What’s “good,” who’s “bad” and what it means for Newark
Published May 16, 2018 | Rachel Wagner
Abigail E. Disney’s Emmy Award-winning documentary The Armor of Light recently played downtown for the PSE&G True Diversity Film Series. The film captures the journey of Reverend Rob Schenck, an Evangelical minister, as he transitions from being pro- to anti-gun.
Schenck admits early on in the film that he’s, “Conservative…very conservative actually.” But somewhere between his anti-abortion agenda, a killing that takes place on his street, and a connection to Lucy McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis—the 17-year-old unarmed Black high school student who was murdered by Michael David Dunn, who is white, at a Florida gas station in 2012 because Dunn became enraged at the teen playing “loud” music)—Schenck begins questioning the influence that corporations like the National Rifle Association and Fox News have within his white Christian community.
That wasn’t the perspective I expected when I sat down for a documentary about gun violence. When I think of gun deaths, I think of domestic violence, revenge and policing. The people in this film, however, framed their defense of gun ownership largely in terms of their sense of “stranger danger.” That defense relied almost entirely on a “good guy” versus “bad guy” dynamic. For them, guns were an instrument of their own potential heroism. They seemed to envision themselves as the bulwark between a deranged shooter and innocent lives, saving the day with their firearm (“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” said one of the film’s subjects, voicing over an often-repeated defense of gun ownership.)
During the question-and-answer session at the end of the film, one person in the audience wanted to know, “What is the fear? What are [white Protestants] afraid of?” Disney nodded sympathetically and said that she knew from her experience growing up in that church that much of the fearfulness comes from their dominant thinkers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, who believed that people are inherently bad.
But these values reach beyond the church. This problematic good-versus-evil dichotomy can be found all over popular American culture: every superhero, every cast of cops on television, every pronunciation of support to the U.S. military. It’s the same line of thinking that helps people justify incarceration because we’re told that everyone in there is a “bad guy.” But this mindset is a tool that keeps people at a literal distance from each other to avoid solving serious social issues.
Situating this narrative in Newark in 2018 highlights the city’s own relationship to “good” and “bad.” It’s no secret that Newark has been treated badly. It’s also been deemed a bad place for business with a bad history and a bad crime rate. Newark has been “bad” in people’s minds for long enough that people in neighboring cities and towns really believe it, and choose to stay away.
But the same thing that lead to white flight also leads to gentrification. It’s during the process of gentrifying a city like Newark that “good” and “bad” people are sorted. In this era of gentrification, this animates the question of who gets to stay. Who can pay that rent? Who is an ideal candidate for a job? What would Newark look like if it was “good?”
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I left Armor of Love feeling jolted by these thoughts. My son was also giving me a hard time leaving the venue. Carrying him to the car, I couldn’t decide if Schenck’s small change of heart was supposed to be uplifting or not. But what I felt most was frustration with the way gun rights were framed around reproductive rights in the film. There is overlap (for example, domestic violence rates are higher for pregnant women), but thinking about abortion and guns in the service of theories, as opposed to grappling with these critical issues on their own terms–that was hard to process.
I keep thinking: what do you do with a guy like Schenck or a city like Newark? Humanizing those affected by gun violence certainly helped Schenck unlearn certain ideas. That same technique can then be applied to other issues, like gentrification, violence against women, LGBTQ homelessness, police-invaded cities, and military-invaded countries. Noticing the ways our fears have been exploited is ultimately a step towards resistance.
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