The Common Good

Shutdowns and Shootouts – My New Hometown Normal?

It's a rough month to be a Washingtonian.

My morning bike ride past the Capitol Building is leaving me less with the sense of inspiration I used to feel at being so close to the heart of democracy, and more with a creeping sense of disgust. Sometimes it's tough to live in a city whose very name is a synonym for Congress. "Washington" recently decided to cut off all funding for national parks, health research, and, oh yeah, programs that serve poor Americans.

Thanks to Congress, poor women might not get help from the Women, Infants and Children program to feed their babies. Head Start preschool programs have been canceled, leaving parents unable to work. People who need the SNAP program to feed their families could be left with nowhere to turn, while sick and elderly people who get regular visits from Meals on Wheels volunteers are worried about where their food will come from over the coming weeks.

There are about 40 members of an extremist ideological minority who are ruining the reputation of the place I live and work, and taking the poor down along with them.

Then there's the city itself.

There's an arbitrary (but very real) difference in talking about "Washington" and talking about "the District." If Washington is a stand-in word for Congress, D.C. represents the city that is inhabited by real people – more than 630,000 of us, actually (not one of whom — ahem — has representation in Congress). Despite our political disenfranchisement, it's a great city to live in.

But it's feeling less and less safe to be here.

Just over two weeks ago, a shooter killed 12 people in an office building half a mile from where I live. As I was walking out my front door, people just a few blocks away from me were huddling in fear under their desks.

Last week, a city already on edge from the political drama and recent shooting was subject to a high-speed car chase that ended with an unarmed woman, struggling with some form of mental illness — and determined to ram her way into the White House and Capitol Building — being shot by police. With the memory of the Navy Yard shooting fresh on our minds, we all assumed the worst.

Tourists — shut out from the museums and monuments of our city — were ducking for cover under bushes and fearing for their lives. "But that's my bike route!" I remember thinking.

These events are starting to become normal. We wait expectantly for body counts, motives, and mental health diagnoses. We text our mothers, and post to our friends that we are OK.

The next day, still shaken, we stared at our computer screens again as news came in of a man lighting himself on fire on the National Mall. He later died from his injuries – so disfigured that they have to run DNA tests to learn his identity. This is not the behavior of a person who is being well cared for by our current system.

Those who oppose legislation that would put safer limits on gun access commonly say that mental health is the real problem. Can we take them seriously when the same group of lawmakers just shut down the entire government in an attempt to block a law that would expand access to mental health care?

We need to care for people. It's not an option if you read the Bible. Churches, individuals, and — yes — governments, need to care for people. We need to care for the mothers in the WIC program, for working people not making enough to feed their families, for people struggling with mental illness, and for people who want to believe they are in safe public places.

Unfortunately, I live in a city that's getting a reputation for doing just the opposite.

Janelle Tupper is the Online Organizing Associate for Sojourners.

Image: Washington, D.C., skyline, Orhan Cam / Shutterstock.com

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