The Navy Yard: A Tale of Two Cities

Washington, D.C. Landscape

By Steven Brenner.

I woke up on September 13, 2013 at about 11 a.m. The day should have been like any other–I was going to attempt to crush an episode of Breaking Bad before afternoon class (I’m in the middle of season 3, please no spoilers). But as I absentmindedly logged on to twitter before beginning the episode, I realized that it was going to be a terrible day. With conflicting reports coming in, I learned that an unidentified gunman had gone on a shooting rampage in the Navy Yard facility in my hometown of Washington, DC.

Over the next few hours, the consequences of the proximity to my home began to set in. TV images showed ambulances driving to and from George Washington University Hospital Center, where I was born. Right before my Econ class, I noticed a tweet about how a potential manhunt perimeter could include the area around my father’s office. After I left Econ, I realized that one of my oldest friends from high school uses the Navy Yard metro stop to get home. 

What was initially confusion began to devolve into a state of panic. I texted my friend; he was fine. I called my dad; he was ok. I called my mom; she was out of town. Things began to settle down, but something different remained.  Whenever I see a horrible tragedy on the news, I grieve for the victims and their families. I wish I could help the people in whatever town is affected. Today, however, everything was more immediate. Today, it was my town.

As classes ended, I went to Lily Library.  I turned on CNN Livestream to get an update on the Navy Yard situation just as Wolf Blitzer came on screen.  Wolf’s intro was seemingly innocuous: “Here, in Washington, you’re in the situation room.”  Yet this intro could not have made me more upset.

Wolf was mistaken.  He wasn’t in Washington; he was in D.C.  This dichotomy is slight, but immensely important when thinking of the Capital city.  The best description of this distinction comes from an op-ed in The New York Times that a high school teacher showed me last year:

“Washington, D.C., is a city of divides. There are racial divides, most notably a black D.C. and a white D.C… But to me, the most telling divide is a verbal one — does one live in D.C. or Washington? Calling the city “Washington” reveals a certain experience. There are thousands of people who live and work in Washington — people with high-powered jobs, the transient class, the chattering class, the politicos, the folks who watch (or are guests on) “Meet the Press.” They rotate in and out of the White House or spend years bouncing through various continents before settling into an N.G.O. or nonprofit. Often, these are the people who refer to the city as a revolving door. Many have told me they’ve never met anyone “from here” before. (See aforementioned racial divide.)

Seemingly a world away are the lifelong residents, the multigenerational city dwellers, the folks who staff federal offices. This is D.C.: the city and surrounding suburbs are the site of the nation’s most visible and vocal black middle class. In D.C., people listen to go-go and jazz and look for long-term stability in a government job that will not change with administrations. This D.C. is where I grew up.”

Washington is always in the news, but D.C. never is.  So right now, in the short span of time when it’s on everyone’s minds, I want to tell you a little bit about my town.

My town represents America.  People are from all over the country and world, thrown into a melting pot of cultures and ideas are forced to interact with the people around them.  My town is fun.  Summer concerts in Fort Reno Park, drum circles in Meridian Hill Park, or a lively night in the U Street corridor can go toe-to-toe with the entertainment of any city.  My town has culture.  From a unique style of street art to go-go music, a native alternative to hip-hop that just makes you want to groove, my town knows how to get down.  I love my town.

But above all else, my town is divided.  D.C. residents are overlooked again and again by the class of people who fly in with every new Congress to “run the country.” These politicians, who haven’t put together an actual budget in almost half a decade, at one point thought that D.C. wasn’t responsible enough to have its own mayor, and still think that we shouldn’t have control our own budget. 

The victims of this tragedy, whether they lived within the city limits or not, were residents of D.C.  They were never going to be on the Sunday talk shows.  They likely wouldn’t have risen to a position of national notice.  They were just faceless public servants in a city that is full of them. 

Yet my divided town is a microcosm for what has happened to our government today.  We have lost that sense of “for the people, by the people” where the government class often appears indistinguishable from the rest of the country. Political divisions in this country run deep, but now it appears that neither Republican nor Democratic politicians are doing a good job of representing the majority of their constituents. Compromise has been sacrificed for absolutism.  Commonality seems to be a sentiment of the past. The vision of big-shot Democratic and Republican politicians coming together to feel the sense of community at one of our concerts in the park seems ridiculous. Having lost a sense of common experience, it’s seems implausible that we move forward together as a nation in any direction.

Yet on days that include events like the Navy Yard Massacre, I have hope for us.  People come together. Regardless of the politics of gun control, we all grieve for the victims. We all wish we could do something. People post things like “We are DC strong” on Facebook and Twitter, regardless of whether they’re from D.C. or not. We are united. Politicians care about D.C., if only for a day.

The day of the Navy Yard shooting was a human tragedy, but what follows is an ideological one. The outflow of support recedes, and we all return to our respective corners of political philosophy. What starts as a shared feeling of grief turns into Wayne LaPierre and Michael Bloomberg yelling at each other on Meet the Press about a Universal Background Check. We return to the intensely polarized political landscape and the ideological comfort and security that come with it.

It’s not the debate that bothers me. It’s the feelings of animosity behind it. How productive could we be as a nation if we were more united? How many lives could we save if we agreed to put aside our political differences and start helping urban communities filled with hungry children and dilapidated housing? How many people with mental illness could we help if we stopped turning a blind eye and encouraged our troubled family and friends to seek proper help?

As I sit here in writing from my dorm room, I’m just a little defeated. With the government currently shut down, it seems that the voices of division have won the day. We can’t decide to move past the most basic problems together. Congress cannot decide how to deal with our most basic challenges. That unity we felt as a nation on the day of the Navy Shooting is gone. Things seem worse than ever. I don’t know where we go from here, but I know what I want. I don’t want a D.C. and a Washington. I want a Washington, D.C.

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