Saturday, April 20, 2013


me reading names

On Wednesday evening Ben and I participated in an event on Capitol Hill held by an organization called  No More Names.   We had signed up for half hour slots, during which we would read the names of those who had been killed by guns since Sandy Hook in December.  We were scheduled for 8:30 and 9:00 pm that night, and didn't know what to expect.   But we thought it was important.  The event would make a powerful statement, if not a difference.  It was a simple protest, but eloquent.  The list of names would speak for itself.

 The Senate had met earlier that day - and before we arrived to read names, they had already blocked legislation that would expand background checks on individuals purchasing firearms.

"They have no souls. They have no compassion for the experiences that people have lived through ... [having] a child or loved one murdered by a gun. They say that it's not the gun, it's the man. I'm here to tell you ... The man and the gun become intimate and they cannot do the act without each other. So the gun is part of the problem." Patricia Maisch

One of my friends posted this comment on Facebook.  Underneath he added his own words:
"The Senate's outcome is truly despicable. Evil. How dare they!"   This report elicited lots of response. 

Yes. We are disgusted.

We parked the car across from the Library of Congress on Wednesday evening and walked towards the Capitol.  That spring evening, it was all lit up.  The alabaster whiteness of the building against a silver sky with golden lights streaming from the windows looked majestic and beautiful.  Hardly any pedestrians passed. You wondered how anything could go wrong in a building like this.

We crossed the concourse, looking out for the protesters we were joining.  Then found a small group underneath the trees on the left side of the building.  We could see a podium standing on the grass, a single light on the lectern, and two or three people with bottled water and various pieces of video equipment standing around.  Two young men stood at the podium, one black and one white. They were reading names.

A young woman approached us and asked who we were - and we told her we were here to read.  She thanked us and asked us to sign her log.  We then helped move the bottled water and the canvas chairs as well as other equipment to a paved area closer to the Capitol. Meanwhile a young man at the podium continued to read names aloud to nobody - although there was a camera set up and his list was streaming live on a website, as indeed it would, for the entire week.

He finished reading. And now it was Ben's turn.  Ben stood at the podium.  He was handed a list, and given instructions to read the name of each victim, his or her age and then to say, "was shot and killed by a gun" and give the date, the city and the state.

I sat on a canvas chair with a bottle of water and listened from a distance of several yards. Ben read in a clear and matter of fact tone, one name after another.  Some names fell into groups. They were people with the same last name and from the same city - and sometimes there was the name of a three year old child thrown in.  More often than you'd think there were victims whose name was unknown and age was unknown,  but as Ben read he never ran out.  He turned pages and the victims kept coming.  Some from California. Others from Pennsylvania.  New York.  Michigan. Florida. Some victims were twenty, others were in their forties or their seventies. Some names were ordinary. Others were cheerful nicknames. Some had middle names and they sounded mellifluous.  Some had no names at all.  Then the girl who was organizing the event, gave him a five minute signal, and soon it was my turn to read.

I stood at the podium, with the Capitol behind me.  It was dark outside and the trees around us were in new leaf against a pinkish sky. A gentle breeze ruffled the pages, and taking up where Ben had left off, I began to read names. I found myself thinking how each one was given to an individual.  Although I was speaking names that meant little or nothing to me, for somebody out there, these names evoked particular people.  Their very utterance would give them a picture of those who had carried the names, individuals they had known and possibly loved.

So there was something sacred about uttering these names in front of the Capitol building,  in which a few hours before the Senate had voted against gun legislation.   It felt like a privilege - like administering last rites, like throwing flowers on a coffin before it is buried. It also felt like the voice of one crying in the wilderness.

I read women's names, and men's names, boys, girls and infants' names. I felt the names stick in my throat for a moment and then empty into the atmosphere.  I hoped I was pronouncing the names correctly.  But nobody was there to hear.  Yes, a camera recorded my words, but nobody physical stood in front of me and listened.  Volunteers milled around in the gloom and my voice to them became a distant backdrop.  At one point Ben took photographs, to record the moment, I guess, maybe to post on Facebook and let people know what we'd been doing.  But I didn't care because I was in my own head - in a world of names and victims, trying to picture where they'd come from and who they were and what they thought they might become.

After half an hour, I think I might have covered the dead from three and a half days. I think I read from March 23 to half way through March 26, 2013. The names blur together in my mind now.  I cannot remember any of them.  But yet I felt honored to read them, and at one point a little overwhelmed.  My voice cracked.  Standing in front of the Capitol and reading these names, each of which represented a person who no longer had a voice to speak out - was something I couldn't absorb.  But surely it was the least I could do.

Ben and I went home.  We had a cup of roibus tea.  We went to bed.  Then today as we drove with friends down the George Washington Parkway, we could see the dome of the Capitol out across the river.  "Did you hear what Ben and I did on Wednesday?" I asked them, only now remembering.

"No. What?" they asked.  I began to explain.

They nodded.  "Hmm," they said.  And then the conversation turned to something different. The flowers were blooming.  Our day had been beautiful in Old Town, Alexandria. And we were still alive.


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