Thursday, September 1, 2016

Violence and Healing

I’ve had some thoughts on violence and healing. They are personal but also reflections on what has happened to my city this past month.

On August 2 while riding my bike I was hit by a car. Witnesses said I was hurled two car lengths and landed on the side of the road.  I was taken by flight for life helicopter to Froedtert hospital. I suffered a broken neck, brain injuries and three breaks in my right clavicle.  I had spinal fusion surgery August 5 and was released from the hospital August 22.

I’m not able to concentrate on much besides my rehab.  Walking, eating, and sleeping are all difficult and require my full attention. I’m now in a long, hard rehab process and am on medical leave from my university job. I’ve had to postpone or bow out of several important legal cases where I am an expert witness. 

It’s time for me to begin to heal. But watching the “unrest” in Sherman Park from my hospital bed it occurred to me that it is not yet time for healing in Milwaukee. Healing is what you do after surgery or after major interventions to change oppressive conditions. Healing means the patient is on the road to recovery. That is not the situation today in MIlwaukee. Now is time for action. Healing comes later.

In the early 1980s I lived in Sherman Park and this was where I began my work with gangs.  In my first book, People & Folks,  I pointed out that the desperation in Milwaukee’s ghetto guaranteed the gangs would not go away. And they haven’t. In the 1990s I wrote an article titled “Milwaukee I Do Mind Dying”  and argued that unless radical measures were taken Milwaukee’s future would look more like Detroit or East St.Louis than Minneapolis or Indianapolis. Twenty-five years later we are Detroit’s equal in poverty, even more segregated, and by some measures the nation’s worst city for black people to live in. Thousands of Milwaukee’s black youth are as desperate today as they were when gangs first formed. The busy construction in today’s downtown is a sign our city leaders have embraced a “city of spectacle” but continue to ignore the “city of desperation.” 

And now these same leaders and their media call for “healing” with no accompanying agenda to bring us the sweeping changes we so desperately need.  Weeks after the police shooting of Sylville Smith, the body cam video has still not been released.  We don’t need healing when each day the wounds of oppression are inflicted anew in the nation’s fourth poorest city.  To call for healing as oppression continues is to provide a cover for our city’s inexcusable inaction on jobs, unwillingness to control police, and persisting policies of mass incarceration. This is what is meant by the slogan,  “no justice, no peace.”

I am a Unitarian and my partner Mary Devitt has been among those leading an effort to mobilize Milwaukee's religious community to “stand on the side of love.” To me this does not mean “healing” it means empathy for those who continue to be oppressed. Empathy means demands for action to address the real needs of the black youth living in our city of desperation.  Long ago, Dr. King called for nothing less than “a radical reconstruction of society.”  We've heard the empty words of politicians for decades and these failed promises are why youth have been incited to riot.  These angry soldiers of the night need our empathy and understanding as we stand on the side of love.

In the 1980s I wrote that Milwaukee’s gangs were signs of rebellion  — much of it destructive, but still rebellion against desperate living conditions, police violence, and a one-sided policy of jails not jobs. Nearly 30 years later these remain the principle factors that sparked the “unrest” in  Sherman Park.   

I am physically healing but our city can begin to heal only after our leaders wake up and begin needed fundamental changes, This awakening starts with  a major jobs program and concrete measures for greater police accountability. We can't begin healing "until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” 


  1. Good Morning John What a way to find out about your accident. We experienced one in February and Dona was out for 55 hours and in the next 37 hours came back. The brain is an amazing organ. Yes as August started in your adopted city and in your own life. The doctors fortunately knew what to do and how to do it to save your life and they had the power and resources to do that. Chicago and Milwaukee were not as fortunate

    Have you read "Why They Kill" by Richard Rhodes about the work of Lonnie Athens PhD? If you haven't for starters read chapters 10 and 11 which is written in terms that you will understand much better than I do. It describes the journey, road to violent behavior as Athens sees that journey. First 9 chapters deal with Athens life. It is the book that profoundly changed my life and set me on the journey I have been on.

    Peace Take Care

    Some of the best advice that we got was give yourself the time and then double the time. Also Dona found almost by accident a very good trauma therapist and while she felt so claustrophobic that she could not sleep in our bedroom that with a few sessions with him that was cured.

    Tom Spellman

    When you are up to it, would love to talk about Athens observation/theory.

  2. Thanx Tom. I've met Lonnie and am familiar with his work. I'm not able to process much now but I take heart in Dona's story. My work with gangs is informed most by Randall Collins and my ethics by Grossman and Hannah Arendt. I'd love to talk once I'm up and about. I like you advice to doubt the expected recovery time. Thanx

    Collins, Randall. 2008. Violence : a micro-sociological theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
    Grossman, Dave. 2009. On killing : the psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society. New York, NY: Back Bay Books.