Greg Cohen and one of his 20 portraits of kids holding guns

Greg Cohen and one of his 20 portraits of kids holding guns

Discussion built around a startling photography exhibit lays out the complexity of an American epidemic

By Remy Merritt

In Greg Cohen’s Santa Monica art exhibit there are 20 photographs of kids holding guns — the same number of children killed during the December 2012 Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn.

The discomfort that arises when viewing these images while snippets of interviews  with victims of gun violence play on a loop frames Cohen’s central argument: Gun violence has become an unavoidable fact of life, and those most vulnerable are looking to us to take responsibility.

There have been at least 74 school shootings since Sandy Hook, including last year’s violence at Santa Monica College.

It didn’t take more than sharing that figure to expose the deep emotional connection that Cohen, who grew up near Newtown and is now a father, has to the crisis. Tears welled in Cohen’s eyes as he asked, “How can children understand that? We can’t even understand that.”

A community panel that assembled on Sunday around Cohen’s “Farewell to Arms” exhibit at The Angel Station art space in Santa Monica was a call to explore a larger discourse on the epidemic of gun violence, one that slanted toward a dearth of mental health resources while considering issues of freedom, empowerment and American individualism.

Santa Monica indie media impresario Gerry Fialka, the panel’s moderator, began with a concession that like anything man-made, words and statistics have their pitfalls. Sure enough, face-offs over quoted numbers took place multiple times, with sources ranging from the U.S. Department of Justice to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Guns, like cars and iPhones, are a part of our culture. When Fialka asked whether anyone owned a gun, three audience members raised their hands. Each of the event’s six panelists said they had fired a gun. Even Loren Lieb, a member of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence whose son was shot and injured in the 1999 North Valley Jewish Community Center shooting when he was only six years old, had pulled a trigger in her lifetime.

One audience member offered an opinion that the crisis is fed by media attention blowing up shootings into public spectacles.

“I think humans walk around Earth looking for acknowledgement,” said Cohen.

Panelist Deshaun Lavender, a former L.A. gang member, responded from experience as an inner-city youth who took to the streets to find such acknowledgement. He lost both his parents at a young age; when Lavender was only three months old, his father died at the hands of police, and at 12 he found himself orphaned after his mother was killed by a drunk driver. Within a year of his mother’s death, Lavender was initiated into a gang. He was 13 years old.

When it comes to inner-city gun activity, “People are desensitized to it. No one really cares about it. If it happens in the suburban areas, everyone is alarmed … in the inner city, this is happening on a daily basis,” Lavender said.

Sylvia Thompson, president of the Westside LA National Alliance for Mental Illness, made the point that just as mental illness is often implicated in shootings, shootings have fed stigma against the mentally ill that is making scapegoats out of the depressed or schizophrenic. There is an assumption that shooters are always mentally ill, reinforcing the discomfort and alienation of those who need extra community support.

“One in four adults has a diagnosable mental illness … and there is no correlation between mental illness and aggression,” Thompson said.

However, she added, the mentally ill are treated as if they are prone to violence and are “four times as likely to be incarcerated than treated. And that’s a problem.”

The panel seemed to arrive at a central point that what our country appears to be missing is an effective method of keeping guns out of the hands of those who would use them for harm. And while words are not equal to action, Cohen’s installation and the discussion around it do encourage sweeping change.

But if Sandy Hook has taught us anything, it’s that even the most horrifying crimes are not enough to unite the nation in a single, lasting state of compassion and unselfish grief.

Acknowledgment of another’s differences, struggles, pain or joy emerged as a theme for the panel, as well as acknowledging that we have created weapons, entrenched them in society and now must deal with the consequences.

For Thompson, the answer lies within the society itself.

“We have to look at these kids that are struggling, and the people on the streets and in the inner-cities,” she said. “We need to stop the hemorrhaging.” ª

“Farwell to Arms” continues through Friday at The Angel Station, 2950 Nebraska Ave., Santa Monica. The exhibit includes a “democracy booth” that encourages students and adults to share their thoughts on guns in American culture. Call (310) 310-2536. View photos from the exhibit at gregcohenphotography.com.

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