THE BLOG

Violence Against the 'Other' as Systematic Blight on Our Society

02/17/2015 02:49 pm ET | Updated Apr 19, 2015

"Stability and peace in our land will not come from the barrel of a gun,
because peace without justice is an impossibility."
Desmond Tutu

There is an old tradition in our western states of ranchers killing a coyote and tying it to a fence to scare off other coyotes, and to keep them from coming out of their hiding places. That's what Matthew Shepard's killers did to him in 1998 outside Laramie, Wyoming. Matt's convicted murderers, Russell Arthur Henderson and Aaron James McKinney, smashed his skull and tied him to a fence as if he were a lifeless scarecrow, where he was bound for over 18 hours in near freezing temperatures. The message to the remainder of us lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from these killers was quite clear: remain invisible by staying locked away in your suffocating and dank closets, and don't ever come out.

Stigmatized and marginalized groups live with the constant reality of random and unprovoked systematic violence directed against them simply on account of their social identities. The intent of this xenophobic (fear and hatred of anyone or anything seeming "foreign") violence is to harm, humiliate, and destroy the "Other" for the purpose of maintaining hierarchical power positions and attendant privileges of the dominant group over minoritized groups.

Just recently, we witnessed the brutal police chokehold death of Eric Garner, the multiple-bullet police killings of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, the vigilante death of Trayvon Martin, the execution-style murders of three Muslim students in North Carolina -- Deah Shaddy Barakat, a dental student, his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha -- the destruction by arson of a building at the Islamic Institute in Houston, Texas, and the spate of killings of primarily trans* women of color, including Jessie Hernandez, Alejandra Leos, Aniya Parker, Gizzy Fowler, and Kandy Hall to name only a few. And these are merely just a few of the most visible examples of this form of violence against unarmed members of stigmatized groups.

We must not and cannot dismiss these incidents as simply the actions of a few disturbed and sadistic individuals or to a limited number of "bad cops," for oppression exists on multiple levels in multiple forms. The killers live in a society that subtly and not-so-subtly promotes intolerance, spreads stereotypes, imposes stigmata, and perpetuates violence and the threat of violence. These incidents must be seen as symptoms of larger systemic national problems.

In these times of declining social mobility, and as the gap between the rich and the poor ever widens, dominant groups attempt to divide the dispossessed by pointing out scapegoats to blame. For example, vigilantes sometimes calling themselves members of the so-called "Minutemen" movement target and hunt down anyone suspected of entering this country undocumented.

We are thus living in an environment in which property rights hold precedence over human rights. Metaphorically, oppression operates like a wheel with many spokes. If we work to dismantle only one or a few specific spokes, the wheel will continue to roll over people.

Referring to Matthew Shepard's shattered body, his uncle cried: "It's like something you might see in war." Yes, we are fighting a war: a war against ignorance, fear, and prejudice, which is literally killing people. And amidst this crisis, segments of our country perpetuate a process of collective denial by refusing to acknowledge the mere existence of this war in its attempts to silence the "Others."

In the final analysis, whenever anyone of us is diminished, we are all demeaned, when anyone or any group remains institutionally and socially stigmatized, marginalized, excluded, or disenfranchised, when violence comes down upon any of us, the possibility for authentic community cannot be realized unless and until we become involved, to challenge, to question, and to act in truly transformational ways.