Emotions ran high at the City Council meeting last week.
Anger. Frustration. Fear.
Yes, fear. That other four-letter f-word.
Few issues are as emotional as public safety. Few emotions are as powerful as fear.
From shots fired at the crowded high school stadium during a football game last year to the shooting death of a Selma High student last month — and every gunshot and other act of senseless violence in between — the fear level rises.
So we come to City Council to express those fears, and vent our frustrations that nothing is being done. We ask why our City Fathers haven’t acted to get rid of this scourge of gang violence.
We can’t let our children go outside to play, or to take the trash out. We don’t go outdoors at night. Over and over, we hear — and repeat — those same fearful comments.
So the fear grows louder at the council meetings, in conversations on street corners and cafes, on social media. Fear breeds anger and distrust. Talk of gunfire in our neighborhoods inflames the masses, and isn’t that the point? Unless the masses get riled up, will anything get done?
These are questions we all must ask. Most of us have not personally been victims of gun violence, but as Selma citizens what happens to a few of us affects us all. This is our town, we like living here and want to stay.
But we are afraid.
Last fall, when we heard gunshots on Thompson Avenue behind Staley Stadium, we scrambled in fear. Even though bullets can’t get through the solid walls of the bleachers, so we were technically safe.
But we were afraid.
Our police chief tells us that unless we are engaged in gang activity, drug activity or in a violent domestic relationship, we have a slim chance of being a victim.
But we are afraid.
Fear is as much about perception as reality. We fear what is happening and we fear what might happen.
So it is both rational and irrational. Something big, hard and fast coming toward you in the street is a rational fear. Move, or you’ll get run over.
A gang shooting across town while you are tucked into your bed asleep in your quiet neighborhood might create an irrational fear. But that doesn’t make us any less fearful. Then a disturbed man shoots hundreds of bullets at a concert in Las Vegas. He kills 58 people and we no longer believe anyone on earth is safe.
One frightening incident can cause emotional damage for years. Several decades ago, riding my bicycle home from work in Visalia late at night, I was robbed at gunpoint by some young punks in a car that pulled up beside me.
For a few years after that, I could feel my heart beating faster anytime a car drove up behind me at night. Irrational? Probably. But still a fearful reaction, one that took several years to abate.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Franklin D. Roosevelt famously stated in his first inaugural address.
Indeed, we encounter dozens of fears every day. Financial fears, health fears, academic and professional fears, national and global fears. And the more fearful we become, the more unsafe we feel. And isn’t safety one of mankind’s greatest emotional needs?
Last week, we saw fear take the form of frustration and anger when citizens confronted the City Council. Some in the crowd pleaded with the council to do something, anything. Speakers made suggestions and proposals intended to help ease the violence that makes us afraid. Gang interventions. More cops on the force. Better pay to retain the cops we have. More cops on patrol instead of at desks. The power of faith.. And you know what? All of those ideas have merit that our city fathers should look closely at.
Because getting a handle on violence in our city isn’t going to come from a single solution. It will take a lot of work from a lot of us — police, City Council, schools, churches, neighborhoods — working together. It will require both short-term fixes and long-term solutions.
Which brings me back to Roosevelt’s famous quote.. Here is FDR’s complete sentence, uttered as he took the office of President in the midst of the Great Depression:
“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
So our challenge in Selma is to let our fear energize us, not paralyze us.
And that will take a measure of courage. As Nelson Mandela said so eloquently: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
As this city goes forward to combat violence, we will need a large measure of courage. And we will need it sooner than later.