America’s Forgotten War Zones

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As the 4th of July holiday weekend approached, I saw posts online that cautioned sensitivity to those veterans for whom fireworks might trigger PTSD.   The sound is too much like gunfire.  We should be more sensitive to the trauma our veterans have experienced and carry with them.  This is progress.  Yet, while I was glad to see this new awareness, I couldn’t help thinking of an awareness that we yet lack, and of a story I’d recently been told by a friend.

He had grown up in the Brownsville area of Brooklyn.  In 2014, Brownsville’s police precinct, the 73rd, logged more shooting victims than any other precinct in New York City. My friend told me of growing up in such a crime-laden neighborhood.

When he was a child, he didn’t go outside on the 4th of July.  “Who knows if that sound is a firecracker, or gunfire? You’re just better off not being outside, at all.”  I was stunned and saddened to think of a young child so afraid to be outside while others were in full revelry.

In Brownsville, the sound of gunfire was normal.  Going to sleep and listening to it was a part of life.  His realization that this was not the norm came as an adult, when he moved to a different neighborhood.  “I didn’t know there was a life where things could be quiet. When we were kids, you had your blocks in your neighborhood and that was the only reality you knew.”

A seven-year-old boy was shot and killed this 4th of July, in Chicago.  Over the entire holiday weekend, 34 more people were also shot in Chicago.  This was a decrease from the violence and death of 2014’s July 4th, holiday weekend.  As upset as I was to hear this news, my friend was deeply troubled: “Brownsville, to me, was as bad as I thought it could get. But I’ve been keeping track of Chicago for a couple of years now and Brownsville at its worst doesn’t seem nearly as bad. I feel horrible for the kids there. Not all of them are “bad seeds.” You know what I mean?”

How often do we hear stories of children in cities being hit by a “stray bullet?” How do we react when we hear this? What level of sensitivity and outrage do we show compared to how we react to when other members of our society are exposed to terror and trauma? If these events occurred in a rich, white, “good” neighborhood, would our reactions differ?

What bothers me so much about this is that most in our nation just accept these occurrences. If a child is murdered in a “bad neighborhood,” the news will spend a few minutes on it; people will shake their heads and say “so sad.” Then they move on. There is no grand statement of our leaders saying, “We must stop this” and “Never again!” Instead, most maintain that bad things happen in bad neighborhoods just as rain happens more in Seattle than in San Diego.

We encourage people, and applaud individuals, if they “got out.”  Americans like to claim our country as “the best in the world” so how can we find it acceptable to have cities so harmful that all we can do is hope to survive and leave?  An adult can, possibly, “get out” but the children who are there have no choice.  They are exposed to violence, the sound of gunfire, and general terror as a standard part of growing up.

The popular blog Humans of New York created a fundraiser after showcasing a school in Brownsville where Principal Nadia Lopez had a simple goal to allow her students a safe haven in which to exist during the summer months:

“My scholars can’t even go outside. It’s too dangerous. As an exercise, my teachers broke into small groups and took a walk through the community. We wanted to understand how our students live. We went inside the housing projects. The parks and playgrounds were empty because it’s too dangerous. Even the library isn’t a safe zone. Just last Saturday, one of my scholars had two guns pulled on him while he was walking to the community center. In broad daylight. It’s just too dangerous to be outside, so my scholars stay inside all summer. They aren’t learning to ride horses or drive boats, and they certainly aren’t traveling. They miss out on the enrichment available to children from more affluent neighborhoods. They need a safe place where they can do activities and continue to grow their minds. I tried to put together a program last summer, but I couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t really put together any activities, and I could only use teachers-in-training. I need the funds to put together a program with my own teachers so my students have a safe place where they can continue to grow outside of school.”

Why should such a basic standard of living- freedom from fear- be something a school principal needs to champion for her students?  This should simply be a priority of our nation.

There are many aspects to poverty.  It is not merely that one has no money.  There is no where to simply exist and have a childhood full of play.  Play is such an essential aspect to curiosity and growth of both mind and spirit.

The student, Vidal Chastanet, who inspired Humans of New York to focus on Brownsville, described his living conditions:

“The buildings are filthy in the housing projects. Some people poop and pee in the hallways. And some of the people around here aren’t friendly. I don’t think it’s a sadness or an anger that they feel, but a sort of emptiness. You look around and see a lot of negative things, and you can’t help but feel like you’re a part of something negative, and that maybe you’re something negative. Part of me wants to leave. But part of me wants to stay, because I have a lot of family nearby, and I don’t want to live far away from them.”

How can we find that this is tolerable? If we want less violence in the city, we must begin to examine the contributions such standards of living play into crime in those areas.

This is America, yet these stories relate experiences that are more like living in a warzone. They are living in terror and the threat of death is daily and it is real.

Those growing up in such an environment are living with PTSD before they reach adulthood.

There is a link to vast increases in physical illness associated with early childhood trauma.  Dr. Nadine Burke Harris is founder and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness in the Bayview, CA.  In her TED talk, she explains:

“Children are especially sensitive to this repeated stress activation, because their brains and bodies are just developing. High doses of adversity not only affect brain structure and function, they affect the developing immune system, developing hormonal systems, and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed”.

I don’t have a solution in writing this.  But I do wonder at the fact that there are certain parts of the country with no “bad neighborhood.”  I’ve yet to see the correlation of this where it doesn’t line up with one thing: money.  If there is enough money, then there is virtually no crime.  Poorer neighborhoods have more crime.   There are no stray bullets in wealthy neighborhoods.  I’ve been to areas in the U.S. where there is no “bad side of town.” How do they manage that? Those places are always wealthy and that ought to demonstrate how much of an economic issue this truly is.

Gangs are a huge part of this equation.  We could say, “We need to find and arrest all gang members.”  But it makes so much more sense to ask, “Why does anyone join a gang?”  If we can answer to the needs of teens who are pressured to belong, feel afraid, and have no strong sense of pride for any other aspect of life, I think that would be a better way of fighting gangs.

Just as poverty exists as more than just cash, wealth also exists in many facets. Someone in a wealthy home may have more time with parents. They have opportunities to develop an identity based on achievement when parents drive them to karate, gymnastics, or involve them in theater. We need programs to specifically address the needs of young people in these environments.  We should be providing safe spaces where teens can learn what it feels like to be supported to pursue dreams and become proud of their accomplishments.   Principal Lopez, already knew how money could be spent to help create more safety. The way in which she engages her students helps to create a strong sense of self and pride.

Foreign terrorists had one good day in this country where they managed to murder many people.  From that, we have entered into costly wars, allowed laws to be passed, which limit our freedoms, and fostered more xenophobia, all in the name of safety.  And, if the TSA is any indication, much of this is merely a waste.

What does it say about our country that we cannot fuel the same passion (and tax dollars) toward safety for those who must live in certain neighborhoods?  Why do we feel that we can write off a group of people as “hopeless” instead of asking ourselves “How do we provide hope?”

The Humans of New York fundraiser proved that Americans do care about these children.  Our tax dollars should work to benefit all of our society toward freedom from fear, not just the wealthy.

I’ve heard people argue that charities are how our society should handle these problems.  We are willing to take tax dollars to support corporations and keep them alive while relegating the task of keeping children alive to independent groups who may, or may not, have enough funds for gang prevention.

Children grow up in neighborhoods that are like war zones, listening to gunfire, afraid to go outside.  Is that America, the sweet land of liberty? Not for those children. To me, it is one of the largest failures of our nation that any child grows up like this.

If we want this to change, we should make it clear to our representatives at all level of government that we care about it. We should be active in volunteering in whatever way we can. The whole “this is the way it’s always been” is a poor moral excuse to sit back and do nothing.

Politicians speak about the middle class. How many speak about poverty in our country and about children afraid to go outside in their own neighborhoods? I can only think of a couple that do. What these children go through is more of a form of terrorism than most of us will ever experience, first hand. We should be as determined to eradicate it as any other kind of terror.


America’s Forgotten War Zones by Susan Linich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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