Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Non-Fiction November: Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge (Review)

Release date: September 27th, 2016
Author links: Goodreads - Twitter
Publisher: Guardian Faber Publishing
Pages: 320

Description (from Goodreads):

On Saturday 23 November 2013 ten children were shot dead. The youngest was nine; the oldest was nineteen. They fell in suburbs, hamlets and ghettos. None made the national news. It was just another day in the death of America, where on average seven children and teens are killed by guns daily.
Younge picked this day at random, searched for their families and tells their stories. What emerges is a sobering, searing, portrait of youth and guns in contemporary America.


With the US election making headlines daily, even here in Finland, I have found myself increasingly gravitating towards content focused on the US society. Ever since living in the US, and even before that really, I have found the demographics of the country extremely interesting -- it really is a melting pot of different religions, cultures, customs, races, etc. -- a place much bigger and much more varied that my home country. After reading the description of Gary Younge's Another Day in the Death of America, I was instantly interested. The US gun control laws have for years been something I have been curious about, mostly because the kind of guy violence that goes on in there, fortunately, feels very distant to my place of residence.I have watched a number of documentaries on the topic, but the kind of personal touch the synopsis for Younge's book promises was something I had not come across before.
On average, seven children and teens are killed by guns daily in the United States. SEVEN. That means an average of 210 children/teens in a month. An average of 2555 children/teens in a year. And this statistic does not even include suicides. I know comparing the United States with my home country Finland is probably not the best way to go, but I will do it anyway. Finland is on the fourth place in the list that details the owning of firearms per capita, with about 1.6 million registered firearms in a country of about 5.4 million people. The most recent statistic about gun deaths I was able to find comes from 2013 which states that 177 people died in gun-related deaths that year. What has to be noted though is that over half of this group consists of gun-related suicides. 

While the statistics from Finland might seem small compared to the numbers from the United States, it has been argued that guns are becoming a problem in Finnish society as well, mainly due to the high suicide rates in the country. Police need to use guns rarely, and the kind of statistics Younge represents about the fatality of guns in relation to children feel very distant to me (we have had a few mass shootings in the past 10 years, but the idea of losing an average of 7 children/teens daily is not something I can really even fully understand). 

The stories Younge introduced in this book are the stories of Jaiden Dixon (9), Kenneth Mills-Tucker (19), Stanley Taylor (17), Pedro Cortez (18), Tyler Dunn (11), Edwin Rajo (16), Samuel Brightmon (16), Tyshon Anderson (18), Gary Anderson (18) and Gustin Hinnant (18). These ten boys/young men were all killed by guns on Saturday 23 November 2013. Some were killed on the streets, some in their homes. What they all share is the fact that their lives ended way too soon.

Younge states in the introduction of his book that he is not writing about race or gun laws, per se, but rather attempts to present a book that is "about America and its kids viewed through a particular lens in a particular moment." It is a book about those whose deaths are often merely looked over as a statistic, deaths that were never really discussed in the media or written about to newspapers. 

In the introduction, Younge references New York Times journalist Joe Nocera who has said that "individual deaths don't have the same impact and ability to galvanize people because mass shootings are public spectacles. [Mass shootings] create a community of grief." The community of grief Younge references back to time and time again is Newtown and the horrid events that took place there, and how those events increased the discussions about gun legislation in America. While Younge in no way belittles the events in Newtown, he brings up an important point by arguing that because these deaths that this book covers happened often in bad neighborhoods, 9/10 times to children of Black or Latino origin, they didn't manage to gain the kind of attention Newtown did. While Newtown was something sudden, something horrible and completely unexpected, the deaths of these children in these poor neighborhoods seem to be something "expected", something that never manages to form these communities of grief.

There have recently been cases where the attention of the media has turned into the killing of especially black young men, but those cases have often involved law enforcement officers using guns to kill people in situations that have been beyond questionable. Videos and pictures have made their rounds in social media and those deaths have become the focus of activist movements like Black Lives Matter. Younge's book does not include deaths by law enforcement officers, but the role of law enforcement is brought up in the way the deaths were handled. It is not at all surprising to note that the death of Tyler Dunn, the only white child out of the 10, seemed have gotten the most attention. I am not saying Tyler Dunn's death was any less tragic than the other deaths. I am just agreeing with Younge by saying that race definitely plays a role in situations like this. Younge states "America is racist. Not all Americans. But America -- its judiciary, economy, and social fabric". This can be seen for example from the fact that African Americans are six times more likely to be incarcerated, twice as likely to be unemployed, and almost three times more likely to live in poverty than white Americans. 

Due to a combination of all of these things - unemployment, poverty, as well as other aspects - African Americans, like this book shows, are often driven into certain areas of cities and towns. According to Younge, these are often the places "where children and teens are expected to get shot -- areas where the deaths of young people by gunfire do not contradict a city's general understanding of how the world should work, but rather confirm it. To raise children there, whether they are involved in criminal activity or not, is to incorporate those odds into your daily life." While for some these places might seem like the hellish ghettos Donald Trump keeps talking about in his speeches, I appreciated the fact that Younge emphasized that despite the things that go on in these places, these areas are the home for tight communities, families that love and care for each other. 

In order to account the deaths of these 10 individuals Younge has relied on a fairly small amount of newspaper report, law enforcement files, and most importantly, the interviews he has conducted with those who were closely touched by these losses. While some of the families have been more open and willing to tell their stories to Younge, others have wanted to remain silent. The way these families recount their grief shows concretely that we all deal with grief differently. The thoughts the parents share about their children are heart-shattering, and the way especially the parents from neighborhoods were the deaths of their children were instantly categorized as "gang related crimes" speaks a lot about the way law enforcement tends to deal with gun deaths that take place in these "bad" parts of towns. The inclusion of the stories of the parents and friends make this book so much more than a collection of statistics -- it is a collection of stories about lives that ended way too soon and about futures that never were allowed to reach fruition.

Towards the end of the book Younge states: 
"Americans are no more inherently violent than anybody else. What makes its society more deadly is the widespread availability of firearms. Every country has its problems, unique to its own history and culture. But in no other Western society would this book be possible."
While Younge is not directly writing about gun laws, it becomes very clear from his book that he sees the amount of guns and the easy access to them as a problem. He also comments on the Second Amendment by saying:
"To base an argument on ancient texts is effectively to abdicate your responsibility to understand the present by offloading it onto those who are now dead. It denies not only the possibility of new interpretations and solutions but the necessity for them."
Younge interestingly points out that none of the families he spoke to brought up the Second Amendment directly and that while they believed that guns were too readily available, they also thought that there was nothing that could really be done by it.  Guns seem to be so deeply embedded into the American society that completely getting rid of them seems very unlikely indeed. But as the deaths of about 2500 young people yearly prove, something has to be done.

It is important to note that if Younge would have picked any other day of the year, he would have had completely different stories to tell. Younge concludes by describing this phenomenon as "a war that is generally acknowledged in the abstract but rarely specifically addressed in the concrete...[a war that is] happening to America. Every day."

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