In June 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. released his final book, Where do we Go From Here: Community or Chaos. Dr. King’s book was an assessment of the U.S. and its current state on civil rights. He was asking the Black community, religious institutions, the United States government, and other ethnicities: Where do we go?
The same question plagues my mind when I think about the gun violence that is ravaging the city of Philadelphia and literally decimating a generation of youth. This question has been within me for many years, but it amplified within me on Juneteenth 2021, and each day it grows louder and louder.
June 19, 2021, will forever be etched in my mind, not because it was the first time that the City of Philadelphia acknowledged and commemorated Juneteenth as an official holiday, but because my neighbors and I witnessed the chaos of gun violence, and we were never able to heal as a community. As a life-long resident of Philadelphia, I had always wondered what I would do if gun violence came to my door. What would I do if my children, or my wife was a victim of gun violence? I know I am not the only person who thinks this. I know other Philadelphians have this thought as well.
I was full of so much Black joy and pride. As I drove home, I saw block parties and heard the laughter of kids playing and the booming bass of good music as people celebrated Juneteenth.
Unfortunately, seven months prior to June 19, gun violence abruptly cut short the life of my 18-year-old nephew’. My family had to deal with the pain of knowing that our young, handsome, intelligent, and radiant son, grandson, nephew, cousin, and brother would not experience marriage, would not experience being a father, would not experience all the milestones in life that we so often take for granted.
Dealing with the trauma of losing my nephew was life altering. Having to console my sister when the streaks of her cries would belt from the depth of her diaphragm was the hardest thing I ever had to do. While holding her and praying for her, the question of Where do we go from here would raise up. Little did I know, a few short months later, I would be asking that question again.
A day of community and celebration
June 19, 2021, was a busy day for me. A few weeks before, I became the principal of Boys’ Latin Charter Middle School in West Philadelphia (BLMS). It was a perfect fit for me. Throughout my professional and educational career, I was committed to mentoring and empowering young men, so to be given the opportunity to serve as the principal of BLMS, an all-boys school with Black and Brown boys, was a dream come true. As a new principal, I took advantage of signing up new students at an enrollment and information table at the ECO Foundation’s Juneteenth event at 54th and Market streets.
I took my Principal Certification exam at 8am that morning, then checked in on my staff at the Juneteenth community event. After leaving my test, I stopped by to check on my staff and I was immediately met with the sounds of cultural jubilee and the smells of charcoal grilled food. The radiant smiles and celebration of Blackness was so bright, it would make the sun jealous.
This Juneteenth, I know my community will still be full of joy and celebrate with jubilance, just as our ancestors did. But just as much as they celebrated their freedom there was still an undercurrent of trauma that needed to be addressed. We too, must navigate how to deal with our trauma as we celebrate.
Before I left the event, I embraced two of my young Black male staff and told them I was proud of them for representing us well at this event. The two staffers are alumni of Boys’ Latin High School, and they decided to come back to Boys’ Latin and educate Black boys.
When I left the event, I was full of so much Black joy and pride. As I drove home, I saw block parties and heard the laughter of kids playing and the booming bass of good music as people celebrated Juneteenth. When I arrived home, I saw my neighbor’s car double-parked as he emptied his belongings out as if he were preparing to sell or give the car away to someone (he owned two cars). I remember seeing him run in the house before I had the chance to speak to him.
A day of chaos — and trauma
When I walked in the house, my daughter was sitting on the couch watching one of my favorite movies, The Sandlot. I began joking with her as she quoted the movie. I told her, “You are welcome,” because if it weren’t for me, she wouldn’t know anything about the movie. While we engaged in father-daughter banter, the piercing sound of POW, POW, POW, POW, POW, POW reverberated through my house. I heard my wife scream my name upstairs and my daughter yell out in fear. We’d heard gunshots in our community before, but not like this. This sounded like it was right in front of our door.
My adrenaline started pumping. While walking to the front door, I yelled back to my wife and my children upstairs to make sure they were not hurt. As I always do when I hear something that is impacting my community, I opened the door. To my amazement there was a deafening silence and stillness when I walked out the door. Then, all the sudden, the sounds of chaos began. I heard hissing from the tires of the double-parked car in front of my house. I heard people yelling, “Call the cops!” I heard the screams of women. What I saw eclipsed all the joy and radiance that had engulfed me just a few minutes earlier.
Two young Black men were lying in the street in front of my home. Both had multiple gunshot wounds, both badly wounded, fighting to stay alive. As I ran to one victim, another young man ran to him as well, to help with his wounds. He was attempting to talk but we could not make out his speech. We both yelled to neighbors on their porches to call 911.
One moment that I still reflect on: Amid all the chaos, my neighbors, mostly all men, came together to provide support to all the victims.
I then ran over to the other victim. I recognized him, but the blood on his face made it hard to confirm if he was my neighbor, Evan. I began to tell him he was going to be OK. He could not speak, but his eyes locked with mine. He had a wound around his neck, and I immediately thought, I must apply pressure. I ran to his car, which was double parked, and pulled out a t-shirt to apply pressure to the wound. Then, all of a sudden, men just started to appear, to assist with this carnage. A new homeowner and his dad ran from across the street with a military bag to assist me with helping my neighbor.
One of the community members from around the corner happened to be driving by with his pickup truck. He jumped out of his truck and offered to put the young men in the back of the truck to transport them to the hospital quickly, instead of waiting for an ambulance and leaving them in the street. Other young men came from around the corner to help us carry and lay them down in the pick-up truck. As we carried the young men to the truck, two of us said they’d ride along with the victims, and a cop car arrived and escorted them to the hospital.
Once they pulled off, the realization began to settle in: The young man I was trying to assist was my neighbor, Evan. This realization led me to belt out a loud “Why?!” Tears immediately began to run down my face. Gun violence had taken so many young men whom I taught and mentored. Now here was another young man with so much promise and talent falling victim to gun violence.
I cried so loudly that one of my neighbors who lives across from me ran over and gave me the tightest hug. He told me it would be OK. As we hugged, I realized that if that was Evan, I needed to contact his mother. Other mothers on the block started asking me if that was Evan; I was not 100 percent sure, but I believed it had to be him because he was nowhere to be found. Can you imagine having to call a mother to tell her her son may have been shot and is badly wounded? I called his mother, informed her of what had happened, and encouraged her to hurry home.
Where do we go from here?
What happened next does not get talked about enough. As neighbors began to talk, it became apparent that Evan was one of the victims. The somberness and grief that began to fill our block was almost unbearable. As I sat on my porch, my eyes locked eyes with other neighbors and I could see sadness, grief, and brokenness.
Evan was a young man who had a profound impact on our community and my household. He was an entrepreneur; he would make platters on the weekends and sell them to his friends and neighbors. Evan was kind and thoughtful of his community. I remember when he first moved on the block, he saw me taking groceries from my car to the house and he jumped off the porch and started assisting me. He never asked if I needed help; he just started to help. When our block held a street cleaning, he was one of the only young adults to come and help. I asked him to help take over cleaning a specific area because I had to make a quick run, and when I came back, that area was thoroughly cleaned. I can give so many other instances of his kindness, work ethic, and love for his community.
How does our community navigate witnessing the murder of a son of the community? Before we had time to process, news cameras and reporters arrived and started asking questions, causing us to relive the still-new and raw trauma. Detectives arrived too and also asked us to explain what we saw. After these strangers got what they needed, we were left dangling with the pain, the grief, and the trauma, but no resources on how to cope.
How do we cope? How do we heal as a community? How can we support the neighbors who are dealing with the trauma?
My community resembles many other communities in Philadelphia. A predominantly Black, working-class community with individuals who are on fixed incomes who don’t have the means to afford therapy. How do we cope? How do we heal as a community? There are various services that support the families of victims murdered by guns, but how can we support the neighbors who are also dealing with the trauma? What services can conduct group trauma and healing sessions for a block of neighbors who may suffer from PTSD?
One moment that I still reflect on: Amid all the chaos, my neighbors, mostly all men, came together to provide support to all the victims. That one thing gives me hope that we can come together to bring change. But as Dr. King argued over 50 years ago, we need support from government agencies, non-profits, religious institutions, and corporations.
This Juneteenth, I know my community will still be full of joy and celebrate with jubilance, just as our ancestors did. But just as much as they celebrated their freedom, there was still an undercurrent of trauma that needed to be addressed. We too, must navigate how to deal with our trauma as we celebrate.
Robert L. Parker is the middle school principal of Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia Charter School. The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who represent that it is their own work and their own opinion based on true facts that they know firsthand.
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