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The Price of Public Violence

How violence in our cities comes to define you and everyone around you

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February 25, 2013

This article originally appeared in The New York Times on February 23, 2013.

By Alex Kotlowitz 

Every year, the Chicago Police Department issues a report with the macabre title “Chicago Murder Analysis.” It’s a short but eye-opening document. Do the calculations and you realize that in the past 15 years, 8,083 people have been killed, most of them in a concentrated part of the city. There’s one particularly startling revelation that gets little notice: in 2011, more than four-fifths of all murders happened in a public place, a park, an alleyway, on the street, in a restaurant or at a gas station.

When Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old public school student and band majorette who just a week earlier had performed at President Obama’s inauguration, was killed on Jan. 29, she was standing under an awning in a park with a dozen friends. They all saw or heard it when she was shot in the back. One of them, in fact, was wounded by the gunfire. Which brings me to what’s not in the “Chicago Murder Analysis”: Over the past 15 years, according to the University of Chicago Crime Lab, an estimated 36,000 people were shot and wounded. It’s a staggering number.

We report on the killers and the killed, but we ignore those who have been wounded or who have witnessed the shootings. What is the effect on individuals — especially kids — who have been privy to the violence in our cities’ streets?

I ask this somewhat rhetorically because in many ways we know the answer. We’ve seen what exposure to the brutality of war does to combat veterans. It can lead to outbursts of rage, an inability to sleep, flashbacks, a profound sense of being alone, a growing distrust of everyone around you, a heightened state of vigilance, a debilitating sense of guilt. In an interview I heard recently on the radio, the novelist and Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien talked about how the atrocities and nastiness of battle get in your bones. The same can be said for kids growing up in Hadiya’s neighborhood.

The ugliness and inexplicability of the violence in our cities comes to define you and everyone around you. With just one act of violence, the ground shifts beneath you, your knees buckle and all you can do is try the best you can to maintain your balance. But it’s hard.

For a two-part series on “This American Life,” I spent five months beginning in August with two social workers at Harper High School in Englewood, an impoverished neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. The previous school year, Harper had lost eight current and former students to gun violence — and 21 others were shot and wounded.

On the first day of school, when I met the social workers, Crystal Winfield Smith and Anita Stewart, they were dragging, unsure whether they could make it through another school year. Just two months earlier, in June, a 16-year-old sophomore, Shakaki Asphy, whom they had been very close to, was gunned down while standing on the porch of an abandoned building talking with a friend. That friend, Thomas, had already witnessed a number of other shootings, including one at age 10 when, at a party, the birthday girl, who was also 10, was hit by a stray bullet.

I sat in the social workers’ office when Thomas told Ms. Stewart and Ms. Winfield Smith that he wanted to hurt someone. At first I thought it was tough guy talk, but then I realized he was trying — the best he could — to be honest about some feelings he had, feelings that scared him. “You’ve got kids walking around who just are on guard with everything and everyone,” Ms. Winfield Smith told me. “It’s almost like you don’t have a moment to rest.”

Harper’s school psychologist, Elizabeth Stranzl, told me of one 16-year-old boy whose friend was gunned down in front of him, in the morning on the way to school. The boy, who had been doing well at school, began to drift. When walking through the neighborhood he’d have hallucinations, imagining that he was seeing his dead friend, imagining ways that he might have protected him. He became disconnected from friends and from school. His affect became flattened. “You could see the transformation,” Ms. Stranzl said. “He was present, but he wasn’t. He just felt defeated.” She worried he was getting more active in the streets.

In December, the Department of Justice released a little-noticed report that suggested that children exposed to community violence might turn to violence themselves as “a source of power, prestige, security, or even belongingness.” The report went on to recommend that these children should be treated by professionals. At Hadiya Pendleton’s school, the principal said that over the Christmas holidays two students were shot and injured. If their experiences were at all typical, they were undoubtedly treated at a hospital emergency room and then released without any referral for counseling.   

In Philadelphia, there’s a remarkable, albeit small, program, Healing Hurt People, a collaboration of Drexel University’s College of Medicine and School of Public Health, which scours two emergency rooms in the city for young men and teens who have been shot and pulls them in for counseling. When the program’s founder, Ted Corbin, was an emergency room doctor in Washington, D.C., he saw how shooting victims were treated and then sent back out on the streets, where, if they didn’t do injury to themselves, they’d most likely injure someone else. “If you don’t peel back some of the layers,” Mr. Corbin told me, “you don’t know how to stop that recycling of people.”

AS Dr. Corbin and his colleagues began to work with shooting victims in Philadelphia, they saw clear symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. I visited the program last summer and met one young man who had night terrors so real that his girlfriend feared for her safety. Another young man told me that whenever he passes the spot where he was shot, he thinks he sees himself on the ground writhing in pain, and he approaches the specter to assure himself that he’ll be O.K. Another who was shot and paralyzed in an argument over a pair of sunglasses said that whenever he thinks about revenge or gets angry, which is often, he has incapacitating phantom pains in his legs. Two of the young men I spoke to had attempted suicide. Virtually all spoke of feeling alone, of not trusting anyone. And all admitted to drinking or smoking marijuana to keep the memories at bay, though, as they often discovered, the effect could be just the opposite.

Dr. Corbin told me that the young men he and his colleagues encounter hesitate to share their experiences because they fear they’ll be blamed. He also told me of a 13-year-old boy who was shot in the hand in a case of mistaken identity. At school, no adult asked what had happened to him, and he didn’t want to tell any of his teachers because he felt ashamed. He felt that they’d think he’d done something to deserve it. “We try to let them know they’re not crazy for feeling these things,” Dr. Corbin told me.

The violence also profoundly affects those working on the front lines, like Harper’s social workers. Not long ago, Anita Stewart told me that she has a recurring dream about Shakaki, the young girl who was murdered last June, in which she grapples with how to tell Shakaki that she’s been killed. After Ms. Stewart told me about this dream, she said, more to herself than to me, “No, you need to accept it, she’s dead.”

As Tim O’Brien says, it gets in your bones. In the wake of Hadiya Pendleton’s shooting, we’ve talked about stiffer gun control laws, about better policing, about providing mentoring and after-school programs, all of which are essential. But missing from this conversation is any acknowledgment that the violence eats away at one’s soul — whether you’re a direct victim, a witness or, like Anita Stewart, simply a friend of the deceased. Most suffer silently. By themselves. Somewhere along the way, we need to focus on those left behind in our cities whose very character and sense of future have been altered by what they’ve experienced on the streets.        

- Alex Kotlowitz is a senior lecturer at the Medill School of Journalism.