"A helpless situation": What happens after the bullets fall in inner-city America?

Pulitzer winner Trymaine Lee explains how our segregated nation wreaks such devastation -- and why we're missing it

Published August 15, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/M. Spencer Green)
(AP/M. Spencer Green)

For about 10 years, Trymaine Lee has made a name for himself as a reporter unafraid to cover some of America’s toughest issues. In 2005, working for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Lee chronicled some of the horrors, the heartache and the systemic institutional failures during Hurricane Katrina. His coverage of Katrina garnered him numerous awards, including the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting. And his ongoing coverage of the nightmare in Ferguson, Missouri, has stood out as exemplary.

Last week, MSNBC published Lee’s latest bit of brilliant storytelling, titled “Trauma in the Trenches of Gun-Weary Chicago,” an in-depth look at the struggles of families living in the middle of whizzing bullets and ubiquitous violence on Chicago’s impoverished South Side. Lee’s eloquent and nuanced account details some of the psychological and emotional tolls that come with living in, for all intents and purposes, a war zone. Amid the numerous questions Lee raises about the trauma of urban violence, perhaps the most poignant is: What happens after the storm of gunfire?

Salon caught up with Lee to talk about his piece and the path forward. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Could you describe how the piece came about? What sparked your interest in that issue in that area?

For the last two years I’ve been going back between New York and Chicago. I’ve reported on the “Great Migration” from the South to the North and the return migration from Chicago back down to the South. I’ve reported on the mass school closings and a lot of the issues going on with the schools in Chicago. But also, on a darker note, I’ve been covering some of the impacts of gun violence. So about a year and a half ago I wrote about the physical toll that goes beyond the tally of those murders.

So I talked to a bunch of people who were paralyzed. We forget about those people who are paralyzed or who are maimed, who lose an arm, lose a limb. That’s a really big idea because people are not thinking about what’s left after the bullets fall, right? After the dead bodies. We’re talking about people who have to live with these wounds. So in that same vain after July 4th weekend when you had at least 82 people shot and 16 people get killed, which is completely insane, I thought to myself, could you imagine how many people witness these shootings? How many people had to see the people get killed? Again, with that same idea that beyond just those who are killed, the community is left to pick up the pieces and move on with their lives. So that was kind of the impetus. Let’s talk about the other wounds that are opened up time and time again. So that was kind of the heart of the initial idea behind the story.

You have some really interesting characters. How did you find the family?

First of all, it’s always a privilege to me — I don’t take it for granted at all — that people open up and talk to you because they are opening up their truest selves to you, especially when they’re at their darkest time. Fortunately, I do a pretty good job of sourcing. So for all my stories I keep a file. I have all names and numbers separated by neighborhoods and age and all that good stuff. So there is a guy who is in the story, Eric Wilkins, who was paralyzed in a shooting in the late '90s and he lives in Roseland (Chicago, Illinois).

Every once in a while I would call him and check on him, see what’s going on in the neighborhood, and so I was down there talking to him, rolling through the neighborhood. He’s in his wheelchair; I’m on a bike. Seriously, we were riding through the hood, he’s showing me around. We had to borrow one of his friend’s bikes. [After] the first friend let us borrow the bike, there was a leak in the back tire. So we were riding around five minutes in and it’s flat. We have to walk all the way back to his homeboy’s crib. Then we went to a barbershop not too far from where he [Wilkins] was actually shot. The barber is his old friend and he was like, “I got a bike.”

So he walks around to his house, got the bike and then we just rolled around the neighborhood. He [Wilkins] said, “I want to introduce you to this sister. She really has a story to tell and few people have really heard it.” And so we went over to her house, sat on the steps and she kind of told this story about how the cloud of violence and death had consumed her family. This is a woman named Keauna Wise. She’s in the lede of the story. She worries. And the worry is real that one of her kids will get killed. They are already out there in the life shooting, getting shot at. But the whole family had to witness their 8-year-old niece being killed right in front of them — shot in the head. Not far from where she lives is the grandmother’s house — the matriarch’s house — and there are five generations in that house at different points. People are moving in and moving out. It was a hot summer night and everyone was out there and two dudes rolled up on bikes and just open-fired on the whole group.

You know, little girl was up there jumping rope, one with the little cheerleader routines and they witnessed this. And so her story really just reinforces just how tragic and how terrible experiencing life in some of these communities can really be that we forget. Because no one wants to go into these communities to offer help, to really see what’s going on. It’s almost like it’s been normalized to the point of that’s where it’s supposed to happen. So, because we view it as that’s where it’s supposed to happen we’re not in a rush to remedy it at all, especially those emotional and psychological wounds.

Yeah. For Keauna Wise’s daughter, toward the end of the piece, it seemed almost as if the violence had become such a normal thing, a bit of numbness had settled in to a degree. She said she didn’t worry at all. But at the same time she felt gravely concerned with the fate of her brothers …

It’s a defense mechanism. On one hand, we’ve seen some of this wild behavior. It’s normalized. It happens so often where, and I said this the other day, if you had to stop every time something tragic happened, you’d spend most of your time in a very dark place because it happens so often how else do you get up and move on. So, yes, this young lady, Minnie, who was Keauna’s daughter, who has all these brothers, she’s out there with them when they are getting shot at. She resigns herself to the fact that this is the kind of life that they live and this is the kind of environment they live in and if one of her family members — her brothers — go she wants to be there with them because once they're gone there’s no coming back from that. And it’s so poignant. And so heavy. And so sad.

On the other hand, she’s kind of embracing life in a way that is fearless, but sometimes that fearlessness we know masks some deep pain. And that’s kind of at the heart of the story: because it’s normalized behavior and because it happens so often, we’re masking a lot of hurt that’s [for] one, not being treated. But it’s also not diagnosed or even identified. So that’s kind of like masking all of it. You have whole neighborhoods who are under this collective cloud of trauma that are not being treated at all.

You mentioned trauma. This is essentially, as you called it for all intents and purposes, a war zone — these are soldiers out here — but nothing is happening …

First of all, it’s a very complicated, very dynamic issue, right? So the first response, as [Attorney General] Eric Holder told me a couple weeks ago, has to be a law enforcement response. How do you actually just handle the flow of illegal activity — the flow of weapons? People are shooting at each other with illegal weapons! How do you just stop the bleeding initially. But then the second wave is politically, policy-wise. Are we crafting policy that addresses the deep disparities of who is impacted? Again, are law enforcement agencies empowered enough to address the flow of weapons from the South? Only 60 percent of the weapons that end up at crimes in Chicago are from the state. Forty percent are coming from elsewhere. They’re coming in from the South. They’re coming in from Mississippi. They're coming in from neighboring communities. But then that third wave is where I think we’re seeing all the residue from this, the psychological wounds we’re talking about. In talking to counselors who are dealing with folks in the hardest hit communities, they say not much is being done. That we’re just now starting to talk about how to best handle people suffering in the way that they’re suffering. The City [of Chicago] says that they’re offering counseling though the schools. People aren’t seeing that.

What do you mean people aren't seeing it?

I’ve talked to dozens of people who have all been impacted and [they] personally say, “No one has ever come up and offered us counseling.” I’ve talked to mothers and families of people who have been killed by gun violence and they say there’s always the talk from nonprofit groups and the city groups saying, “We’re here for you. There’s some emergency counseling.” But after the cameras go then everything else goes with them. So then all there is after that is talk. People feel like they're in a helpless situation. Not only are they dealing with the burden of all the pain — the emotional pain, the physical pain — it’s the feeling that no one cares. They don't see any flow of resources. They don’t see centers in the community that are built just to address the needs of the people emotionally.

And it’s happening so much. Last year, in Chicago more than 2,000 people were shot, hundreds killed. That’s a lot of bloodshed. That’s a lot of witnesses. That’s a lot of victims. So for people to feel that their stories aren’t being validated in any way, that the politicians and the policymakers aren’t putting all their resources behind it. I talked to a number of people who find it a slap in the face when they’re talking about billions down to the border to deal with the crisis of undocumented children. Which needs to be handled, clearly. I don’t think anyone would disagree that there’s a weight on all the institutions and systems down on the border. But there is also a crisis happening in Chicago and in Philadelphia and in Oakland [California] and in Camden [New Jersey] and in Gary, Indiana, and in Miami and in every inner city across this country there’s a crisis, not the least of which is the bloodshed; but then it’s also, as we talked about a minute ago, it’s the cloud. What happens after that?

Yeah. There was that big New York Times story about Rahm Emanuel and him closing down schools while spending millions of dollars on helicopter police escorts to get kids whose schools had been shut down to their new schools sometimes miles away ...

And millions and millions of dollars more … This came out two days ago [in the International Business Times] about millions and millions of dollars that he’s diverted from what they call these TIF funds — these discretionary funds — they’ve been diverting toward some corporate tax credit fund while they’re closing schools down. And young people in Chicago, we have to remember, as I mentioned in the piece, years ago a lot of people were almost buffered from the violence because certain gangs controlled wide swaths of the neighborhood, right?

So all the violence was occurring between the gang members. But there was no way a rival was penetrating that deep into the neighborhood to be shooting your grandmother on her front steps. Now, prosecutors, with the mandatory minimums, have done a great job of kind of breaking these gangs down, but what’s left are cliques that control two blocks here, three blocks here. In Roseland, for example, you’ll go two blocks over and it’s one crew. Three blocks over another way, it’s another crew. And they’re all led by these teenagers and very young men who just aren’t as “principled,” we’ll say — and I’m kind of editorializing here — aren’t as “principled” in the ways the gangs were in the past. That’s not to give any credit to the former gang members. There were a lot of more violent criminals who inflicted a lot of pain and bloodshed on the community. But the fact of the matter is you have a whole bunch of young guys now leading crews reaping terrible results.

There is a lot of pain and a lot of hurt you tell in the story, stuff you don’t normally hear about in the media often …

Because people don’t want to hear it. (laughs)

Yeah, it’s kind of like Nas’ “Illmatic” where he talks about trying to bring people what the streets taste like, what it smells like, what it feels like. How, as a storyteller, do you try to make that happen and is that something you think is severely lacking in the general coverage about this?

I think it’s hard because what we’re really talking about when we’re talking about rich storytelling and getting real voices and letting people smell and taste what life is like, we’re talking about narrative journalism. Unfortunately, the way the media landscape has kind of shifted, newspapers are getting smaller. They’re not throwing around money, you know? These stories take some time because you have to develop sources. You have to go down into the communities and tell these stories. But I think that’s exactly what it takes. Not just from a resource standpoint, you have to go to the community and talk to people. Talk to the people who are impacted.

And for a number of reasons I don’t think many journalists feel comfortable going into these communities and opening themselves up enough to be open-minded about it because it’s so easy to fall into the garden-variety killing mind state. I’ve worked in a bunch of newsrooms in Philadelphia and New Orleans and New York and what happens is, when you’re sitting there listening to the police scanner, you’re not always surprised when somebody gets shot in a certain neighborhood. But we don’t take that next step to try to figure out, “Who was this person?”

Because, as I always say, people have to live with drug dealers and killers. People have to live ducking the bullets. It’s not like everyone’s out there on the firing line like the Civil War lined up and blasting. No. It’s not like that. So for me, the most important part, the critical part, of this kind of storytelling is really going down and coming with my hat in my hand to the doorstep, to the block, to the families and opening myself up and saying, “Can I tell your story?” Then, of course, we know you have to bolster it and hinge it on systemic issues. You have to hinge it on something broader. You know, the micro-macro. Come in small, narrow, and widen out. No pun intended, but a colleague of mine once told me that sometimes you want to use the rifle, sometimes you want to use the shotgun. The rifle is very narrow. A shotgun is wide. A buckshot is wide.

So sometimes you have to narrow in. And that, to me is the most powerful because when you’re on that step with Keauna Wise and she’s listening to her daughter talk about how she don’t care, she’s going to be out there with her brothers whether they’re shooting or not because once they go, there ain’t no coming back from that. That is powerful. Watching her [Keauna] turn her head and the teardrops coming down from her eyes, man? You only get that by going and sitting on that step. You only get that by coming respectful. I’m not coming to disrespect anybody. I’m coming to tell your story and I think that some journalists do it better than not. For me, that’s the most powerful way to tell a story — to bring you to that step, to bring you to that corner, to bring you into that moment.

This is kind of why you got your Pulitzer, for this on-the-ground, firsthand reporting on the people of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Do you see any parallels between the trauma people are going through in Chicago, now, and what the poor black people of New Orleans went through, then?

Well, I think the similarities between Chicago and any of these other inner cities who are dealing with the fallout from all the violence is that the people of New Orleans, especially in the poorer communities that were hit hardest by the storm, had already been weathering all this other stuff we’ve been talking about. So before this big storm — before the hurricane — there were a bunch of little tornadoes. Right? We’re talking about the Lower Ninth Ward. We’re talking about that kind of violence in the South. That’s kind of a different brand. Culturally, it’s a part of the gun culture.

But the violence we see down there is something completely different. Something special. But when we’re talking about trauma I think human beings can only react. There’s a box. Sometimes the box is this big. Sometimes the box is that big. But you only have a box of reaction. This is only flesh and blood. I think that’s the thing we forget: This is all soft. Our emotions, our psychological state, our physicality, it’s all soft, man. So for some reason it’s normal for people to have to witness multiple people getting shot. Imagine seeing somebody getting their brains blown out in front of you or someone you love getting shot. Or imagine if you weren’t there to witness the killing, but they’re here one day and the next time you see them they’re in a box being lowered into the ground. Let’s really think about that. Most of our lives aren’t set up in that way.

Seriously. You know, it sounds like this story has a very personal element to it …

Yeah. Before I was born my grandfather was murdered in 1976. Do you want me to tell you the story?

For sure …

My grandparents lived outside of Camden, New Jersey, but they owned an apartment building in Camden and they were going to rent it out. And so some guy came by to put a deposit down and disappeared for months. He came back months later looking for his deposit and my family told him, “Sorry, you forfeited your deposit.” So my grandfather worked at a lumber warehouse and he worked the late shift. He came home for dinner late, around 11:30 at night. There was a knock on the door. As soon as he stood up the guy fired multiple shots through the door and struck and killed him. That was before I was born but it was always a cloud over my family. We didn’t even talk about it much.

I just now had a conversation with my mother maybe two months ago about what happened and her feelings. When we were kids we couldn’t have toy guns. She hated the sound of balloons popping because of the impact. He was the patriarch of the family — handsome, and everybody loved him. He played this big role, though, in the community. Years and years later, in 1995, my stepbrother was murdered. A girl was braiding his hair and put a bullet in the back of his head in Camden. Dragged his body down, they put him in the back of trunk. She had her brother and one of his friends take his Timbs (Timberland boots) off, take his jewelry and everything to make it look like it was robbery. It was a wild circumstance. My stepbrother was involved in some things. We weren’t very close but we were cool, though. So going to the funeral and seeing him in that casket reminded me of my blood brother who was about the same age.

Just the idea that this could happen to my brother, we’re making decisions and choices about what we’re doing in life and that sometimes involves violence. So the violence has played a role in my life and my family’s pathway to the present. It does inform how I approach people because I can feel it. I know what it’s like to lose a family member. Imagine if you multiply my experience times 500. Then you have people who have not only lost a lot of people that are close to them, but they've seen other people get shot. They’ve witnessed strangers getting shot. Your neighbor. The guy you went to school with. The girl who was the cheerleader. A week after marching in President Obama’s second inaugural parade you get shot by some gang members? Even if you’re doing the right things you’re not safe. Even when you’re doing everything you're supposed to do. And parents are trying to put you in a position to do everything they think you should be doing and you still get taken. So, again, it’s personal. But it’s also the collective “we.” It’s not just me, but it’s you and it’s your brother and it's people I don’t even know.

And you wonder about these kind of areas, it’s tough because a lot of people look at these areas and don’t see much life there …

Let me stop you for a moment. Sometimes in these conversations, it’s almost unfair and I wonder sometimes if the way we frame our conversations if we’re doing more harm than good. Because on the one hand we could say there is no life there. If you go through Roseland and you see boarded-up homes and you see corner stores and you don’t see any fresh food and it’s hard to find an apple and we say, “There’s no life here.” But then there is culture there, right?  And there is resilience and buoyancy there and there is love and in between some very terrible things there are a number of very high points. So how do you balance that to get so people are so monolithic in the experience so we won’t paint that kind of very narrow picture of what life is like, because it is broad. Like in New Orleans, for example, one of the most violent cities in the country. Louisiana has the highest gun death rate in the country, or at least the top three. But then it’s punctuated by life being lived. You know what I’m saying? These communities are struggling but you look around and the institutions clearly are dead. Then you talk about there are no jobs, or a supermarket — a supermarket!

Yeah. And they have to live through this. They actually have to make a life in this kind of place. Getting back to the PTSD. How do you grapple with something like that? In other cities they have mental health services and shrinks. Were there any services that you saw when you were in Chicago?

There was a woman named Nosheen Hydari and she works at a community council center in Chicago. They are one of the groups that came across that is actually trying to get out there and penetrate communities that haven’t been penetrated with these kinds of resources. And there are a number of nonprofit groups, some that are just heroic in what they do without any resources, without any money. You’ve got guys who’ve got records as long as your arm who have turned their lives around and they’re just out in the streets every day trying to get these young brothers to put the guns down and tell them it’s not worth it. So you have a lot of groups out there who are offering an ear and a shoulder. In talking to young people they feel that they don’t have anyone to talk to and, as we know, as a defense mechanism you’ve got to wear your mask. It looks soft. It’s a shame that soft is you’re hurt that you had to watch somebody get killed or one of your homeboys was murdered.

That’s kind of sad that we’ve created this where you can’t even be open about that but they can’t. And so while there seems to be a lack of resources there are some people trying. But then there is also, going back to the stigma, socially, which across the board people experience this, but — in some of these communities do you feel comfortable opening up about your true feelings? And does that open the crack to being soft? And you have all these very hard realities. So I think it’s a mixture of there need to be resources put behind these efforts to get people treated. Get someone to talk to. Identify when it’s a real diagnosis there to be able to really identify what’s going on. Is it PTSD? Is it a symptom of PTSD? Is it depression? Is it isolation? Anxiety? How can you treat that? Then there are also some cultural things where it’s like, I don’t know how it happens but, people need to feel like they're in a safe enough social space to talk about how they're really feeling. And that’s anywhere. But when I sat in circles of different groups of young people, and fortunately they had that platform because different nonprofit organizations set up these situations where they can talk as different people, it’s amazing the insight that these kids have. They are so self-aware that they are aware of the media and how they are portrayed. They are aware that there aren’t any jobs there. They’re aware of the impact. They’re aware that they bury their feelings. But they just don’t know what else to do. You’re 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 years old, 20 years old, 22. They don’t know what else to do.

What’s sad is that the outside doesn’t really see any of that. Does the outside need to come in more or does the inside need to be exposed to the outside world?

That’s a great question. But either way the outside is being impacted by a lot of behaviors that are manifestations of all these pent-up emotions that we’re dealing with. One young guy said — not in this story, but in this audio project that we did also that we put on Instagram — he said, “You see a young boy get killed. That make you want to go out there and kill somebody.” You know what I’m saying? To say that? And the same young man said that after school he has to duck through alleyways and gang waves because he wants to avoid the block and they have to go through two blocks here — that’s one zone — and you can’t cross into the other zone because they’re going to shoot at you or chasing you, trying to literally kill you.

So if we don’t address that inside, if we don’t give them a platform to speak, do you know what’s going to happen? We’re going to give them another kind of platform. Because there are guns everywhere. Do we want to wait until that point? These kids aren’t monsters. I mean, there are monsters. I think it’s safe to say there are a couple monsters. But for the most part, these shooters, especially, they aren’t monsters; they’re misled. A lot of them have been neglected in one way or the other from the very beginning. A lot of them are literally hungry. Food insecurity is real. Some of them are generations deep and some of these communities have been deprived of everything, every piece of sustenance — emotional sustenance, physical sustenance. Right? So if we don’t get smart and really pay attention to what’s happening it will continue.

I think the fear is that everyone already kind of understands this but it kind of doesn’t matter because it’s only happening in certain communities. That’s poor, black and brown communities who aren’t a big tax base because they're poor. They don’t vote …Well, Americans don’t vote much at all if we looked at voting rates. But in some of these communities voter turnout isn’t huge and when they do it’s to a particular party so there is no urgency. So we’re going to be left with the status quo and that’s exactly where we are now.

Yeah. That’s kind of along the lines of what you said on "The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell." Something like: “Once the cameras are off, once the politicians stop talking, what happens to these people then?” Do you you think that’s the worst-case scenario, if people just stop zooming in on this kind of issue? And is that a role you consider yourself trying to fulfill?

Here’s the thing. To address the latter point, I don’t consider myself an activist at all so I’m not trying to galvanize necessarily. But I am trying to highlight how we are living and dying and how America and its institutions fail particular groups of people, especially in this country. So [that's] what I would hope would come from the reporting and the journalism that I’m doing, but also there are a bunch of great journalists across the country in newspapers and magazines and online and everywhere that are doing a great job of trying to unearth these stories. The problem is we live in a very segregated country, not just racially, not just economically, but across the board. So we don’t know how the other side and the other sides live.

So if you say, “Wow! This is what’s happening in certain schools? This is what’s happening in certain neighborhoods?” And we can actually craft policy that makes common sense? Gun reform? Common sense education policy? So I would hope that in chiming into this broader conversation that I would hope everyone joins in. Not just about gun violence, but about education. Food insecurity is real. Environmental issues. Again, I tend to concentrate on these kind of vulnerable neighborhoods and communities because they are the most vulnerable. They are the least of us in the sense of the quality of life. All those issues overlap. Food deserts. School deserts. In Chicago, they tore down trauma centers. So right now if I get shot in one neighborhood, I’m not going to make it across town. Look at the brown fields and the soil is contaminated. The same communities. And we’ve never cared about these communities. Ever.

Yeah. There’s so many more stories like this. Were there other stories that you felt were equally bad that you found when you were in the field? What was your lasting impression?

On a human level I walk away feeling sad. A little bit, right? "Hopeless" isn’t the right word. But I see the hopes of so many people having been diminished. On the same token, I see young people who are pushing through it and I can only imagine — could you imagine — if some of these young people witnessed some of these terrors and made it into the white-collar world? What could stop you? This to me is all silly. We’re sitting in 30 Rock (NBC Studios). This is all beautiful. The cafeteria is beautiful. "Saturday Night Live" is downstairs. It’s beautiful. This world is soft. Even when it’s complicated this world is easy. This world is, you get up every morning and I’m thankful I have a job. My daughter is going to eat. I’m going to make it home God willing.

Because this is New York City (laughs). Right? This story was a hard story to tell in that we’re dealing with emotion and psychological wounds and it’s so widespread so you don’t have to get shot to feel that. Everyone I spoke to. I mean, a number of people broke down crying. And I’m an emotional person. I didn’t cry like in Katrina. I remember the first story as a part of the Pulitzer package I cried with her. She was crying. I’m crying. Tears were falling through my notepad. But that’s how I am. I’m telling their stories. So I’m here with you as a person. Sometimes you have to be sober enough to ask the right questions and get to the point. And this one was difficult for that. But then again I’ve been reporting for the better part of a decade on these kinds of issues. I started off as a police reporter and in those early days as a police reporter at the Trentonian in Trenton, New Jersey, or in Philadelphia at a number of papers or in New Orleans I’m sitting right under the police scanner. So as soon as you hear the crackle and you see the code of X number of people shot. You run to the scene.

I’ve been to scenes before the cops get there because with the ambulance you hear the first initial calls. And there’s someone lying there bleeding with their head wide open and their families screaming there and you see all that immediate, immediate pain. A lot of people I talked to it’s fresh, but it’s lingering. The sting is still there, a wound that never quite heals. But when you’re at the point of inflict — when that wound just happens — that’s something to see. And it’s tragic. I’ve dealt with that a lot. Now I can digest it in a different way and hopefully I’m able to pull it together in a way that hopefully people can understand and also feel. But the hardest part is that this is real life. But people think that it’s happening in some far off land. When you're in Chicago, I’m downtown having lunch when I first get there and there’s a Lamborghini pulled up on the corner. Beautiful. Red. The prettiest thing you ever saw.

Then you go to the South Side. You go to Roseland — what they call the “wild hundreds.” You go to Englewood and you're like, “My goodness. It was a 10-minute ride!” Completely different worlds. And guess what? Those worlds don’t overlap. Because if you’re on the South Side of Chicago you’re not downtown. If you’re downtown you’re not going there. And people tell you don’t go. People are afraid of it. There’s a barrier, a barbed wire, Great Wall surrounding it. Resources aren’t coming in. Money is being sucked out because there are businesses in some of these communities. But guess what, some of the money is being sucked out. So separate. It’s heartbreaking that people don’t understand how the other sides are living. That’s how we crafted our policy and that’s why it doesn’t matter when you see 50 schools being closed, even though a lot of them are underutilized. That’s more complicated. We see the situations in schools where even the proficiency rates [are] 8 percent, 9 percent, 10 percent proficient in speaking the English language. Look at the dropout rates. C’mon. Shameful.

And we’re all sitting back and watching because it’s supposed to happen there. Because it’s normalized in those communities. It’s normalized in the media. It’s normalized in all of us who don’t live that way because you think it’s normal, this happens. I’ve been, as a reporter, sitting back and hearing, “Oh two people got shot like, ehh…” At the New York Times I spent some times on the late night rewrite desk and there had to be like three people [shot] for us to write something! Again, that’s a major newspaper so you can’t write about every single one. But that’s prevalent in many newsrooms: “Ehhh, it’s only two? Ehhh, one? It gets a blurb.” We don’t know anything about this kid. Was he a drug dealer? Was he the star football player? Was he taking his last AP course before graduation? In Chicago, there’s so many of those stories of innocent bystanders. One kid, I guess three weeks ago now, I want to say he started his orientation the next day for college and there were other kids who get shot at a graduation party.

There was another young lady the weekend I was there, she was having a sleepover with some girls and they were making s’mores inside the house, a bullet comes through and strikes her in the head and she’s killed. Could you imagine? C’mon, man, it’s not just gangbangers. That’s the part we’re wrestling with. These lives don’t matter? It’s one thing when you play some role — and most murders, we should be clear, most people who are killed had some association with the killer and played some role — but what happens when you’re talking about little girls jumping rope? Or little girls making s’mores or grandmothers on the porch? It’s shameful and it’s terrible and it’s just ridiculous.

It’s hard. You almost tear up thinking about it.

I feel like I’m getting a little … (eyes welling up). I feel it. But again, that’s what motivates me, though. Because I do feel it. And the moment I become numb to these realities is the moment you start not to care.

By Ian Blair

Ian Blair is a writer living in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @i2theb.