Part one of a two part series.
About three years ago, I began working for a high school in San Francisco called “John O’Connell.” It is situated in the Mission District. The Mission is a primarily Latino section of the city mostly known for its fine Mexican/El Salvadoran cuisine and being the area where Carlos Santana did some of his first shows. Today, its known for being a gang war zone for Norteno and Sureno gangs as well as MS13. Other gang-prone sections (or “turfs”) in San Francisco are Hunters Point, Lakeview, Sunnydale, and Fillmore (known as the “Harlem of the Bay” because of its rich Jazz history). Unlike Los Angeles, the Bay Area really does not have a significant number of Crips and Bloods. They are almost nonexistent. But we do have turf wars: clashes between blocks broken up by geographic landmarks that decide what side you come from. All sides are wrong sides in The Bay.
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Shortly after beginning my job as a security guard at John O’Connell and working to set up a nonviolence program for my organization (Hip-Hop Chess Federation), I noticed an odd trend. A Latino boy named Che was walking down the hall with a laminated photo of a very pretty Black girl. At first I thought this was his girlfriend, but as I got closer I saw it was a laminated card that said “R.I.P.”
I inquired who she was and Che said it was a friend of his that had been shot a few years ago. As I walked around the school I noticed these laminated cards were all over the school, not of the girl in Che’s photo, but of many others. I stood in the hallway realizing I was standing in a river of sorrow. A good portion of these kids were in a state of perpetual grief. They were literally in mourning almost every day. These laminated photos are worn more than crosses, or crescents or stars. So many times I am reminded by a student, “So and so had a friend die last week, be nice to them, OK?”
Turf War Syndrome: A Form Of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
As usual, the wisdom of young Black males is often ignored until a convenient way to acknowledge their almost prophetic perception has been unveiled by a mainstream source. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s N.W.A. Ice-T Public Enemy and the Geto Boys spoke of Black issues relating to racially bias laws in the courts, drug use and systematic oppression. This was long before mainstream news outlets acknowledged any truth to the lyrics of these artists. Just as in those days, many rappers now are being ignored.
On March 21, 2006, Oakland rapper T-KASH made an album entitled Turf War Syndrome. It was a term he coined to illustrate how many of the young Black people in the hood were walking around undiagnosed and untreated with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The album was a chilling account of the military grade violence that ghetto youth are surrounded by daily.
That was six years ago. Later this month, rapper T-KASH will be running a marathon for the cause of nonviolence at the Oakland Running Festival. Earlier this week KTVU news reported:”A new survey by Bay Area researchers shows that one out of six of the sixth grade students they looked at suffer from post-traumatic stress.” “When I hear the gunshots, I get to the floor because you never know when a bullet is going to come through the window,” a 20-year-old Richmond girl, Calvanay Nunley, told WTVU. “I just wonder like who’s next? Am I next?”
“Rest in Peace” laminates are everywhere in San Francisco. John O’Connell is not unique. R.I.P. T-shirts are common fashion in the ‘hood. It is a silent, but booming industry in the Bay Area. Some of them have images of deceased friends on the the shirts holding mock pistols in divine cloudscapes. Apparently there is a gangsta’s paradise. For these kids, Tupac Shakur‘s “Thugz Mansion” is not just a song. It is where the dead homeys have to be. Because the streets are far too cold for their friends bloody end to be the final reality.
Talking To Kids
Over the past three years I have been talking to kids repeatedly about death. It’s not a topic of choice. It is a daily fact of their existence. Every name used in this article is an alias, out of respect for the emotions these kids cannot afford to show when they walk the streets.
I did not do a scientific survey. But around 6 of every 10 children I spoke with to research this article (all of them Black and Latino) could name an average of six friends their age who had died. Some had seen people murdered in front of them. Some have their own bullet wounds and nothing was ever reported to the police. Verily these children walk in the shadow of death every day.
Aliyah is 15. When asked how many friends she’s had who have died, she casually stated “about seven [or] eight.”
So how does it make her feel?
“I feel like it could happen to me,” she said.” I feel like boys don’t care. You could be a girl or a boy, and they will shoot you. People don’t have a choice in this life. It’s hard to explain.” Aliyah stared over the school’s balcony at the San Francisco skyline. “It’s like kids are being forced to grow up hella quick. I cry by myself. I try not to cry though. I feel that makes the situation worse. ‘Cause when you cry you have to think about why you are crying. Nobody wants to face all of that down.”
Physical violence between girls of this generation is really extreme. The first word of advice I was given when starting at the school was: “Be careful breaking up girl fights. They don’t stop. They don’t listen.” One teacher told me he almost had his jaw knocked out of place trying to break up a brawl between two girls. In my experience, the legend is true: The boys listen and hear you when a fight starts. The girls unleash a blind rage that seems almost as uncontrollable as it is unnatural. It’s hard to watch.
At my school, boys physically fight much less than girls do. But the reason boys fight less is because of the more dire consequences of those fights. The loser of a male-male fight might return to murder the winner. Everybody knows somebody who has access to a gun.
“It’s hard on the girls,” Aliyah says. “The boys have it harder. Girls can talk to their friends. The boys don’t. And the boys hold grudges longer. The girls can forgive and forget. The boys don’t.”
The Faith Factor
Black people have always been folks of high faith. How does this violence affect these children’s sense of God? I was curious. One kid told me nobody had time to believe “in all that stuff” when people are dying around you.
When asked what role the churches, mosques or synagogues have in the healing, the answer is pretty sad. Aliyah says: “Back in your days, you guys had it way easier than we do now. We don’t have a lot of stuff. You either a square, or you hip. I think going to church would be good because people would have something to focus on. Then it would help. But if we don’t have stuff like that, then it’s not going to work.” She told me later she almost exclusively goes to church only for funerals.
But are the shirts and the cards just a fad? Is death the new fashion statement of this generation? “I think it is,” said a male faculty member at John O’Connell. “The kids are not afraid to die like they were back in the days. They think the R.I.P. shirt and postcards… ‘are cool.’ But it’s not cool. They don’t understand how expensive it is to bury somebody. They have no feelings about how it affects the family that has to suffer. We need to stop glorifying death. We need to start making kids live their life and have aspirations. They should wanna see crystal blue waters. They should have aspirations beyond wearing an R.I.P. shirt. They need to see other things.
“They go from one concrete jungle to the next. They live in the project and it’s the same thing as going to jail. They can’t leave these areas because they are confined to the housing projects, due to the turf wars. So they go from housing projects to the jailhouse projects and it’s the same difference. ”
Aliyah firmly disagrees. “When you die people don’t remember you. But I still remember them. I still care about them. Just because they are dead does not mean they are not a part of my life. At least that’s why I wear mine.”
In Part Two of this series, we will review what support systems are in place for these kids and how the kids view the care they get from John O’Connell’s Wellness Center, a mental and physical refuge for kids walking in the shadow of death. We will also look at some of the other community organizations in place to help children cope.