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We Need A National Gun Violence Memorial

An image of a raven soaring over Los Angeles

Two months ago, as I worked on this essay, I wrote the middle parts and left a simple placeholder—“[some kinda hook]”—where this introduction would go. It’s not unheard of to write the opening last, and unfortunately, in this case, I knew a hook would present itself in the news soon enough. When you write about gun violence in the United States of America, there’s always a next time.

Right on cue, horror struck. On the New York City subway, a gunman started shooting his handgun and didn’t stop until 29 people were injured. Miraculously, no one died. Still, the event filled millions of people with fear and sorrow and empathy. And it changed forever the lives of those on that subway car who experienced this cruel, pointless act.

Meanwhile, far away from the actual attack, it didn’t take long for tragedy to get transformed into the hook for hundreds of hot takes and think pieces and press releases. Police expansionists used it to push a narrative of fear and argue that we need a bigger, more empowered, more militarized police. Gun control advocates pointed to the attack as yet another data point showing the need to pass laws that restrict access to guns.

If you’d prefer an audio version, you can listen to this essay on the Lightplay podcast:

And then, as I finished this essay, a young man with an assault rifle entered a Tops grocery store in Buffalo and killed ten shoppers, all of them Black. The media cycle repeated itself, with some changes due to the shooter’s clear link to right-wing propaganda. Then, it happened again: a young man with two assault rifles killed nineteen kids and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Ulvade, and injured seventeen others. More op-eds were penned, hands wrung, hopes and prayers offered.

It’s unspeakably awful. My heart breaks, for all these lives lost, these families shattered. For every one of us who bears the psychic wound of witnessing senseless violence at massive scale. I’m sorry this is our world.

But what can we actually do? Yet again make the same well-trodden arguments? I find myself deeply pessimistic about our nation’s politics. On this issue we’re hopelessly paralyzed, held hostage by a small minority for whom guns are central to their identities. The representatives of the guns-everywhere crowd at a minimum can veto any legislation or regulation to make this not happen again. Another cry into the void, no matter how well-written or righteous, is unlikely to make the necessary change.

Instead, I’d like to make a different, though related, proposal. Yes, we need new laws. But in the meantime we also need a new vessel for our grief, a new platform from which to communicate the incredible pain our country bears from its centuries-long scourge of gun violence. We need a space in which we can sustain our passion, mark our progress, and grow our power. We need a National Gun Violence Memorial.

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Imagine a trip to the National Gun Violence Memorial. You arrive in the morning and enter through metal detectors. The mood is solemn. The Memorial is on a large grounds, with space to expand as long as gun violence continues.

You start moving through the Memorial, and you find yourself following the chronology of gun violence in America. At the start, the scale of the monument is small. Intimate. You read the engraved names of settlers, Indigenous folks, enslaved Africans—all people killed by guns. There is a rise in gun deaths around the Revolutionary War, and afterwards the numbers dip—and then steadily climb. Perhaps there are design elements to indicate the invention of new types of gun.

Soon you reach the Civil War. Its death toll is immense. The structure towers. So many human lives, each ended by one or more shots from a firearm. So many names.

The tide recedes for a time, but not all the way. Gun violence continues. Massacres. Shoot-outs. Murders. Suicides. All recorded, given some kind of modest context but mostly seen as part of the great whole of gun violence.

Eventually you approach the present day. The numbers of the dead rise and rise. Flowers are left beneath loved ones’ names. And now, mixed in with the great numbers of names of those dead by suicide and homicide and accident there are the mass shootings. Columbine. The Pulse Nightclub. San Bernardino. Sandy Hook. Aurora. Buffalo. Ulvade.

And also, if you care to look up their locations, you can find the names of those who died at the end of a gun held by a police officer. And the names of those police officers who died, shot while working. All the names are printed at the same size.

Finally, you reach the present day. A few employees of the Memorial are attaching the latest row of plaques. Work is being done to expand the monument. And you wonder, “How much bigger is this monument going to become?”

Memorials give us space to hold memory, to make pilgrimage, and to pay our respects. They give us a place to which we can lead a march. We can lay a wreath. We can stand and weep. And be seen weeping. At a memorial, weeping can be a political act. A memorial is many things, including a stage.

Memorials occupy space in the cultural imagination. I have never been to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, but in high school I studied Maya Lin’s winning design, a depression in the earth, every last name etched in shiny black stone. Just learning about this space made me firmer in my anti-war beliefs. I’ve also never been to Yad Veshem, the museum in Jerusalem that remembers the Holocaust. Yet many have told me about it, about the emotional experience of passing through it. A memorial—in this case also a museum—can reach people through word of mouth.

The memorial that has affected me the most—despite never having visited it—is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. This memorial, which is less formally known as the National Lynching Memorial, consists centrally of a vast, shed-roofed square with 805 hanging rectangles of steel that represent each US county where a documented lynching took place. Each steel rectangle is engraved with the names of the people known to have died there in acts of racial violence. In an accompanying museum, there stand hundreds of clear glass jars, each filled with soil taken from the site of a documented lynching.

Memorials make absence visible. They give shape to a void. And in their very substantiality, their tangibility, they help us grapple with the immensity of a collective loss.

Simply knowing about the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, reading news articles about it, looking at pictures, reading the report that led to its construction—these interactions with the memorial forced me to reckon with the history of violence perpetrated by our country, within living memory, against Black people and Black communities. It’s harder to look away when there’s actually something there that you can look at. And it should be noted that, since the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in 2018, our country has seen the largest protests for racial justice since the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s. There’s not a straight line between the two, of course, but neither are the two phenomena entirely disconnected.

Another group of activists we can draw inspiration from are the members of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe who live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Like so many of the Indigenous peoples of California, they have faced centuries of violence at the hands of Spanish, Mexican, and US colonization and genocide. What makes the Muwekma Ohlone’s experience different from that of many other tribes in California is that nearly a hundred years ago the federal government decided that they no longer existed. 

This decision was partly reached after the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber declared the Ohlone to be “culturally extinct.” Kroeber held the powerful position of being a professor at UC Berkeley, founder of its Department of Anthropology, and director of its Museum of Anthropology. In these roles, he became the go-to expert on the Indigenous people of California. Perhaps his most famous work was a study of the “last wild Indian” in the US, the man known to history as Ishi. But in contrast to his work at least attempting to preserve the memories, culture, and language of Ishi, Kroeber’s declaration that the Muwekma Ohlone were “culturally extinct” played a direct role in the destruction of the Muwekma Ohlone people, at least as a federally-recognized tribe. In 1928 the federal Office of Indian Affairs decided simply to drop the tribe’s federal recognition.

Reports of the Muwekma Ohlone people’s cultural extinction were greatly exaggerated. Despite Kroeber’s pronouncement and the federal government’s decision, these people did not in fact just disappear. They kept on living, and their elders kept their cultural practices and ancestral knowledge alive. And in recent decades the Muwekma Ohlone have grown more visible, holding ceremonies, fighting to have their ancestors’ burial sites and shellmounds protected, and even holding classes to rebuild fluency in their native languages, among them Chochenyo and Rumsen.

Yet today, the Bureau of Indian Affairs continues its almost-century-long insistence that the Muwekma Ohlone don’t exist. Tribal people have spent decades fighting for recognition both in federal courtrooms and through the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ byzantine, lugubrious processes. Yet so far they have almost nothing to show for it. At the federal level, nothing has changed.

But this is where the work of these Ohlone activists intersects with the work that activists working to prevent gun violence must do. Rather than just tell people to “vote!” and hoping for good turnout at political marches, the Muwekma Ohlone have been building their political and moral power in creative ways. 

To me, the most exciting way they are building power is through the creation of a physical space: Cafe Ohlone. This endeavor is a restaurant, educational art project, and community space for Ohlone people, all rolled into one. Started by Vincent Medina of the East Bay Ohlone and Louis Trevino of the Rumsen Ohlone, Cafe Ohlone has two goals: “to provide a physical space for our Ohlone people to be represented in the culinary world with a curated space that represents our living culture; and to educate the public, over Ohlone cuisine, in a dignified, honest manner about the original and continuous inhabitants of this land.” It started in 2018 in the back of University Press Books but closed its physical space during the pandemic to focus on meal boxes that came paired with ancestral songs. 

This June, Cafe Ohlone is reopening a physical restaurant in a most unlikely place: on the grounds of the Hearst Museum at UC Berkeley. The Hearst Museum is the same Museum of Anthropology that Alfred Kroeber—declarer of the Muwekma Ohlone as “culturally extinct”—directed for decades. Furthermore, the museum’s founding benefactor and namesake, Phoebe Hearst, built her enormous Amador Valley mansion, Hacienda del Pozo de Verona, in 1894, contributing to the displacement of a nearby Ohlone village. And to this day the museum holds many objects that the Muwekma Ohlone would like to see returned.

All of which is to say, opening Cafe Ohlone in the Hearst Museum is an act of real political bravery and creativity. Sure, it’s not the same as getting the Federal Government to recognize the Muwekma Ohlone as a tribe. Of course. But in the meantime, as activists work and wait for justice to prevail, it feels so important that we not just wait idly but instead have a space to gather and break black oak acorn bread together and learn and dream. (Learn more about this story from the Cafe Ohlone menu, in this Forum interview with co-founder Vincent Medina, or in this great KQED article.)

Cafe Ohlone is a utopian space. Around its long, communal redwood table, Ohlone culture and cuisine need no justification. But Cafe Ohlone also serves to build political will, to bring more justice into the Bay Area, and to provide positive proof of the Muwekma Ohlone’s continued existence, even in the heart of the institution that played such a key role in denying it.

To create a National Gun Violence Memorial will require similar imagination and resolve. A good starting point would be for an institution, perhaps one that already exists, to take it on as a project. Money should be raised, a good site located.

A design competition—as for the Vietnam War Memorial—would help raise awareness and public interest in such a project. Perhaps the finalists could be made public, and there could be a mechanism for all interested people to contribute to the eventual choice. A groundswell of interest would help justify the project itself, and assure its success.

Here are some design considerations:

  • The memorial must be accessible and must accommodate many different types of visitors, from the bereaved to the curious and from historians to activists. This will require spaces and opportunities for privacy and publicity.
  • While the very existence of such a memorial makes it political, the space itself should be welcoming to anyone who has been touched by gun violence and should feel both safe and universally moving.
  • The memorial, tracking an ongoing tragedy, should itself be a data visualization. By giving each name equal size and weight, we could viscerally feel the changes—and celebrate the gun control movement’s (thus far hypothetical) victories.
  • The actual weapons that killed people could be in some way incorporated, perhaps beaten into plowshares, perhaps available to be touched, to have flowers placed in their barrels.

These are just preliminary ideas, though. A thorough design process would uncover so many more possibilities, and figure out what is most essential.

Could such a space alchemize the movement for gun control? Could it actually play a role in bringing an end to this age of unchecked murder and suicide by firearm? Even if it didn’t, I think that building a National Gun Violence Memorial would still be a worthy cause. It’s injurious to the spirit not to have a space to hold our grief. And with the decline of the funeral as an institution and of burial as a practice, we need to make sure that we don’t lose our memory in the relentless march of time.

When I was nineteen, I went on a spring break road trip around the Northeast with my girlfriend at the time. We swung down through western Pennsylvania to visit my Grandpa Bob, and he took us for a walk out in Linn Run State Park, a beautiful forest where he was a volunteer ranger. After lunch, we left Bob and drove east towards Philadelphia.

This was just before the ubiquitous smartphone took over, and we were juggling maps, halfway lost half the time. Honestly, we sort of liked it like that.

We had been charging down the road for maybe twenty minutes when we saw a clearly handmade sign: “Flight 93 Memorial –>”

I hit the brakes and made the turn. We drove down a winding, freshly-paved road, passing more signs for the memorial, each adding to the sense that this wasn’t a very official memorial at all. And then we were at the edge of the field where on the morning of September 11, 2001 a passenger jet carrying 44 souls had crashed, killing everyone. Flight 93. It had been bound from Newark to San Francisco.

We parked in a stubbly gravel parking lot. A chain link fence prevented us from actually going to the crash site, which was still visible: a long scar in the ground interrupting the flat, grassy field. But other than the chain link fence, there was no official memorial.

In lieu of official commemoration, there was the most remarkable assemblage of homemade shrines, little tributes, and other offerings. Flags, flowers, hats, rosaries, little wooden angels, patches, crosses, stuffed animals, t-shirts, a fireman’s jacket. A mural, painted on a ratty piece of oriented strand board, showing a waving American flag partly obscured by a soaring bald eagle. Some objects were signed by groups of bikers who had held runs to the site. A few of the weathered objects carried dates reaching back to 2002 and 2003. Others, like fresh flowers, had evidently been left earlier that day.

It was anarchic, handmade, a pure piece of grief, an outpouring of the innate human desire to memorialize. It was powerful.

My eyes filled with tears as I remembered that day when I was ten and woke up to the sound of my radio alarm clock reporting live that a second plane had just struck the second Twin Tower. Laying there in bed, I had immediately picked up that something important was happening. The only thing I could think to do was to write down as much as I could on a piece of paper. Details, numbers, timing. My dad had just been to New York that summer and had brought back a photograph he bought on Canal Street: the World Trade Center looming large above the downtown skyline, in black and white. I looked at that photograph on my wall, struggling to imagine the buildings gone. 

I remember getting dressed and bringing my scratch paper with casualty estimates and the times of each impact downstairs with me. My mom was in the kitchen, on the phone. She was trying and failing to reach my grandfather. Reports were saying another plane had crashed in western Pennsylvania, right near where he lived. Later she took me to school, where first period the band teacher led us to the library, rolled out the little TV, and turned on the news. Planes slammed into buildings, over and over, and over, until the principal walked in and walked straight up to the TV and turned it off.

Now, a decade later, I stook in that field in Pennsylvania, looking at the actual place where one of the four planes had crashed. 

It was good to be there. To see the impromptu memorials people had left. To be around the dozen or so other people who were having their own emotional experiences. It healed something. A decade after that awful day, my experience of 9/11 felt a bit more complete.

When there’s a shooting death on a street corner in Chicago or at a school in Texas, impromptu memorials often spring up. The flowers and stuffed animals and white candles and hand-written notes. These day-after memorials are not so different from that original Flight 93 memorial chain link fence. There’s something horribly sweet about the instinctive way humans feel moved to make a little memorial. These thrown-together shrines can be powerful and moving. 

But when the flowers wilt and the cards blow away in the wind, what is left?

By building a memorial, we together choose to remember something. I visited the Flight 93 site in 2010. An official monument run by the National Parks broke ground in 2011 and opened in 2015, with a final “Tower of Voices” opening in 2018. The Flight 93 National Memorial will stand for a long time to come. So will the National Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, Yad Veshem in Jerusalem, the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, and, I hope, Cafe Ohlone in Berkeley.

We deserve something equally solid, enduring, creative, and visible to help us remember those who have died from gun violence.

(Thank you to Hunter Gagnon and Lisa Locascio Nighthawk for reading this essay, offering edits, and helping me think it through.)