Those who came to Saturday's community forum ready for a fight on gun control—and judging by the NRA pamphlets distributed outside East Middle School, some were—probably went home disappointed.
The forum was a departure from many of the debates happening around the country and in high levels of government following the Dec. 14 school shooting in Newtown, Ct.
Five months after Oak Creek was shocked by the mass shooting at the Sikh temple, community leaders discussed how these events happen and the things any person can do to help prevent them in the future.
"I wanted to make sure this wasn't a two-hour discussion about gun control, because frankly I don't think it would have been productive," Oak Creek Mayor Steve Scaffidi said. "Guns were mentioned, as were many other issues that lead up to it. I think that was the best way to positively handle the problem from the local community perspective."
Scaffidi, who organized the forum, said he wanted to focus on the little things people can do to make a difference, rather than engage in polarizing political discussions.
To that end:
- U.S. Attorney James Santelle and former white supremacist Arno Michaels talked about the role hatred plays.
Michaels knows better than anybody about the environment from which temple gunman Wade Michael Page came. He was a founding member of the Northern Hammerskins, which Page joined in late 2011. Also like Page, he sang in a white supremacist rock band.
"In many ways, I set the stage and I created the environment that he came from," Michaels said.
Talking about his Serve 2 Unite organization that emerged after the Sikh temple shootings, Michaels said, "The most challenging thing we can face is to respond to aggression with compassion. ... We first and foremost challenge ourselves to do that in our daily lives. And then we invite the community and we invite students we speak with to follow our lead and also to inspire us. It becomes a really beautiful example of interdependence and compassion and all the things that I feel are most wonderful about being a human being."
-Marcia Williams of Brookfield-based Systemic Perspectives, which offers therapy services, said it's unfortunate no one got to Page when he was younger and stopped him from becoming a hateful adult.
"Each of the people that created violence across the country was once a child and raised perhaps in abuse or in a violent or angry household," she said. "That trajectory could have been changed if someone else outside of that family had been ... responsive to the child, and could have added another element of love or caring for that child."
-Professionals in areas like law enforcement and mental health need to do a better job of sharing information so that people like Page and Newtown shooter Adam Lanza are identified early, Oak Creek Police Chief John Edwards said.
It's also incumbent on people to report suspicious behavior or people clearly in need of help, he said.
"It's upon everybody in this room and everyone in this city, if you see anything, you don't walk away," Edwards said.
-Mental health professionals said a very small percentage of children who have social or emotional issues receive treatment. They said most people with mental illness recover and go on to live meaningful lives, and just need to be connected with treatment.
The forum allowed the 100 or so people in attendance to submit questions in writing and, afterward, speak with panelists 1-on-1.
"It's almost like you want to put this all behind you ... but it's good to address it," audience member Ken Stauffer said. "There were some very profound comments here today. It was a good event."
Scaffidi said Saturday's forum is only the starting point of what will be an ongoing conversation.
"I've said all along this is not going to be an easy thing, but I think I tried to pinpoint there can be some easy parts to it," Scaffidi said. "The little things in life that make us more safe, make us more secure. Hopefully the public that was here got that out of it."