Here at The Citizen, we spend a lot of time talking amongst ourselves, and reporting about, the scourge of gun violence sweeping across our city.
On our site and in our new seven-part podcast, Philly Under Fire, by award-winning journalist Jo Piazza, we wonder why there isn’t an all-hands-on-deck sense of urgency among our leaders to stare down this epidemic, as there has been over the last year for a more traditional type of virus.
We explore what’s worked in other cities and we surface solutions to, uh, steal here. And, when confronted by the do-as-we’ve-always-done Philly culture, we shake our heads at this latest, and most tragic, version of the Philly Shrug, while the body bags accumulate.
But next Wednesday night, bestselling author Alex Kotlowitz will remind us that one can get too bogged down in the academic, that our first job—as citizens—is to remember that those on the gunfire frontlines are flesh and blood, three dimensional human beings who live, laugh and love, whom other human beings live, laugh and love with.
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I can’t do justice to Kotlowitz’s work, except to underscore its shattering importance. Remember Wes Moore, the bestselling author, former CEO of Robin Hood Foundation and now candidate for governor of Maryland, who was with us for last year’s Ideas We Should Steal Festival? He says that Kotlowitz’s classic 30-year-old, street-level narrative from inside public housing in Chicago, There Are No Children Here, “changed me when I read it years ago. An American Summer has done it again.”
How is it that Kotlowitz’s work changes us? The New York Times calls Summer “a powerful indictment of a city and a nation that have failed to protect their most vulnerable residents, or to register the depth of their pain,” and that gets at Kotlowitz’s singular achievement throughout his work. He’s a relentless reporter with a sense of oceanic curiosity, and he renders portraits of characters that stay with us long after a book’s close. In a nation starved for empathy, Kotlowitz injects us with it, sentence by sentence.
Like I said, I can’t do his work or talent justice, so let’s hear him set the stage in the opening pages of his latest narrative masterpiece, a chronicle of one summer on the turbulent streets of the Windy City:
Look at a map of the murders and shootings in Chicago and it creates a swath through the city’s South and West sides, like a thunderstorm barreling through the city. How can there not be a link between a loss of hope and the ease with which spats explode into something more? There was a moment when we were filming the documentary The Interrupters when Ameena Matthews, one of the three violence interrupters whose work we chronicled, reflected on what she called “the thirty seconds of rage.” She described it like this: “I didn’t eat this morning. I’m wearing my niece’s clothes. I just was violated by my mom’s boyfriend. I go to school, and here comes someone that bumps into me and don’t say excuse me. You hit zero to rage within thirty seconds, and you act out.” In other words, these are young men and women who are burdened by fractured families, by lack of money, by a closing window of opportunity, by a sense that they don’t belong, by a feeling of low self-worth. And so when they feel disrespected or violated, they explode, often out of proportion to the moment, because so much other hurt has built up and then the dam bursts. They become flooded with anger…
It’s my hope that these stories will help upend what we think we know. Trauma splinters memory. Soldiers who have fought in war speak of holding on to fragments of remembrance, like a disjointed slide show which periodically gets stuck on a single image, on a single moment…The novelist and Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien has talked about how the atrocities and nastiness of battle get in your bones. The same can be said for young and old living in certain neighborhoods in our cities. You have to fight—and fight hard—not to let the ugliness and inexplicability of the violence come to define you. With just one act of violence the ground shifts beneath you, your knees buckle, and sometimes all you can do is try as best you can to maintain your balance. There are those who right themselves and move on, but for most, their very essence has been rattled.
Alex Kotlowitz’s stories are, at once, uplifting and deflating, joyous and dispiriting. Reading them, you realize, is a type of meditation. You’re practicing the art of empathy. Join us for some group practice next week.