Three months ago today Adam Lanza shot and killed his mother in her sleep before he killed twenty children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut -- then, as police arrived on the scene, he took his own life. It has been a pivotal moment in the American gun violence epidemic. Like other recent moments of upheaval, many have amplified their concerns online. Though the debate about guns is unwieldy, many people around the country have engaged in creative acts of resistance against gun violence. Three months after Newtown, a rising community is gathering momentum through actions documented for distribution online. Not always artists per se, but creative nonetheless -- these sometimes accidental activists are unified through the breadth and scope of their efforts. Each of the actions discussed here demonstrates simple and effective means of speaking out.
But, first, why Newtown? Why have these shootings generated public debate in a way that previous shootings have not, including the shootings in a Portland mall two days before? Perhaps because of the number of victims, the majority of whom were young and vulnerable, or because of the combination of issues at stake: mental health, access to military-style guns, and the rising threat of gun violence against children in America. Indeed, the vulnerability of the victims at Sandy Hook stands in high contrast with the unspoken accountability placed on Lanza's first victim, his mother Nancy Lanza. Collective memory has already begun to complicate our perceptions of Nancy Lanza's death -- more often than not, reportage fixates on Adam Lanza's "twenty six" victims, but if we are to confront the gun violence epidemic in all its horror, we must also contend with his first brutal crime that day and ultimately his violent suicide.
Within a day of the shootings, a number of young poets had made videos of solitary spoken word performances and uploaded them to YouTube. Hip-hop artist Jason Chu's video, 27 (memorial for Newtown school shooting), contends with the fleeting attention paid to the gun violence epidemic: “...when the cameras leave the scenes/we move on as well/except for twenty seven families/still trapped in their own hell...” Online gaming company Zynga -- the makers of Farmville and Words with Friends -- created a digital condolences platform, called Hearts with Sandy Hook, for the nearly one million users who wanted to express their support for the families and community of Newtown. Though strangely beautiful, the gesture also raises questions about the relationship between violent video games (and the absence of regulations in the gaming industry) and gun violence.
A little over a month after the shootings, popular author Stephen King published a Kindle Single titled "Guns", featuring an unmitigated essay about the gun violence epidemic in this country. Heated debates about mental health care and gun violence -- and the role of legislation in regulating gun safety -- have become part of the larger public dialog in the wake of the Newtown shootings. These concerns also came to the fore after Columbine, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Oak Creek, and Tucson -- places that have all become synonymous with gun violence in the public realm. Newtown has been different because the capacity for protest is expanded through social media. Opposition can now be amplified. It isn't that people weren't angry before; it is that they have greater autonomy to express it now. King opted to publish his essay on Kindle Singles because he wanted it published quickly. It was completed, published, and available for download within a week.
A multitude of recent Facebook groups have become active in organizing various online campaigns, including groups such as Occupy the NRA, March on Washington for Gun Control, and Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, joining the ranks of longstanding organizations such as The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. One such group, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, recently organized a collective action called Paper Dolls, Steel Resolve which encouraged people to send images of cut paper dolls to Congress.
The internet offers an expansive archive of these types of gestures, including projects on Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, among other sites. On Pinterest, Fire guns Infographics presents an extensive number of compelling information graphics about gun violence. A Twitter feed under the name @GunDeaths, in partnership with Slate magazine, presents an interactive, crowdsourced tally of "How Many People Have Been Killed by Guns Since Newtown?" As of March 14, the number of deaths was 2,657.
If we are to find anything hopeful in the wake of the Newtown tragedy -- and we must to create change -- it is located in these simple and profound gestures of humanity, empathy, and solidarity. For all of the flaws of social media -- including most notably the drive to monetize public engagement -- thus far, it offers one of the most widely accessible and democratized public spaces for creative action and connectivity. In any instance of change, resistance finds its greatest strength in a multitude of voices, online and in the built environment -- however you can do it is one more way it needs to be done.
Letters to Newtown
Newtown Illustrator Ross MacDonald, in partnership with Mother Jones, created a Tumblr project selected from images of the more than 500,000 condolences cards and letters sent to the community after the shootings. Understandably, the town has been overwhelmed by the volume -- when civic leaders began talk about incinerating the letters, with the intention to mix a symbolic amount of ash into the cement for a memorial sometime in the future, MacDonald, among a group of volunteers, began advocating for their preservation as historical documents on par with the Revolutionary War documents and Native American treaties in the custodianship of the Newtown Library. Some believe that selections should be made available as traveling exhibitions, as a visceral demonstration of collective grief. Professional digital archivists, historians, and librarians should be part of the dialog about the future of this material culture -- presently it falls under the jurisdiction of First Selectman E. Patricia Llodra. "These letters are documents of kindness, charity, and humanity," MacDonald said in an interview for this article. "They are also historic documents. Reminding people how they felt in the days after the shooting is how we are going to get change to happen. This is why they need be maintained by the Newtown Library and why there needs to be a proper digital archive." For more information, visit letterstonewtown.tumblr.com.
20 Sundays is a creative protest action organized by an anonymous father in Virginia. The first Sunday after the massacre he placed a single toy at the entrance of the National Rifle Organization headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia; placement has continued on intermittent Sundays to memorialize each of the children slain at Sandy Hook. He photographs each placement and uploads the images to the 20 Sundays community page on Facebook. He drew inspiration for the project from the nonviolent resistance strategies of scholar Gene Sharp, of the Albert Einstein Institution, and from the actions of Bosnian cellist Vedran Smailović, who played on top of the rubble from a deadly mortar attack for 22 days straight, in plain view of snipers, one day for each of the people killed in the attack during the 1992 Bosnian conflict. "For me the project demonstrates solidarity with the families in Newtown," he said in an anonymous interview for this article, "and it allows me to express my grief over their losses. I would like to think that it might help defang the leadership at the NRA and to get people thinking about sensible gun legislation." For more information visit facebook.com/20Sundays.
Broadway choreographer Lorin Latarro organized the first in what has become a series of performance art flash mobs in New York's Times Square in February; events in Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco are also being planned. Open participation is solicited via social media. During the event, the crowd freezes with their hands above their heads before sinking to the ground in pairs. One person lies prone while another traces their outline in chalk before they reverse roles. In under a minute, the performance is over and everyone walks away leaving chalk outlined bodies on the ground. For Latarro, who admits to not knowing who her congressional representative was before Newtown, the work is a success if even one person changes their mind or decides to raise their voice. "This is our right -- to protest in public space. The idea that we have no voice in this debate is a myth," she said in an interview for this article. "We can have a voice just as loud as the NRA if we want it." For more information visit artammo.org.