It’s late July. There is a helicopter circling. A “ghetto bird” on this clear, dark blue night. I’m in my bed, staring at the ceiling fan, trying to sleep. It’s 1:30 a.m. It’s 2:00 a.m. I’m struggling. I’m tired. It’s hot. Someone’s dog is barking. I am now on Facebook, seeing post after post about rumors, or fact, of two black bodies being found in a car at a Taco Bell about 10 minutes away from where I rest my head. I think about how many pillows are being soaked by hot, angry tears of black families asking the questions that come along with this sort of thing.
I keep reading. Been reading all week. I read comments. Someone knows someone who was killed over there. And over there. And earlier yesterday. Damn. Earlier today, I spent most of my day photographing a wedding in what was been deemed the “hot zone” by a recent LAPD tactical alert issued in the wake of gangbangers doing what gangbangers do. And social media did what social media does, which is spread the news of what the gangbangers were doing. LAPD caught wind, as LAPD does, and now we are on day two of a special tactical alert.
Interestingly, the gang terrorism has been going on for way longer than just two days, but we have visitors in town—the Special Olympics brought thousands to Los Angeles, and the LAPD doesn’t want them scared. I get it. I’m scared to get shot, too. But LAPD does not issue tactical alerts for nervous black and brown people who navigate their own newly named “hot zone” daily, and out of mundane necessity. Today, my necessity was the wedding, and for the first time in many years, I was afraid to be in the hood I’ve loved forever.
I’ve taught myself to use the helicopters as a lullaby. Their buzz is assurance that someone is watching, if only for a little while, and for that short period of time, I can sleep more soundly. Their hum, flat and incessant, has become a soundtrack to my nights, drowning out the sirens and their annoying wailing. Sirens aren’t music to me, but somehow the helicopters are. They are the heartbeat during the darkness to let me know that the streets are alive in a time when death is creeping down the block with its lights off and windows halfway down. Bodies seem to fall like leaves with the change of seasons in this area of war-torn Los Angeles, and this summer, more than any other in recent history, has become just notorious enough to be romanticized via eye-catching hashtags.
Hashtags are cool, but they rarely reach the perpetrators they chase. George Zimmerman didn’t care about hashtags for Trayvon. The uniformed people last to see Sandra Bland alive do not care to say her name. The cop who shot Samuel DuBose likely is avoiding your tweets. Hashtags are for the hurting, like my boy told me that love is determined by the sender, not the recipient. Gangbangers have their own hashtags out here, and they circulate with ease, coded and exact. And they mean what they say, and do what they type. They are at war, and this is their nuanced and fucked up service to their comrades. It just so happens that the rest of us are held hostage to the vengeful and prideful bullets that break hearts and soak pillows day and night, but more this summer than I can ever remember fully experiencing. These gangbangers are hurting, too, but they’ve taught themselves not to show it through humanity.
This is when lots of folks start yelling about black-on-black crime, as if it’s some new phenomena, ignoring demographics, intra-racial crime statistics, and other facts that would clear all that right on up. Yes, in black areas, black gangs exist, and they murder each other and others. Yes, it is a problem, whether here in LA, in Chicago, in the Dominican Republic, or in Soweto. The people yelling demand that black folks step up and protest the black-on-black killings, as if the former isn’t happening. It is. Loudly. Bravely.
Still, I don’t know about you, but there’s something about a group with guns that finds my life to be disposable that makes me shy away from setting up my soapbox in their faces. That isn’t cowardice. That’s fear and self-preservation. Black lives matter, but if you are not their blood, your black doesn’t matter, and that’s a hell of a place to start from.
It is the Wednesday after a violent weekend of reported and unreported shootings. In the last almost two weeks, local news reports have shown a very different tally of violence than what is being discussed on the streets during this very hot, very nervous summer. It’s hard to find the truth in something so outrageous but more outrageous, still, is the trivialization of the truth about the frequency at which bullets are flying, even when victims don’t go to the police for help. They are still the police and we are still black and weary of them in South Central Los Angeles. The innate human reaction is to dismiss it away as the unfortunate norm. Others paint it as hyperbole. But, something is happening. Rumors often evoke self-fulfilling prophecies. If someone puts on Facebook that they’re shooting “over there,” I’m not going “over there” unless I have to. If a gangmember reads that their hood is under attack, they’re going to attack back. And it’s best if we all try to stay out of their way. Literacy has become another weapon.
We, the inhabitants of the “hot zone,” are now both encouraged and virtually forced to eyeball each passing black male body as a potential threat to our existence. It leaves a nasty taste in my mouth when I find myself engaging in the same prejudices as the cops who terrorize the black bodies they encounter simply existing. But, the hashtags told me to be cautious of my own. And whether started by someone looking to provoke the madness, or by young black men scared to feel, the baton has been passed, and the killings and attempted killings are happening. And I, and others, are being taught to look at our reflections as trigger-happy time bombs. You are my brother, but Cain killed Abel. And you might kill me to make your quota. Or not.
The helicopters are buzzing. It’s hot. None of us can sleep. I get it. But I can’t take no chances this summer. The divide continues.
Tiffany Hobbs is a photographer, writer, poet, and occasional rapper living in South Central Los Angeles. Tiffany has enjoyed underground success appearing on albums and hosting radio shows where she champions the causes of the Hood, which she loves and uses as inspiration in her art. A graduate of the University of Southern California, Tiffany can be found on Facebook, and on Instagram at @SpiffyTiffyH.
[Top illustration by Tara Jacoby; photos by the author]