Breaking the Cycle


Sign at a rally after the Michael Brown shooting. Photo by Callen Harty.

Sometimes violence in a family is generational. A father beats a son who beats his son who beats the next son because that is the world in which each of the sons grew up and that is how they learned to deal with conflict, frustration, and any other feeling that may come up in their lives. At some point one child may grow into a man and decide that the way he grew up was horrible and the last thing he wants to do is to inflict the same pain and abuse on his children, so he figures out a different way and breaks the cycle. He figures out how to discipline without violence and how to love fully and his children learn the same because that is the world in which they grew up.

I feel like America is that bully father and that unfortunately there are scant few who grew up here who want to break that cycle.

Today I woke up (again) to the news of a police officer shooting and killing a black man. This time it was in Minnesota during a traffic stop. It was a man who was told to show his ID, who informed the police up front that he had a concealed carry permit, and who was shot four times as he moved to get the ID he had been asked to show. His girlfriend and child were in the car and witnessed the horrible event.

Yesterday it was an officer in Louisiana who shot a man multiple times who was already on the ground in the arms of two police officers. He did have a gun, but it was in his pocket, where they pulled it from after he was shot.

A couple weeks ago it was a mad gunman who shot and killed nearly 50 people at a gay bar in Orlando. These horrible events keep happening and we keep crying for a moment and then forgetting. Last year in the United States there were more mass shootings than the number of days in a year.* Last year there were 493 murders just in the city of Chicago and this year is on a pace to beat that by a large number, with 336 murders already recorded in the windy city just a little over halfway into the year.**

Early in the year when a murder occurs in my city of Madison, Wisconsin the police and media will refer to it as Madison’s first murder of the year, as if there is an expectation that there will be more–because that is the world in which we live.

We also live in a country that has become the world’s bully. As a nation we take down or kill leaders of other countries, we bomb innocent civilians in a never-ending cycle of incursions, actions, and wars, we engage in war with several countries at a time, we kill first and ask questions later–just like these latest killings by the police.

Our founding fathers gained independence with a violent revolution. They enshrined the right to bear arms into our Constitution. They held people captive as slaves who could be beaten, raped, or killed on a whim. They committed genocide against the native population of this land. They created a lawless west. As a nation we have admired the most violent among us–outlaws of the west, gangsters in the early 20th century, Presidents and generals who lead us into unnecessary wars and are honored for it with peace medals.

The lessons we have learned as children of this nation are the lessons of violence. We have engaged in a litany of wars and military actions from George Washington all the way through Barack Obama. And virtually all our wars were fought not to protect American people, but American interests, which translates as protecting the wealth and assets of the ruling class. Not one generation has grown up without war. Every American child has grown up with our country engaged in killing other people in far-off lands, and we have grown to accept this as the normal course of things.

I believe that as long as our leaders continue to justify drone warfare, bombings with “collateral damage” , unnecessary and unjust wars, covert killings of supposed enemies, as long as we continue supplying the world with munitions and our own citizens with military-grade weapons, as long as there are classes of citizens who are considered “other” or “less than”, as long as the signal from the top down continues to be that violence is resolution then we will continue to see police officers kill persons of color and poor white folks. We will continue to see mass shootings and daily murders in cities across the country. We will continue to see a descent into a world where no life has value.

The children of this country need to break the cycle. Those who understand that violence begets violence and love begets love must find a way to reach others, to reach our leaders, to change the way the world is now so that we can live in a future where everyone is safe, everyone is truly equal, and every life is valued. It is not just about removing guns from madmen. It is about changing the entire culture.

I wish I knew how that could be done. I wish I had an easy answer. I don’t. I think it has to start within the hearts of those who value life more than property or wealth. It has to start with those who do not think color, gender, orientation, or a host of other factors make anyone less. I think those who want to see it change have to reach out and touch those with whom they are close, and then those people need to reach out to others, until there is a mass movement of citizens demanding that we look at the way we move through this world, both as individual citizens and as a government that is supposed to represent us. I think that those of us who want to see this change must start taking stands whenever and wherever we can. We need to stand up and say “No more.” We have to let it be known that we will not accept things as they are, and that we expect things to be better. It will not change itself. It needs common people to stand up and demand something better.

*372 mass shootings (defined as four or more injured or killed) resulting in 475 deaths and 1,870 wounded according to 2015: The Year of Mass Shootings by Abbey Oldham. PBS News Hour.

**2015 Chicago Murders. Timeline. DNAInfo, Chicago.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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