Beating hearts in still graves

The teen lay dead in the parking lot. Blood dripped from bullet holes, onto sizzling asphalt.

I was driving home during my senior year of high school. The neighborhood of the school was and is a known gang and drug haven, and I lived on the perimeter. I heard shootings happen, saw guns pulled and saw crime scene tape plastered around the run-down buildings.

This was something different.

Moments earlier, as I drove down the twisted back road behind my school, I had seen the sun flash off of something. It was a flash from the light hitting a pistol, held by a man in his 30s or 40s, who stood in the middle of the road. I stopped and felt the blood pumping fast through my temples. As the man leveled the gun at me, I swear my heart stopped beating.

A wave of relief poured over me as he lowered the gun and stepped aside. I drove fast toward the intersection and turned left. That’s when I saw him, the dead kid, leaking blood in a gas station parking lot.

I later learned why the man was standing in the road with a gun. The neighborhood was on high alert after the shooting an hour or two earlier.

The kid who was killed, whose name I will never know, was only 17 years old. A kid his own age shot him. The shooter had just been released on bail after being arrested for armed robbery.

We need to consider these things more seriously. We hear about the shootings and record-high murder rates in Chicago, the gang violence in Detroit, and we shrug it off.  We’ve become immune to the state that our fellow human beings live in. There are places in America that are truly war zones, where people are afraid of what lies around the next corner — places where there is a constant fear of death.

Drug deals and homicides are simply a symptom of the disease.

You can call it what you want, but the fact remains that we’ve ignored our fellow Americans for far too long.  

Gang violence is a symptom.

Gangs are not the first problem that needs to be dealt with. The reason they form is underfunded schools in poor neighborhoods. The reason they form is the food deserts, where the closest fresh food is 20 miles away. Policy makers at both the state and federal levels are to blame just as much as the average citizen who locks their door and drives faster.

The reason the majority, white people, turn a blind eye to the endless violence we’ve forced our fellow human beings to endure is that we don’t want to acknowledge the consequences of our subconscious racism. We see a “black-sounding” name on a job application, and we turn it down. What happens to that person?

That person still needs to make a living. That person still needs to provide themselves and their families with shelter and food. They turn to the only paths available to them in the country we live in. They turn to the gangs that provide them with a semblance of community. Gangs provide a sense of camaraderie and friendship.  sense of family and purpose that is lost in the hopelessness and despair that is the reality for so many.  

In the interest of fairness, I’ve also seen vast kindness and rallying in the same communities. I’ve watched friends and families come together to grieve and to forgive. I’ve seen cookouts and family meals where people make the best of their situations. The violence is still present, but the people of the communities find hope in the darkest hours. I’ve seen church services where people weep and where people laugh.  

Things have a peculiar way of working out, and if we join together to fight the police brutality and the gang violence, if we join together to fight addiction and pain, we can rise above.

We can make a difference, but this isn’t about me. This is about them.

Until we let their voices be heard and actually listen to what they have to say, nothing will change. I was fortunate to only witness these tragedies. I can’t even begin to imagine having the strength required to live through them.

There is a problem, America. This isn’t white guilt, this is reality.

This is the blank stare of a dead child reflecting the death and destruction around him, as his friends and neighbors fight for survival in a world that has done nothing but screw them over.

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