My neighbors are being shot and I didn’t know…
How one Brooklyn community has fractured perceptions and experiences of gun violence
So far this year 42 people have been shot in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights, which means that for the 80,000 people who live there, the odds of being shot are less than half a percent. Crown Heights is by no means the safest neighborhood in Brooklyn — only in Brownsville and East New York are you more likely to be shot. Still, the neighborhood is safer than it’s ever been, certainly compared to the height of the crack epidemic in the early 1990s when some 100 people were shot a year.
Crown Heights has become hot — home prices and rentals are rising so quickly that many long-time residents can no longer afford to live there. Today, the cheapest one bedroom apartment lists rent at $1,350 a month or $16,200 a year, according to StreetEasy.com. Many long term residents struggle, given that their median annual household income is between $41,867 and $44,961 a year, according to a 2014 report by the Furman Center at New York University. Crown Heights was also named in 2014 as one of the three largest contributors of homeless families to shelters during the Bloomberg administration, according to the New York City Independent Budget Office. This year it was ranked among the top 15 most gentrifying neighborhoods in the city, according to the Furman Center.
The result is that when you ask people in Crown Heights today about their biggest worries they list jobs, education and college debt.
But for a small segment of the neighborhood’s population there is a far more troubling fear: being shot. The victims of gun violence in Crown Heights are for the most part young, black, and poor caught up in gangs or drugs. They are also sons, brothers, and fathers, and together with their families they live in a world apart from their neighbors.
“Violence within neighborhoods generally is concentrated within very particular criminal social networks such as gangs and drug crews but these groups comprise only a few percent of the young men in a neighborhood and disproportionately affect poor black folks in poor black neighborhoods,” said Professor David Kennedy who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
For those that live outside this bubble, gun violence almost never touches them except in the most exceptional cases. To be a victim is to live a world apart from even the closest neighbors.
One of those people is Dequann Stanley. Dequann was only 12 when he joined his first gang in Crown Heights. It was called the “Decepticons” after the villains from the popular Transformers cartoon series. By the time he was 16 he was in prison for robbery. At 18, and leader of a new gang called Deleoa, he got into a shootout with two rivals in the drug trade.
“Two guys they came for me, they said I was stepping on their toes,” he recalled. “We were fighting for the block. I was shooting them, my gun jammed and they got me.” Dequann was hit in the arm, the gun shot had broken it in several places. At first a dull numbness took over and his arm felt heavy as the adrenaline surged before the searing pain set in. But he did not quit the gang world.
He was imprisoned again in 2007 at the age of 27, this time for drug dealing. This time he was sent to state prison, to Orleans Correctional Facility in the small village of Albion, a seven-hour drive from his family and friends.
“When you’re that far away, only people who really love you come and visit. Before when I was jailed in New York City anyone would come,” Dequann said. “All that hype you had before means nothing inside, you’re there with people who have been in prison for over 25 years, and you quickly realize that’s not what you want in life.”
Three years later, after not “messing” with anyone, Dequann was released. Even then he found it hard to break with the gang life.
“I came home and I felt my life beginning to change, at least I thought I did. By the time I got out, the struggle was still the same,” he said. “It was hard to get a job and look after a family that looked after me. After a while I began to dibble and dabble and get back into the streets.”
Shortly after being released Dequann rejected an invitation to join a local anti-gun crime advocacy group called Save our Streets (S.O.S.). Before long he was back on the streets and up to his old habits.
Four years later Dequann was attending a local bloc party an old friend and a member of S.O.S. spotted him drinking and laughing. He approached and told Dequann it was time to change his life, to join their group, and finally to put the streets behind him.
“Five minutes after the conversation ended, shots rang out from across the street and I was hit,” Dequann said. A gunshot wound to the leg left him hospitalized once more. When the doctors in the emergency room asked what happened, Dequann, as he had the first time he was shot, said nothing.
Dequann is now a member of S.O.S. He has no desire to return to the gang life or be killed on the streets.
“Prison put a lot of strain on my family,” he said. “I have kids now and I had a wife out there by herself with rising food costs and then having to take time and money to invest in coming to see me. That’s the strain when you don’t have the support of the father.”
Dequann is acutely aware how different his life is from those who have not experienced gun violence. He sees the divide along racial lines. “They don’t feel like they are the targets,” he said. “They don’t take their kids to where the African Americans are and gunfire might ring out.”
Dequann is not alone in that feeling of isolation.
“If you are responsible for tackling gun violence and you see this big decrease citywide in gun violence for decades, you’ll feel this great accomplishment,” said Amy Ellenbogen, a director at the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, where S.O.S. is based. “But if you live in a neighborhood and your neighbor’s son has been shot and your child has been shot and your cousin’s kid has been shot, it does not feel like an accomplishment. It feels like not enough is being done.”
Anika McInnis, 22 definitely doesn’t feel like enough is being done. In February 2013, Anika returned from visiting a friend who’d just given birth when she got a call about a close childhood friend who had been shot and killed after trying to break up a fight involving one of his friends.
“One of my closest friends received a bullet to the stomach,” she said. “After that, life took on a different meaning. Before, when I heard about [shootings], I felt sad, but this made it hit home.”
Anika hasn’t been able to see the friend she visited and her child since that day. She says that it would take her back to her feelings of pain and loss.
“You hear about it [shootings]on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” she said. “But by Monday people forget about them. For the families there’s no support. Fathers are being gunned down and nobody is looking after the children.
“I walk around and I don’t want others to experience this. Because this is a feeling that will never go away.”
For victims of gun violence — both those who’ve been shot and those close to them — the experience can result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which affects eight percent of the US population. Gun violence is by no means the only cause of PTSD. But that violence, and living in the same place where it occurred leave deep and lasting scars, especially for those whose PTSD goes undiagnosed and untreated.
When Anika talks about her friend’s death, she’s reminded instantly of where she was and how it felt when she found out he’d been shot. For her and others like her, gun violence means always living with this memory and trauma. She’s never been diagnosed with PTSD but she does describe herself as suffering from it on occasion.
“There is nothing ‘post’ about the traumatic stress that these people have,” Professor Kennedy said. “Victimization rates in these high crime areas are a higher rate than soldiers in active military engagements will experience. The battleground is safer than what these guys will experience”
According to a 2010 study by the University of California, San Francisco, people who have been injured by guns have shown low rates of mental health service use, despite a high level of need. Despite the existence of services, Anika McInnis, for one, feels those services are too seldom available and too hard to access when they are. Dequann Stanley says he was completely unaware such help existed. Children are among the most vulnerable to the ripple effects of gun violence. According to a 1996 study by Brown University Medical School, “exposure to such violence on a chronic basis can produce serious emotional and behavioral problems.”
The violence need not be experienced first hand to be felt. Twelve-year-old John Walden, hesitated before identifying the fear that keeps him up at night: “shootings.”
“Sometimes parents don’t let their kids go outside because there are shootings,” he said. He told the story of his sister who disobeyed their mother: “She told her to stop but she didn’t listen to her and ran to the corner and turned and a guy came up and shot a person right in front of her.”