no simple explanation for it. So it thuds inside me and knocks me sideways. My focus does not change — we still have to organize, and we still have to pass some goddamn laws that reduce the violence — but the will, the force behind why I care and act on this has changed.

A slight change. A violent change.

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