Collective Trauma in Communities Where Violence is the Norm

Published on
February 25, 2013

As the South L.A. Writer for Los Angeles Streetsblog, an online, daily news source advocating for more livable cities, I have been fortunate to connect with many inspiring organizations and individuals who work diligently, against tremendous odds, to make a difference in their communities. The openness with which these people have shared their stories with me has helped me gain a unique appreciation for the complexity of their circumstances. I am grateful to have the opportunity presented by this fellowship to tell some of these stories.

Specifically, the project will look at questions of collective trauma.

After the horrific and tragic murder of 26 children and educators in Newtown, the world turned its eyes to Connecticut, desperate to reach out to the “heroes” and help the community return to a happy, healthy, and violence-free “normal” state. At the time of the killings, I happened to be interviewing former gang members. One described having seen so many people’s heads shot open on a regular basis that he worried about himself because he believes he doesn’t feel anything anymore, even a year on since leaving the gang. That belief is contradicted by the heavy drinking and weed smoking he does every time he finds himself alone and with too much time on his hands. He doesn’t want to reflect on all he’s lived through.

A girl who had joined a gang at age 9 described seeing her friend hacked up – alive -- with a chainsaw in front of her when she was 13. It was retaliation for a murder the friend had committed, apparently. In an effort to leave her past behind, the girl (now age 15) has moved in with a 23-year old man in a neighborhood 6 miles north of the projects where her family is. She seems happy, at least, when she is not involved in a raging battle with her boyfriend over jealousies and former lovers or dealing with a pregnancy scare.

A young man that had been unwillingly jumped into a gang at age 12 by his family – the gang’s shot callers – said he was afraid to go to sleep at night because he never knows if he will make it to morning alive or if someone will kill him while he sleeps. He claims to be grateful to see the sunrise every morning, but he can’t stand comfortably in a room unless his back is against a wall (so no one can come up behind him) and he self-medicates with crystal meth.

Where is the outrage? The declarations that these are "our children" and that we must do everything in our power to prevent such tragedies? The pledges to help these children deal with their grief and move on to healthy, happy lives?

Entire sections of the city have operated under some of these conditions for decades, yet there seems to be little interest from outsiders in helping them seek “normal” lives. Instead, these are the communities and youth that tend to be blamed for their own problems and seen as not wanting something better for themselves, their families, or their neighborhoods. This despite the fact that everyone I speak to tells me that the one thing they want more than anything is to be a good person so they can make something of themselves and make their families proud.

My project will explore the various forms trauma takes in these communities, its toll on individuals, families and neighborhoods, its sources, local efforts to move communities forward, and the obstacles it poses to making change a reality.

Image by Sahra Sulaiman. It is of a memorial to a teenager shot on the Fourth of July, a night in 2012 in which 8 people were shot around South Los Angeles, several fatally. The memorial candle reads: "SMH, RIP Eddie. I still can't believe your [sic] really gone. It seems like yesterday we was making fun of each other. But, we all have to except [sic] the fact that your [sic] gone. Love, Autumn"