Jessica Hoffmann

Beyond Violence: On School Shootings, Domestic Abuse, Hate Crimes

Filed By Jessica Hoffmann | February 15, 2008 11:18 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living, The Movement, The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: anti-violence, binary gender, child abuse, class warfare, Critical Resistance, domestic violence, hate crimes against LGBT people, heteronormative, homophobic behavior, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, Lawrence King, prison abolition, prison industrial complex, queer youth, racism, school shooting, transformative justice, Transforming Justice, UBUNTU, Violence Against Women Act, West Hollywood

As Gina posted yesterday, a reportedly gender-nonconforming teenager was shot and killed by a classmate in Oxnard, CA, this week. Today, the LA Times is reporting that prosecutors want to charge the 14-year-old who shot him as an adult, for a "premeditated hate crime." It's a sad story, all around--for both of these teenagers, the shooter as well as his victim; for all of us who live in a society that would meet violence with violence, that would punish instead of working to heal.

Gender-based violence is a tragedy. A violent discipline-and-punish system that puts people in cages is a tragedy, too. (Much more after the jump)


In the late 90s, I worked as a teacher's assistant in a one-room alternative high school in West Hollywood that served LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming teenagers who had been so consistently, so deeply brutalized by their classmates in mainstream LA public high schools that they'd stopped attending, dropped out, refused to ever go back.

The place I worked was part of the public school system, a "safe space" created to ensure that these folks had an opportunity to finish high school. The students came from all over sprawling LA, some of them getting on small yellow buses before dawn to get there, some of them walking from group homes in the neighborhood, long a center of LA's gay community.

Earlier this week, I was in that neighborhood for a friend's reading at A Different Light, LA's LGBT bookstore. Walking for the first time in a while along the block where I used to walk with students to a community-garden project several days a week, where they were often charmingly boisterous -- being teenagers, being kids who'd been scared of revealing themselves at their former schools and who were now (somewhat) safe in a class full of other queer and gender-nonconforming people, in a neighborhood where gay was the norm, laughing and flirting with each other, strutting in their fabulous outfits ... being in that neighborhood again this week, I was thinking about how it's become even more gentrified, more unaffordable than it was then--and I was also thinking about how fucked-up it is that, as recently as a few years ago in LA, it was still deemed necessary by a major urban school district to create a "safe space" for kids who were so targeted for violence because of their gender or sexual identities that they wouldn't, couldn't, finish high school without it.

And then I heard the news about Lawrence King, a teenager the LA Times says had "recently proclaimed himself gay" and "started to wear makeup and jewelry," who was shot and killed this week by another teenager in a junior-high classroom in another Southern California neighborhood.


This morning I woke up to the sound of a child screaming, crying. I couldn't make out what the adults in her apartment (behind mine) were saying, but she was protesting, begging, "No, no," and then spewing lots of hard-to-make-out words, some kind of urgent explanation, urgent and rapidfire like it might save her.

There are a lot of loud-crying, loud-fighting households in the building behind mine. I don't always hear them; the sound tends to travel more toward my partner's window. (His room is next to mine.) Sometimes he comes into my room while I'm sitting at my desk and looks at me, bewildered: "You don't hear that?" He says they've been at it for a long time, he can't believe I'm just sitting here, working. Often it's just that the sound literally did not travel through my windows; I simply did not hear. Other times, I realize when he points it out that I have indeed been hearing it -- literally, I mean -- that my ears have taken in the sound, but somehow I didn't register it. I tuned it out.

I spent a lot of years of my life doing that -- tuning out the yelling and crying, hearing it but not hearing.

This morning when I woke up to the sound of that little girl yelling and crying and desperately trying to explain and screaming through tears "no, no" to the adult/s in the room, I thought: I don't want to cry first thing in the morning (but here it is, the feeling already welled up and ready to flow). And: That sound is so familiar. That is my sister's sound. That is the sound of the child she was. And it's a sound I too often listened to from the other room, helpless, scared, so many times when I failed to step in and help her. It's a sound I learned to tune out so I could read, do my homework, stay focused on the sphere of my life (school) where I felt confident, secure, something like safe.


Here is what the LA Times has told us about the boy who shot Lawrence King:

  • He turned 14, the legal cutoff for charging an adolescent as an adult in California, on Jan. 24.
  • His father has served time for charges relating to domestic abuse and substance abuse.
  • Reporters don't know yet where he got the gun he used to shoot King.
  • He and some other "boys" ... "had a verbal confrontation concerning King's sexual orientation a day before the killing."
  • Prosecutors want to charge him as an adult for a "premeditated hate crime."
  • If convicted, he could face 50 years to life.


For the past several years, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence has critiqued the feminist movement against domestic violence and sexual assault for its reliance on a violent law-and-order system. How does strengthening the violent -- and racist, and norm-enforcing, and classist -- prison industrial complex through things like the Violence Against Women Act and hate-crimes legislation help to end violence? they have asked.

It doesn't.

Ending violence has to entail healing. It has to entail transformative justice, getting at the root, looking at all the dynamics at play, all the parties involved -- the ways most of us are part perpetrator, part victim, part complicit bystander to the violences of heteronormativity and a rigid, binary gender system; to the violences of a racist, classist, heteronormative prison system; to all violence.

In sadness, in rage, in post-traumatic numbness, it is hard, hard, hard to see, let alone hope for, ways out.

But social transformation, transcendence of violence -- interpersonal and structural -- is possible. Amazing people are engaged in visionary projects right now to heal individuals and society, to end violence of all kinds. For instance:

Generation 5 is working to end child sexual abuse in five generations.

Critical Resistance is organizing a tenth-anniversary gathering to bring together people who are working to abolish the violent prison industrial complex. And lots of radical queer and gender-binary-challenging folks are participating.

INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence is doing brilliant, challenging, movement-altering work to end violence of all kinds.

UBUNTU is a women-of-color and survivor-led group that has "joined together through our rage, our pain, and our hope to generate strategies and actions that prevent, disrupt, transform and heal sexual violence. We are committed to challenging oppression in all forms because we recognize that none of us is free until we all are. We are committed to envisioning a just and loving world."

Hundreds of people recently came together at Transforming Justice, the first-ever national conference dedicated to ending the criminalization and imprisonment of trans and gender-nonconforming people.

Gender-based violence is a tragedy. A violent discipline-and-punish system that puts people in cages is a tragedy, too. Together, we can mourn and work to transcend both.

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Yes, and it's especially troubling since the shooter's apparently going to be tried as an adult.

I wish we'd move on from seeing people who break the law or do something horrific as bad people who need to be punished. Isn't that what caused this problem in the first place?

There is the small issue of community risk. However they got that way, there are a certain percentage of "non-reformable" offenders who cannot manage to live non-violent lives outside prison. These people go on to kill other strangers or friends or sexual partners or....

It is possible that this 14 year old is reclaimable, and it is possible that he is irreparably antisocial and violent.

I have to admit though, I don't know what to do with the offenders then.

This kid killed Lawrence King. What do we do with him if we don't punish him? Give him a stern talking to? If he doesn't go to prison or juvenile hall, will we put him in a Motel 6 while he gets tutored in tolerance, justice, civics and basket weaving?

While we're off trying to end violence, what happens to those committing violence while we're gone?

Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

Nancy and Bil -- all of the groups I mentioned are committed to organizing for community well-being and safety and holding perpetrators accountable. Transformative justice doesn't suggest that there are no consequences for violent actions, but that a violent prison system is not an effective way of ending or protecting communities from violence -- that, in fact, that system is more likely to increase overall violence, at the individual and societal levels, making us all less safe.

Several people I know who attended the Transforming Justice conference have recounted how moved they were by a particular exercise in which participants were asked to think and talk about what makes them feel safe -- and it felt pretty clear to the people who told me about this that prisons do not make them or their communities feel safe. What really makes a community safe? Having some people (2 million, as it stands now, in the US) locked up in cages? How else might we envision safety, for everyone? What would it take to create a society in which everyone feels safe?