The heart is a muscle. As such, it technically cannot be broken, but it can be crushed. What do we say in such a heart-crushing moment in history, when our community has been hit by such violence and hate?
My morning routine this past Saturday was going the way it always does. I was sitting down to drink my smoothie and check Facebook. But instead of seeing the usual life updates of my friends and family, I was bombarded with several breaking alerts. Then, a friend or two posted about a shooting at a Squirrel Hill synagogue, and as I started to read, I was gobsmacked. The number of lives lost kept mounting, and with them, the number of lives changed forever. Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood had just been turned into the site of the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in United States history.
Everything I had planned to do on Saturday I cancelled. I saw a post from a friend with whom I have co-hosted seders and Hanukkah parties, telling everyone they were ok – they work about a block away from Tree of Life, but weren’t at work on Saturday. I asked if they needed anything, unsure of what else to do. I am following through on a promise I made to them today. In a moment of shock and disbelief, offering to pick someone up from an appointment and drive them home seems like so little. But it’s these little actions that can mean the world. I went to the Saturday night vigil organized by Taylor Allderdice High School students – as always, the youth lead the way. Vigils are a nice way to see that you’re not alone, but it’s action that needs to happen now.
How do we even respond?
Reflecting today in the office, I liken my thoughts to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I have a feeling all of us Pittsburghers (and those of the greater Pittsburgh diaspora) will soon be going through them. We’ve already hit denial. How could this have happened, here?
But it did. And while this violent act was committed in the name of anti-Semitism, we also have to look at the other crimes of hate that have happened – and still happen – here. Pittsburgh consistently ranks as “one of the most livable cities in America,” but this is not the reality for a vast number of our residents. It’s not true if you’re Black, because institutional white supremacy has redlined, gentrified, and segregated this city. Jonny Gammage was killed for driving while Black; Antwon Rose was killed for being a passenger while Black; Jordan Miles was beaten to the point of hospitalization for walking while Black. David John Piergalski was brutally beaten to death in Schenley Park in 1989 for being gay. We’ve been home to dozens of people killed in the fight for fair labor. We have far more progressive history than other cities our size, but we can’t ignore the bad things that have happened here.
Not quite three weeks ago, I stopped by one of my favorite local stores – Journeys of Life in Shadyside. They were releasing “Erase Hate” bracelets, designed to raise funds for the Matthew Shepard Foundation. In 1998, Matthew Shepard was brutally killed for being gay in the wrong place. The bracelet release was to honor the 20th anniversary of his death. I didn’t know how timely my purchase would be. It’s on my arm as I’m typing this.
I am in the angry stage of grief. I am angry at the elected officials who peddle hate day in and day out, who refer to asylum seekers as rapists and drug pushers, and call for “Second Amendment solutions” to silence their opponents. I am angry at elected officials who take millions of dollars from groups such as the National Rifle Association, but ignore the vast majority of their constituents who call for common sense gun laws. I am angry at elected officials who have voted to cut funds for mental health treatment, food stamps, and social safety nets, and who voted to gut the Affordable Care Act. And yes, I am angry at the voters who put these elected officials in power.
But I’m going to be constructive with my anger. I may be one person, but I can do so much! From the little things – giving rides, checking in on friends, cooking – to the big things, such as voting, lobbying for the issues I’m passionate about, and speaking up whenever I see injustice. At the end of Saturday’s gathering, the cry of “VOTE” went up around the crowd. Some of the high school organizers are probably not even old enough to vote yet – but they know how important it is.
What are you doing to turn your anger into action? Remember:
“The heart is a muscle the size of your fist. Keep loving, keep fighting.”
Anne E. Lynch
Manager of Operations
Three Rivers Community Foundation