Over the last four years, the University of California Santa Barbara has become as much my home as my childhood house designed and built by my father. In a way, it’s more my home than anywhere else — it is here I am coming into my own as a scholar and human being, it is here I have found a community of people who are in many respects closer to me than my own family.
On May 23, 2014, the very foundation of our world was shattered. Much ink has already rightfully been spilled over this surreal tragedy. To a certain extent many people (including myself) feel inured to such horrific events because the plain fact is that they are so common. If we were all to appropriately mourn each event such as this, we could not continue to be productive people able to carry out our day-to-day lives.
As a teaching assistant, I’ve had the privilege of teaching hundreds of wonderful students about the history of art. Within my department alone, four of the six who died were either current or previous students. I have the awful blessing of being able to say none were mine, although they were students of my colleagues. My colleagues will now have to negotiate how to confront those empty chairs in their classrooms. Our lecture hall for our Modern to Contemporary Art survey will be permanently missing two people. How could we have anticipated this moment?
The fact of the matter is if you spend your life living and working at a university, you have, as I did two weeks ago, wondered what you would do if someone were to come in and start shooting in the library stacks. To say these thoughts are born out of illogical paranoia is to deny the precedent that established them: School shootings — that very phrase — are part of the vernacular of American culture.
The survey course for which I am currently a teaching assistant canceled sections this week. Last Tuesday we discussed the coming week’s lesson plan, which was to be a section on feminism and performance art. We were to end class with a discussion of the Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz’s media performance In Mourning and In Rage from 1977 in which women cloaked in black responded to the “Hillside Strangler” case on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall. They were protesting the ways in which the media failed to appropriately address systemic violence against women (killers have targeted, raped, tortured, and murdered women specifically). Lacy and Labowitz’s piece is markedly remembered for the powerful chant these cloaked women uttered: “In memory of our sisters, we fight back!”
In the most terrible sense, this was the best and the worst week possible to teach this particular piece to my students. Five days before I would have taught this section, young women and men were the target of a young man’s ire because these women would not give what he had decided was rightfully his, that being their affections, bodies, and sex. Let us remember the piece is from 1977. This is 2014.
In academia, if a historian were to make an argument that a tragic event was primarily caused by only one thing, the argument would be labeled reductive, overgeneralized, and lacking nuance. Such is the case with the shootings in Isla Vista. This event is the result of not only issues concerning gun control, mental health care, and a culture of sexual entitlement, but rather a horrible confluence of all of the above. To say this event is unbelievable is to deny the possibility of believing that horror such as this exists — for it is no longer unbelievable; it is. As historians, our job is to try and make sense of seemingly aberrant and impossible events. It is our endeavor to figure out what conditions could lead to this kind of horrendous occurrence.
I implore everyone to think about these issues — gun control, mental health care, misogyny — as part of the larger fabric of our world. These issues engage with each other and transgress borders. It is our job to address each for what they are and recognize how they might intersect.
In mourning and in rage, in memory of our brothers and sisters, we must fight back.