Save the Children

In thinking about the tragic murder of Heaven Sutton, the 7 year old girl in Chicago who was hit by a gangbanger's stray bullet, I come back to the intersection of personal and social trauma of the 1960s'. 

At that time several forces intersected in the lives of black people, such as the loss of old social institutions created during segregation, the violence of urban rebellions, the Vietnam War, the shift in the American economy toward global economics, and the personal trauma of child abuse.  A vortex of violence was created in the 60's, and Heaven was caught unaware in what that vortex of violence has bequeathed to us, a tragedy that should have us looking more critically at what happened in the late 60's when black communities became battlegrounds and then were emptied of economic opportunity.

There is plenty of data and research available, but what I am suggesting is that we have not looked closely enough at this period as a beginning of the violence that is now tragically prevalent in black urban communities in how it relates to trauma.  The abuse black people continually suffer is complicated in some instances by severe personal trauma, especially sexual abuse.  African Americans are not immune to sexual abuse, but we are slower to discuss it.  

Part of the silence is rooted in a real historical need to keep a wall around the community during the years of slavery and segregation, to in fact build the wall and then sustain it.  It was a life and death matter for many years, the years when violence leveled at the black community often went unpunished.  The number of blacks killed in internal terrorist campaigns by the white extremsits is staggering.  But these are different times, times deeply affected, I think, by the truncation of gender roles in the black community during the 1960's, a time of liberation that was full of ironies, including the reconstitution of class structure in the black community.

When gang and drug culture formed at the end of the 1960's in black urban communities, we saw the beginning of what still plagues us but in a way for more destructive than those beginnings.  However, there doesn't seem to be a lot of discussion about the connections.  If we were to look at them now and include a lens for personal trauma, I think we could understand urban violence in ways that are not part of the public discussion now.  Just as we are now seeing the connectedness of issues that make for climate change, it would help to see the connectedness of what is happening in our cities, of what leads to tragedies such as the murder of children, often by those who are little more than children themselves.

When the gangs in LA were formed in the late 60's, they were formed by teenagers like me and the friends I hung out with in the streets in Baltimore at that time.  We were aware of the larger political forces at play.  We saw the military come to occupy our communities.  We saw the riots.  Some of us were out there taking things but mostly not because we were too young.  Our parents kept us in the house.  But those who were in the streets, mostly men, were fighting a battle inside a country at war, a war that was the first of its kind.  The language of war came into our lives along with the veterans who came home.  Gang members became soldiers.  Workers in drug networks became soldiers.  A good number of these soldiers were men and women who had been abused as children and were more prone to self-loathing and violence.  These cultures were formed as a negative consequence of the 60's struggle against American racism, a tragic interplay of ironies.

The Baltimore Riots
Sparked by Dr. King's Assassination

Self-loathing manifests in ironic ways.  I felt a familiar sadness when I listened to Tookie Williams' ex-wife explain how self-hatred drove Tookie to body building, of how he loved to look at himself in the mirror.  It was an unhealthy obsession with self, the kind that is a sign of trauma.  I have no idea of what happened to Tookie as a child, but from my own experience I know that trauma drives us to overcompensation, excessive acts of kindness or violence, an illogical sense of loyalty, and other distortions of the basic health and integrity of the psyche.  When this energy was connected to the social violence of the Civil Rights Movement, we had the intersection of forces that filled the urban landscapes with a corrosive energy that was aided and abetted by the persistence of American racism and the still unresolved and cancerous notions that racism sustains in the American consciousness.

Martha & the Vandellas
Dancing in the Streets
Ed Sullivan Show 

We were sixteen and seventeen years old in the summer of 1969.  As boys we liked things that made us appear strong.  We lifted weights and tried to make our biceps bigger.  We walked together in groups on the sidewalks to display a group strength, a power.  We drank and played cards.  We argued, and we fought.  We fought the white boys.  We dressed up and stood on corners and sang.  We claimed those corners in the summer at night, singing, dancing, drag racing in the streets, standing up to older men, some of whom had killed people in a country on the other side of the world in a global system that is more threatening now than it was when we were hardly more than children.  

We claimed those corners, and those corners claimed us.  A few of us escaped.  Many did not, and that story is only getting worse.  If we are to turn this around, we have to look at the center of the heart of this monster, abuse, and we have to look at it as being both personal and social.  One feeds the other, and what is created only feeds death.   In looking at the center of this monster, we have to see how it connects to the larger complex of our problems so that we can make the most judicious assessments and develop alternative strategies for making the environments of our cities safer places for children.  Children are the future.


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