The murder of Lawrence King and the need to go beyond hate crimes

I am looking forward to the day that people stop killing people. War, domestic violence, stranger violence, indifference, it all just rips tiny holes in my heart. There are so many stories of violence, too many stories, and so we can’t keep up with them all, so I don’t usually blog about individual murders. But the shooting death of Lawrence King earlier this month has fixed people’s attention, hopefully in a good way, on anti-queer violence, and maybe, if we respond thoughtfully, we can get a couple steps closer to a world without murder.

I heard about Lawrence King’s murder through Marie Fortune’s great blog, and she specifically talks about getting to the roots of the problem. King, who was just 15, was allegedly shot by a 14-year-old who he had said he had a crush on. It’s easy to just discount one or the other of these young people — in the form of blaming the victim or getting enraged at the perpetrator. But getting at the root means looking beyond individual blame to the broader circumstances in which a child is prepared to commit murder by the age of 15.

Some people will try to just blame this one boy, send him away, and go on with business as usual. Of course this young man is responsible for his actions, but his actions are not happening in isolation — the list of recent anti-queer murders is far too long. These are not isolated incidents, they are part of a pattern that shows a bigger problem than we can solve by just punishing individuals and ignoring business as usual.

How do we address the problem of anti-queer violence? Hate crime legislation, which I used to be an advocate for back in the early 90’s, is probably not the answer. It was an important social movement because what we were asking for was that acts of violence against people in specific social groups be taken seriously. Many queer people (myself included) had the experience of reporting a crime to the police and having them respond with indifference.

In that context, creating harsher penalties for these crimes seemed like a reasonable solution. We would force prosecution, we would require police to respond to these crimes. But, over time, I have come to see that threatening to lock up people  for harming someone is a satisfying but ultimately ineffective strategy to prevent violence. It does not generate what we really need to prevent violence — more understanding and caring of people different from ourselves.

In order to prevent violence, we cannot turn to the threat of violence. Instead we need to create situations in which we are teaching each other understanding, promoting understanding, and making understanding each other the norm. When understanding each other is the norm, then we are not using violence on each other to solve our problems and mask our fears of each other.

Some of my favorite groups who do work with young people to teach them how to navigate difference include Kids on the Block (grade schoolers)  SMYRC (teens and young adults), the Illumination Project at PCC (run by my dear friend Jeannie LaFrance). There should be programs like this for young people of every age, and of every ability, so that we normalize understanding. In a world where difference is becoming the norm, we can’t survive without skills that teach us how to meet and connect with people different from ourselves.

To those of you who knew and loved Lawrence King, I know that there are not words that can heal the horrible injury to your family, but our thoughts are with you, and please know that many of us are working in many different ways for a world in which things like this never happen again.

Leave a Reply