High on the Hill

One good thing about Nob Hill, it has, like other hills, altitude. Attitude also, but one expects that. What one doesn’t expect on this sweltering Bay Area afternoon is a breeze. And here it is, in the city of St. Francis, actual airflow. Jane has parked her Honda in the cheapest car park available for blocks, meaning that for a mere $35 we will spend a few hours here high on the hill.

High on the hog also, the Fairmont Hotel being known for that sort of thing. There are plenty of people in the lobby to direct us to the one tiny elevator going down. Where we get our badges and wander into the boarding lounge, for want of a better word. While boarding the evening’s passengers are encouraged to bid on the likes of wines, two weeks in Fiji, paintings and so on. Why not? It’s certainly a good cause, The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Formed in the wake of the massacre, 20 years ago, in the high rise office block at 101 California Street. Where….

In less than an hour we hear the story from California’s Senator Dianne Feinstein. A tall woman, which everyone knows but me, and in remarkable nick…but I have never seen her live…she comes to the podium and immediately tells what happened in 1993. A pathetic little man parked his Cadillac in San Francisco’s financial district, donned earplugs, loaded a couple of machine guns, then stepped out of the elevator on the 34th floor and systematically wandered the corridors gunning down people – nine by the time he was done. And by this time, 20 years later, I have come here thinking that no one remembers, fewer care…and why attend this memorial fundraiser? Until Feinstein takes the stage before 800 people and takes control. If people don’t know what happened that afternoon, they do now. Her account is merciless, filled with bloody detail, and utterly necessary.

With more than 30,000 people dying every year in this country from gun violence, why focus on these nine? For me, it’s a matter of contrast. How one can go about middle-class life, sitting down to a meeting in a high-rise office…wandering home from a campus library…and see hatred, unconstrained and armed to the teeth, walk in the door. Any door, anytime. With weapons straight from a military campaign.

Which is, essentially, the entire issue. Why would American citizens want to have combat weapons at home? How can the National Rifle Association seriously believe that people need a weapon that fires a hundred rounds a minute to defend themselves from a burglar or go hunting? But we have some fairly small number of people who believe that everyone is the military. Why? Honestly, I leave this matter to sociologists. The 1791 condition of the former 13 colonies necessitated a homegrown army, a.k.a., militia…a “well regulated militia” in the second amendment’s language…and, yes, that DYI army of former colonists did have the “right to bear arms.” That this has almost nothing to do with today should be obvious to anyone. Enough of that.

Leading one to ask, “what is really going on here?” A black minister from one of San Francisco’s poor neighborhoods, Hunter’s Point, an area blighted with gun violence, took the podium to tell us clearly. This is a battle for the nation’s soul. It is a struggle to reclaim our collective humanity. To remember that no one should die, particularly no one young. His name is Pastor Michael McBride – and I would like to hear more from him.

Nancy Pelosi, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, is short, harder to see behind the podium, and no orator – and yet she had some haunting words herself. Citing an historical or biblical tale (I can’t recall), someone challenged to justify his life is asked “show me your wounds.” In this metaphor, she was urging her fellow politicians to suffer wounds at the polls for doing the right thing about gun laws. And wounds, being such a universal experience, yes, for shooting victims in a particular way…but for everyone who has lived, this sank home.

Thing about McBride, he does salve this liberal’s conscience. I am painfully aware that the 101 California shootings, as well as Sandy Hook, capture attention because they involve the haute bourgeoisie. But I think it’s best to hang up that painful awareness, just for a moment. For what I am hearing now is most telling. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, it turns out, does some work on its own. But it does much more in conjunction with big law firms, some in San Francisco, but many national. Lawyers who could make big bucks doing almost anything else take on these galling courtroom battles over gun laws. In an era that routinely celebrates power and privilege, hearing of these pro bono efforts did my heart as much good as anything else.

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