9.18.2015

On the Topic of Urban Violence

Mostly, I felt exhaustion seeping through his writing. Elwin Green, who runs Homewood Nation, a hyperlocal citizen journalist project, does not always sound this way. Often there are updates that sound hopeful, news stories about the many positive things that happen in this neighborhood just down the street from my front door, reminiscing about old friends and great restaurants. That's his goal, really. Telling the whole story. But last week, there was yet another shooting on Race Street, just days before a block party was to take place there, and he wrote an account that left me feeling sick all day.

It wasn't all the Race Street shooting. An eighth grader at Laurel's school was shot last week and died. A 15 year old died in a separate shooting around the same time. I know from my previous work with teens in this city that for every shooting that gets the prescriptive 8 line write-up by the local news stations, that there are more happening daily, maybe without fatalities, but still scary. Many never even get reported to the police. What we hear about is repetitive. Critical condition...one dead...no arrests have been made. Props to WTAE reporter Wendy Bell for posting a tribute to DeSean Fountain that said more about the tragedy in these shootings than I've ever seen broadcasted on tv or in the newspaper.

One night early in the summer, I woke up to gunfire across the street. This never happens. Homewood and Wilkinsburg are close enough to hear the gunfire if the traffic on Penn Avenue is quiet. But, it's almost always There and not Here. Marko was sleeping with us and our bed is near the windows. In an instinctual (and probably unnecessary) way I grabbed him and rolled out of bed onto the floor before I even woke up fully. The shooting itself was over very fast. Many cars had converged on the gas station, bang, bang, bang, and then a man screaming. Before we even realized what was happening, most everyone was gone. Marko never woke up. I could not for the life of me have offered a description of either people or vehicles involved, or even how many shots were fired altogether.

The police cars and ambulance slowly trickled in. Without fanfare, they loaded the man who had been shot in the leg into the ambulance and drove away without turning the lights on. The police taped everything off and poked around on the ground. Several months later we found a shell embedded in the sidewalk across the street. Robbery is what our community liaison officer told us. No arrests were made.

This week, I attended one of our neighborhood association meetings. The commander of our zone was there. The officers are very patient and attentive to our audience. The crimes in our census tract are mostly theft (people steal stuff off porches, bikes and what-not) and speeding. It's strange to live in such proximity to constant violence, to be able to literally hear it happening night after night, but to never really have to deal with it. Even when it was outside our front door it was not about us at all.

After the meeting, I went directly to the commander and asked him what we could be doing to support the neighborhoods around us on this issue of violence.

"Unless you see something you can report, I don't know," he said, "I wish I did."

Of course, it's far more complicated than just locking up the bad guys. When you have time, dig into this piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic. A moderated comments section has been set up to debate the points he makes.

More people were shot in Homewood this week....three at a vigil for another victim. Elwin Green says to pray. Maybe there is nothing else to do.