I am an honor student, turned gun shot victim, turned gun carrier/college student, turned a person who almost shot a neighbor's mother because her son "disrespected me" on my block. I did not pull the trigger, thanks to the words of a friend who would have supplied me the gun, but one year later I participated in an equally reprehensible act that included a gun and death.
Still on parole, after serving a decade for my actions, I now spend my days trying to put a dent in gun violence through intervention, youth development, and policy advocacy. My job is to keep young people alive, healthy and out of prison.
I spend most of my days advocating for sensible gun legislation and advocating against mass incarceration. I'm at vigils for families that have lost loved ones to gun violence and I am at conferences advocating for the humane treatment of people inside of prison. I am advocating for accountability, yet refraining from the cacophony of "arrest the monster" that we're ignorantly conditioned to believe will prevent the next shooting.
But today, like most days, the work feels too hard.
It is a violent summer. In one holiday weekend, our country witnessed the shootings of almost 100 people in New York City and Chicago. I attended the vigil in Brooklyn for one of them, a young woman innocently gunned down. This was Sunday, July 6th.
I spoke about the trauma that people behind the trigger experience. There were more than 70 people there, their faces wet with a mixture of sweat and tears. I reminded myself and the other people at the vigil that people who perform vile acts with a gun were once babies too. The inclination to be hurt and feel pain never leaves us, no matter how much hurt and pain we inflict on others.
When the New Jack swing era of 2,000 plus murders in New York reigned supreme—now canonized by pop artists like Iggy Azalea as, "like we bringin' '88 back"—no one was advocating against incarcerating black and brown people. Mass incarceration had not been neologized.
In 1988, Los Angeles, community members and the City Council were in support of Operation Hammer, which led to the infamous 39th Street and Dalton raids. The underground economy of the crack industry fueled turf warfare and emboldened gang structures. Innocent bystanders were killed. People who were involved with the violence were killed. Babies were killed and had their mommies and daddies taken away from them. Incarceration was the outcry, and that outcry was heard in cities across the nation.
The result was a skyrocketing prison population—"mass incarceration" being the vogue term. With it, the synonym "mass criminalization" came into the lexicon.
Like far too many in this country, I speak for, and to, the trauma of the shooter and the one shot. This internal dilemma disturbs me. Muddling in this undefined and unsafe area removes me from the intangible safeness of dichotomized spaces. I wish I did not have to wait until I saw my book-long indictment to understand that it was okay to feel hurt because I was hurt. I wish I knew that the urges to inflict pain because I was pained were normal reactions to living in a structurally violent nation and tired community.
Maybe I would have felt safe enough to speak with those adults who were telling me I needed to do better—only if they were able to see that even in my worst weed-filled cussing spree, that I was still a boy growing up, or at least trying to.
But who has the capacity to ingest the intersections of mass criminalization and gun violence, to place the saving of all lives, not vengeance, at the center? Who has the stomach, gall, or time to think about the injustices of structural crimes that channel street violence into mass incarceration—or, as the Black Alliance for Just Immigration puts it in the video Real Crime, mass deportation?
Where is the funding that asks us to do the harder work of not seeing the persons who pull triggers as outside of society, but, rather as those who are reacting normally to daily inflicted structural aggressions?
Screaming for jail to the "cowards" and "animals" who were shooting up communities is the logical, Judeo-Christian and Islamic response—an eye for an eye. It is permissible to slay the murdered the way he slew his victim, right? Evolution and human innovation have since provided incarceration as an alternative to the murder for murder tenets of ancient times.
Identifying the perpetrator of the harm as the "other" precludes us from identifying the person who committed the harm as worthy of a complicated biography. The execution of dehumanizing acts also dehumanizes the perpetrator. But who has the time to care for a person who shot or stabbed another person, when the pain akin to the deceased, maimed, or paralyzed requires so much caring? Who wants to risk the discomfort of the skin-peeling radical act of advocating against these dichotomizing spaces of safeness? Don't we have to do the work of saving lives, congruently?
Like a lot of us, I'm tired. But I know that the work of accepting full lives and advocating accordingly is maybe the hardest, most heartbreaking work in this nation. I know this, I keep telling myself. I know this. Still, I wonder how long I can continue to perform the hard, uncomfortable and sometimes insensitive work of speaking honestly to the shooters, the ones shot, the children watching the death, and the structural violence holding all of it — and us — in one petrifying place.
Marlon Peterson, a Brooklynite by way of Trinidad, is an activist, advocate, and writer. He has created and co-founded several youth development and anti-gun violence programs. You can follow him on Twitter @marlon_79.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]