Black Lives and Bloodshed

JooHee Yoon


The fear that seems to be growing like fire across America has created a gun society that I do not want to understand.  Fear breeds hate and ignorance.  Somehow America, a free country that is the most powerful in the world with democracy as our back bone, has become divided through lies, anger and power that has been fueled by the people in our Government who seem to have zero desire to unite for all.  That is why we have the cast of characters running for the Republican nominee.

There are wars on our own streets and homes with the access to guns that are killing the youth.  If it wasn’t real it would look like we are in a movie.  But in a movie, the person really doesn’t get killed, they get up after the scene is shot.   The real tragedy of guns are happening in underserved communities across this country.

This editorial written by Trymaine Lee in the NYTimes really cut straight to the heart.  No matter what you believe this editorial opens up ones eyes to another side of anger and guns.

Black Lives and Bloodshed

 IN my early years as a police reporter, I often pulled up to a crime scene minutes before the homicide detectives arrived. Too many times to count I’d find a young black man my age or younger dead with a halo of blood or brain matter splashed on the pavement. Often there were shell casings sprinkled around freshly fallen bodies.

Some were killed over turf, some out of revenge. Many were victims of the deadly grind of the drug trade. Others were killed by the police. A high number were innocent people caught in crossfire, many of them children.

I learned to identify family members by the level of grief they’d show. Inconsolable wailing, unsteady feet, breathless delirium — a mother or sister. Angry, with balled fists and tears — a brother or close cousin. Girlfriends often ran in after the police had arrived, and the crime scene was set, clawing at the police tape. The best friends and homeboys stayed close but not too close, trading whispers before leaving the scene on clouds of three or four people at a time, vengeance bubbling up in their minds. The fathers always seemed stoic, either numbed by the pain or resigned to the way young black male life was so easily lost. They, too, had been young black men once.

In many of their faces I’d seen the faces of my own family, people I loved and who loved me. I saw my own mother’s tears and could imagine my older brother and his boys with guns tucked into their waistbands, ready to squeeze off shots had I been the one with a bloody halo.

Over more than a dozen years I’ve evolved from a run-and-gun street reporter in Philadelphia and New Orleans to a national reporter flying across the country to cover social justice issues, high-profile incidents of shootings by police officers and the growing Black Lives Matter movement. But no matter the cause of the bloodshed I continue to chronicle, the tool of the garden-variety thug and beat cop alike remains essentially the same. The gun.

The toll of gun violence in our most beleaguered, depleted communities is great. And we’ve recently arrived at yet another moment when the issue of guns has been thrust into the national political dialogue. President Obama just weeks ago rolled out executive actions aimed at, among other things, closing the so-calledgun show loophole and the flow of illegal weapons to people who shouldn’t have them. What followed was much what you’d expect from the partisan debate over guns. Conservatives rebuffed calls to make it the slightest bit more difficult to buy firearms. Many liberals said the president’s actions didn’t go far enough.

As politicians tangle over how best to manage the country’s obscenely huge and growing arsenal of privately owned guns, the rat-a-tat of gun violence continues to bleed us all.

For those of us keeping tabs on the impact of guns in black and brown communities, there is no solace. This exhausting dance between black death and black scribe is as much a performance in journalism as it is a perpetual act of catharsis.

My family has experienced its own measure of gun death. In the mid-1970s, a couple of years before I was born, a disgruntled prospective tenant murdered my grandfather over a $160 security deposit. Decades later a young woman put a bullet in the back of my stepbrother’s head. Years later, two cousins, brothers, would be touched by the plague: One was shot down and the other is serving a long prison sentence for a separate incident, a botched robbery turned murder.

An act of gun violence is central to the story of how I came to be, too. In 1924 my maternal grandmother’s family joined the Great Migration north from Georgia after a white gunman killed her older brother. He was just 12 years old. The family eventually landed in New Jersey, but violence followed. In 1951 another of my grandmother’s brothers, this one younger, was shot and killed by a New Jersey State Trooper. He was just 17. Years later, when my grandfather was killed he left behind eight children, including my mother.

Many times when I sat with victims’ families and slowly drew out their stories and their tears, I have to believe, they saw me as one of their own. They often shooed away white reporters, but shared with me intimate memories of their loved ones. They dug up old yearbook photos and rattled off their dead boy’s — they were almost always boys — hopes and dreams. They didn’t shy away from their shortcomings, criminal or otherwise.

Years ago, in Philadelphia, I met a 19-year-old named Kevin Johnson who weeks earlier had been paralyzed by a bullet to his spine. A group of teenagers had pressed a gun to the back of his neck and demanded the basketball jersey off his back. He refused and one of them pulled the trigger. The day I met him he’d just started talking again and his family had smuggled me into his hospital room. Medical tubes and wires snaked from his body, tangling his lanky, limp brown frame.

“God wouldn’t give me anything I couldn’t handle,” Kevin told me. “I’m going to try and live a regular life.”

His mother and I traded a look over his hospital bed, knowing his life would be anything but regular. A few years later, under the weight of catastrophic injury and medical complications, Kevin’s body finally gave in.

I like to tell myself that I’ve served as a conduit for the last whispers of lives lost too soon. That I am capturing, in a crucial way, the sad mundanity of American gun violence. But sometimes, it seems I’m little more than a peddler of pain. A cog in a much broader story that seems to give short shrift to black death and too little scrutiny to a gun industry that profits while so many perish.

My days glued to a police scanner are long behind me. The fever of chasing gunfire and sirens has broken. I’ve mostly traded covering individual tragedies for covering a movement that wants those individual tragedies to actually lead to some form of positive change. It feels as much like a natural progression as it does a sort of masochistic calling.

There are more than 300 million guns in America. Almost as many guns as there are Americans. And each year about 11,000 people are killed by guns wielded by others. An additional 20,000 or so use guns to take their own lives. While gun violence has fallen since the bad old days of the late 1980s and early ’90s, far too many people — in poor black communities in particular — remain trapped and traumatized by violence.

Last month, I was in Chicago, where through the first two weeks of the year, according to the Chicago police, homicides are up 113 percent and shootings are up nearly 200 percent from the same period last year.

I met a woman whose 20-year-old daughter was killed a couple of years ago, trapped in the crossfire of a gang shootout. She held her daughter’s funeral on what would have been the girl’s 21st birthday. There have been no arrests in her daughter’s case. Investigators haven’t given her any updates and they’ve all but stopped answering her incessant phone calls, she said.

“She just lost her life for nothing,” the woman told me, cradling a heavy gold urn filled with her daughter’s ashes. “I take her with me everywhere I go, because before she was killed we spent every minute together. I’m going to keep carrying her with me until her death makes sense.”

As that mother waits for closure, the bodies of the 90 or so people who are killed each day by guns in this country will continue to pile up. Whether we’re carrying them in an urn or not, the burden of their weight belongs to all of us.

Trymaine Lee is a national reporter at MSNBC, a fellow at the New American Foundation and is at work on “Million Dollar Bullets,” a book about gun violence in America.


Comments (Archived):

  1. Ella Dyer

    Sadly this may not change given the NRA strong-hold on the Country’s leaders. Couple that with the privatized prison system (Corrections Corporation of America or, CCA, which is publicly traded) The US has a long way to go to become a civilized society again.

    1. Gotham Gal

      yes it does.

  2. Eric Woods

    Thanks for posting. Such a powerful piece (as is the artwork). What’s most troubling is that what is described are the symptoms, yet none of those who we’ve charged to run our cities, states and country are dealing with the illnesses in earnest.

  3. jason wright

    Europe has its problems, but America looks more and more like a failing experiment, and a failing all comes down to wealth distribution.

    1. Gotham Gal

      It appears like the globe needs a reboot

      1. jason wright

        i’m not pessimistic about the future. the internet is the catalyst for rebooting the world.

    2. LE

      Not really has to do with drugs and poverty and cultural issues within certain communtiies only part of which can be solved by access to jobs that aren’t available because of wealth distribution. Also don’t forget that people with money spend money and the money that they spend (on luxury goods) creates jobs as well.America is not “a failing experiment” by the way not even close.

      1. jason wright

        …because of wealth distribution. precisely.that sounds like the questionable doctrine of ‘trickle down’ economics. give the 1% even more and they’ll buy even more… shiny products made in isn’t succeeding, and it’s going in the wrong direction. the “…for *the* people…” part is definitely failing.

  4. pointsnfigures

    Want to end gun violence? End the war on drugs and legalize it.

    1. LE

      What drugs would you legalize?

      1. pointsnfigures

        I’d start with ganja. But, in a perfect world I’d legalize them all. I’d also pull the rug out of govt programs. Let the private sector handle rehab. I’d make it legal to discriminate in hiring if a person was on drugs-meaning drug tests if I wanted to do them.In Chicago, murders were up 75% Jan 2016. We have the toughest gun laws in the country (so that is clearly not the answer). We have tough penalties, so mandatory sentencing isn’t the answer. Why are they killing each other? Drug turf wars over money. Pull away the incentive and the killing will subside.Of course, there are other problems too-children out of wedlock, education etc. But, the current govt programs/solutions aren’t doing anything to help.In The Conservative Heart, Arthur Brooks talks about an NYC organization that has had tremendous success with rehab. It’s a pretty amazing story, and privately funded.

        1. LE

          The war on drugs is a big economic machine in itself as you know. So it would need to be unwound over a decade or two just like smoking couldn’t be stopped overnight (and not just because of tobacco states). Many people feed at that trough and it requires a slow withdrawal or you will just end up with unemployed people who will be a burden on the system and create other problems.I wouldn’t even want to guess how long and how much money it would take to analyze exactly how to do something like this.Not to mention that letting people out of jail creates a problem there are no jobs for them (because there aren’t jobs for the people who aren’t in jail now). Only so many roofing companies and car washes out there. Drug turf wars over money. Pull away the incentive and the killing will subside.When prohibition ended I believe the criminals just shifted to other crimes. And that makes sense that would happen.You know honestly what are all these people going to do with their time and to earn money when they don’t have “jobs” as they do now? I am not joking or kidding I am being serious. You have a guy earning money (non taxable I might add) living from score to score. Now he can’t sell drugs how does he earn money now?Of course, there are other problems too-children out of wedlock, education etc.This will sound like I am painting with a large racist stroke here however the culture is clearly different in many of these communities. I am not exactly sure that education can reverse many of the things that go on at least not on a broad basis. Much of this has to do with upbringing passed along from generation to generation from parent to child.

    2. Matt Kruza

      Took the words from me.. it really is necessary. Necessary but non sufficient. There are other policies that would need to be changed, but they can’t happen until drugs are legalized. Your multi tiered approach below is proper. Few restrictions on marijuana, but definitely much tighter standards on other drugs, while still making them broadly legal, with any remaining illegalities fined VERY high, but decriminalized from an imprisonment standpoint. LE’s point is huge about the vested interests. Police and prison unions would fight tooth and nail. Drugs fund the vast majority of gangs, which are the vast majority of non-personal (close relationship) violence in the country. Also, they make certain areas unlivable for anyone who has an option. Some may not believe this, but there are very few (and even less under say 40) who won’t live in an area due to racial dynamics, but almost no one will live or invest in areas of high crime. It is really sad the collateral damage the policing and drug policy really have on the worst / poorest areas in society.

  5. Anonymous

    If the 11,000 deaths are predominantly affecting poor, black communities (from the essay) – then why? Is it the availability of guns or something else that is causing a spike of violence in these communities? If guns are the problem, shouldn’t the impact of guns be statistically distributed across communities with guns?Also, if gun ownership has increased and violent crime has dropped since the 80’s and 90’s (per the essay) – is that a result of more guns?Totally agree on the prison system.

    1. JLM

      .Texas is at an all time high in gun ownership.Texas is at all time low in murders per 100,000.Remove black on black murders and Texas is one of the safest places on the planet.It is not the guns. It is the people. Wait a second, maybe it’s the people with the guns?It is a social problem.Understand the problem BEFORE creating a solution, anyone?JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

  6. AMT Editorial Staff

    Thanks for posting this. Would not have seen it otherwise. Going to send to my book club…we just finished and discussed “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace”. Did you read it? If not, I think you would like/appreciate it.

    1. Gotham Gal

      Loved that book. Thought about it for a very long time

  7. JLM

    .This article stands for a very hard truth — black lives do NOT matter to black men or they would stop killing each other.The President embarrassed himself with his complete lack of knowledge of the way guns are bought and sold on the Internet or at gun shows.He said that a person can buy a gun on the Internet without submitting to a background investigation when, in fact, the only way a gun can be purchased on the Internet is to supply accurate identification and then have the gun shipped to a local FFL (Federal Firearms Licensee) who then must conduct a background investigation in accordance with Federal law and the laws of your state (as an example, it is more difficult to buy a gun in Texas than it is in other states).He was completely wrong. The President of the US cannot fashion a solution to a problem he, fundamentally, does not understand. He looks like more of an idiot than usual when he gets up and tells us something that is totally wrong. It was not a lie, it was just incompetence.He then doubled down praising the ATF for its role in background investigations when, in reality, all background investigations are done by the FBI using their proprietary database.Again, the President was talking out of his ass, as usual.Gun violence and racial violence using guns can be most dramatically impacted by confronting why young black men kill other young black men. Solve that as the first part of the global solution. That is a social problem before it is a gun problem.Then, know the freakin’ law before lecturing us and crying for us and telling us how much you are touched by the problem. Be touched enough to know what the fuck you’re talking about, how about that as a first step?How about actually knowing that you cannot buy a gun directly on the Internet before the big alligator tears?Want to stop gun violence? Know what the fucking problem is and isn’t — first.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…