What I remember most vividly is the blood. In the movies, when people are shot there are those neat red circles of bright red blood. That’s not the way it is at all. The blood flows freely and uncontrollably. It gushes. It doesn’t stop. It wasn’t bright red and colorful, it was thick and dark, almost deep purple. It was pouring all over. This wasn’t the movies.
When dad was shot multiple times in front of me with an assault weapon, the blood gushed everywhere. All over him. It flowed freely on the asphalt. All over me—everywhere. In the movies, you apply pressure and slow or even control the bleeding. The hero is wounded but survives. As I stood there, just 12 years old, miraculously alive after being narrowly missed by bullets that landed all around me, I wondered whether I could apply pressure to his wounds and save my dad.
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In the movies, this was the dramatic moment where my dad would say something incredibly sentimental, tell me he loved me, or maybe even say something funny. My dad tried to speak but the blood just flowed out of his mouth. It gurgled freely, choking him as he struggled to talk to me. What was he trying to tell me? What would his last words have been? He closed his eyes. This wasn’t the movies.
For Bryanna, it’s the vivid memory of the burning. The feeling that somehow her leg was on fire. She was getting out of the car with her family in North Philadelphia to attend a funeral. Her mother and brother were just ahead of her. There were several people on the street behind them. Suddenly, someone came around the corner on a bicycle in front of them. She remembers her Mother screaming Get Down! She was trying to get down behind a parked car when she heard the shots. When she felt the burning.
There she was, Bryanna Elise Beamer, 17 years old, laying on a street in Philadelphia with a burning in her leg. Now, all she wanted to do was sleep. Her mother and brother standing over her. Brother screaming, Mom begging for her to stay awake. The police arrive quickly, no time to wait, she’s driven to a rapidly approaching ambulance. Her clothes are cut off. She remembers thinking that she regretted not traveling. Not seeing the world. Her leg was burning. Then, nothing. Sleep.
The bullet that hit Bryanna was powerful enough to rip straight through her upper thigh. In, through, and out. It partially severed her femoral artery, which almost caused her to bleed out in just over three minutes. It was the quick thinking of police and the emergency medical technicians that saved her life. Not to mention the life saving doctors who would perform the surgeries to follow.
At that moment when she was caught in the cross-fire, Bryanna was just three days away from starting her dream. She and her family had worked her entire life so Bryanna could go to college. She was just three days away from starting her freshmen year when she was shot. And if the shooting and surgery wasn’t bad enough, the lengthy recovery and physical therapy would be worse. The constant pain. She had to pack and dress her bullet wound everyday. A daily reminder of her trauma. Learning to walk on her leg again. Depending on her family for the smallest things when a young women wants to be independent. She was forced to defer her first semester of college. Feeling isolated and victimized as she recovered. A family dream deferred because of gun violence.
For Aleida, it’s the vivid memory of the strange men at the door. That odd quiet moment before her world changed forever. Aleida Silva Garcia, was 27 years old when that knock came at the door. Two strange men in the early morning hours in long dark coats with serious looks on their faces stood waiting for her. Hello? How can I help you? From the Philadelphia Police Department? What? Ah, no, my Mom’s not home. Do I know who? Alex is my brother. Do I let them in?
Next thing she knows she is sitting on the couch. Not remembering how she got there. The detectives, standing over her, were awkwardly trying to make small talk during an uncomfortable time. Seeing her degrees, Did you go to Temple? Ah, yes. Now I’m going to grad school. She could tell the detectives were looking around and at each other as if they weren’t too accustomed to a house this clean, covered with loving family photos and numerous degrees displayed proudly. Not what they expected? What is happening? Is Alex in trouble? Was this for real?
I know that behind the tough façade of a gun wielding child, is a child that has dreams too. Dreams that deserve to last well beyond the age of 12. But when you combine the easy access to guns and the hopelessness of poverty, a lack of quality education with a culture of violence, why should we be surprised?
That’s when it finally hit home that they were trying to tell her that Alex was dead. Everything just stopped. There must be some mistake. She frantically tried to reach her mother. Oh my God, how do I tell my mother? How do I make sure she is ok? Alex Rojas Garcia was 34 years old when he was shot and killed. He had graduated with honors from the Community College of Philadelphia and had successfully enrolled at Temple University. He had worked so hard and was determined to succeed at a Four year college. He had just finished his Junior year at Temple and had done well. He and a college classmate wanted to celebrate their success so they went out to a club in the Olney section of Philadelphia.
That’s when something happened that didn’t have anything to do with Alex. As Alex and his friend were leaving the club, having just gotten into Alex’s car, a gunman opened fire with an assault weapon spraying Alex’s car with high velocity bullets. The car was riddled with bullets. Alex was mortally wounded. It is unclear but believed that someone else was the target—not Alex.
The anger still rises in Aleida when she thinks of how her brother was so violently taken after he had worked so hard. Gotten everything together. It was just so senseless. He was on his way. Besides doing well in school, he was taking care of his growing family and had even found time to work at a lawyer’s office helping expunge people’s criminal records and helping the impoverished work to clean up and improve their credit.
For Aleida, Alex wasn’t just some bothersome brother—he was her best friend. There was always a special connection between them. They had nicknames for each other. They loved to laugh together. This was like losing a part of herself. Now, three years later, Aleida still instinctively picks up the phone to call Alex when she has some exciting news to share. Only to stare at the phone as the realization sinks in, yet again, that Alex is gone. She remembers that knock at the door.
Experiences like these are all too common across our country and in our city.
There is a cycle that occurs every few months. We have a significant mass shooting, at a school, a church, a movie theatre, a concert or a workplace and lives are lost. They often involve an assault weapon with astonishing firepower designed for military use. They sometimes include horrific body counts. They often include our children. The national headlines and cable news shows are temporarily blanketed with the issue of gun violence. The country mourns.
For some it’s too soon to talk reform, for some it’s too late. Some share thoughts and prayers. Some dismiss thoughts and prayers and push for common sense gun reform policies. Some politicians make impassioned speeches. Some politicians make bought and paid for excuses. Some people demand the right to live safely. Some people demand their right to bear arms. Some march and protest for gun reform. Some go out and buy even more guns. Time passes and little changes. The news focus shifts. Then, it happens again. Repeat.
Lost in all this national tragedy are the lives we lose and the surrounding lives impacted in our neighborhoods every single day. Why is that? Why don’t they get the focus these victims deserve? Is it because these victims are poor? Is it because they are predominantly people of color? Is it because this “street violence” happens with too much frequency—it’s not news? Is it because they are from an urban environment and main street America doesn’t care? Maybe its because they are not as prolific at social media? These are all good questions for us to ask. Whatever the reason, it needs to change.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Vital Statistics System reports that 96 Americans are killed with guns everyday. For every person killed with a gun, two more are injured. Over the last five years, there were more than 200 non-fatal shootings every single day. Moreover, on an average day in this country, seven children and teens are killed with guns.
In Philadelphia, we had 1,215 shootings last year. That’s an average of more than three shootings a day or roughly a shooting every 8 hours. And for every shooting, there are more Bryanna’s and Aleida’s than we can count. Scores of children and whole families directly impacted and traumatized by everyday gun violence. These survivors are often voiceless and forgotten almost immediately. Where the big mass shootings make the front page and flood cable news for a few days, maybe a few weeks, our everyday violence gets a small blurb on page seven.
Our children are just as traumatized as those impacted by big national events. Even more so because they are often left isolated and unsupported as they deal with the horror of their experience. When is the last time a celebrity pitched in to help our children of trauma? The next time will be the first time. They are just as worthy of all of our attention and support. They are just as worthy of a national effort to reduce gun violence and the corresponding trauma that invades their lives.
“Trauma can manifest itself in children in many insidious ways”, says Darcy Walker Krause, Executive Director of the Center for Grieving Children in Philadelphia. Krause, who herself suffered the early loss of her mom as a child and has dedicated her life to helping traumatized children, explains that one of the biggest things is the loss of the general sense of safety and well being, which is so important for a child’s development.
Some children experience a “hyper vigilance” an exaggerated situational awareness that something is about to go wrong. A sensitivity to loud sounds, a siren, a car backfire, fireworks, even loud music can all trigger their trauma. An inability to focus and frequent thought interruptions can impact their learning skills and affect their academics. Anger and irritability can lead to outbursts, acting out behavior and disciplinary problems.
A young boy in the back of the room, who had been quiet the entire time, raised his hand. His question pierced my heart, “Mr. Negrin, sometimes when my grandmother and I are saying our prayers at night, I hear the gunshots. What am I supposed to do then?”
Krause explains that early childhood trauma can lead to long lasting effects that hinder overall cognitive development, can directly impact physical health as well as a child’s sleep and their ability to get the rest they need to grow. The trauma can lead to insomnia or manifest itself in very vivid dreams where they relive the trauma and are actually “retraumatized.”
For Bryanna, there was the anger and depression. She regularly prayed for the ability to forgive. And the impact of sounds. Even today, her heart begins to race every time she hears something that remotely sounds like gunfire. For Aleida, the anger was there as well but her feelings were different, she was angry at the city. She actually left Philadelphia, a city that she loves and where she was born and raised, because of the fear and anger she felt and because she blamed it for taking Alex. It took almost two years for her to come back.
For me, it was the sense of a lack of safety. The world became a dangerous place beyond my control. The world was no longer a place where you could just run free as a child, that didn’t have minefields. Bad things can happen, really bad things. I also have the hyper vigilance. Even today, all these years later, I generally know where everyone is every time I enter a room. I don’t even realize it, it’s an automatic thing. An over inflated sense of situational awareness.
What some might call “street smarts” could really just be a collective conditioning for many of us who grew up with violence as a real possibility. Living with the potential for violence in our neighborhoods, in our schools and maybe even in our homes, I know many of our youth experience the same feelings everyday.
When you consider the sheer number of extended victims and families of gun violence, particularly in urban centers like Philadelphia, we have significantly underestimated the impact of trauma on our communities.
Recently, the Washington Post ran a comprehensive piece on how our children are “Scarred by School Shootings.” The piece emphasized that what the discussion of school shootings fails to capture is the “collateral damage” of this uniquely American crisis. They estimate that, since Columbine in 1999, more that 187,000 students attending at least 193 primary or secondary schools have directly experienced a shooting. “That means that the number of children who have been shaken by gunfire in the places they go to learn exceeds the population of Eugene, Ore. or Fort Lauderdale, Fla.” the story notes.
The piece goes much further than the actual shootings to discuss the consequences of those shootings on all of our other children, and on all of us. It discusses the impact of active shooter lockdown drills—something I know all too well. My youngest daughter engages in lock down drills in her 6th grade class. That always leads to lots of questions and difficult conversations. My oldest daughter, who works with pre-school aged children has practiced active shooter drills that have left her running through a field as part of her escape plan. They used real blanks to simulate the sound of gunfire in the facility. She could hear the shots, bang, bang, bang, and had to assess whether to lockdown or make her escape. She described her elevated pulse rate during the exercise, even knowing it was a drill, as “my heart was beating out of my chest.”
A recent study concluded that nearly all Americans, across all racial and ethnic groups, are likely to know a victim of gun violence in their social network in their lifetime—a shocking 99.85%. That’s basically all of us—we all know, or will know, someone who has been a direct victim of gun violence.
“It’s no longer the default that going to school is going to make you feel safe,” Bruce D. Perry, a psychiatrist and one of the country’s leading experts on childhood trauma, told the Post. “Even kids who come from middle-class and upper-middle-class communities literally don’t feel safe at schools.” Significantly, The Post emphasized that a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics in 2015 concluded that kids who merely witnessed an attack involving a gun, can be just as traumatized as children who have actually been shot themselves.
Another recent study concluded that nearly all Americans, across all racial and ethnic groups, are likely to know a victim of gun violence in their social network in their lifetime. The likelihood of knowing a gun violence victim within any given personal network was a shocking 99.85%. That’s basically all of us—we all know, or will know, someone who has been a direct victim of gun violence. The study did not include indirect or collateral victims, which I’m sure would be at 100 percent.
When you extrapolate that thinking to children who live in neighborhoods were there is frequent gun violence, and who are also aware of school shootings and perform lockdown drills, the number of collateral victims of gun violence grows exponentially. Today, all children worry about their safety at school. Many of our children worry about their safety in their communities and at home. Parents worry about their kids, their grandkids. It touches all of our lives. The fear is real. It is all around us. That is a community of trauma.
When I think of the challenges around gun violence our children face, I often think of an experience I had as City Manager and Deputy Mayor of Philadelphia. I was at a very accomplished Center City charter school for a career day. I was speaking to a first grade class. The children were bright and full of energy and came to the school from all across the city. I was talking to them about my role and how we were working to improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods to help make them safer.
That’s when it happened. First one, then another, then another child brought up the gun violence in their neighborhood. They wanted to talk about it. They had questions. I looked at their teacher who nodded with approval. I kept it comfortable and safe. This went on for some time. The children asked questions and described some of what they had seen on the streets, while they were playing, on their walk home from school. It was clear they had a lot to say and knew a great deal about gun violence.
Then a conversation that I will never forget took place. A young boy in the back of the room, who had been quiet the entire time, raised his hand. His question pierced my heart, “Mr. Negrin, sometimes when my grandmother and I are saying our prayers at night, I hear the gunshots. What am I supposed to do then?” My heart sunk. I paused to collect my thoughts. I glanced at his teacher. I wanted to tell this little boy that everything would be ok. I wanted to make sure he felt completely safe. I wanted to wrap my arms around him and tell him I would help keep him from harm. But I couldn’t lie to him. I couldn’t promise him that. I knew the threat of gun violence was very real. He was too bright and would see right through that.
My dad tried to speak but the blood just flowed out of his mouth. It gurgled freely, choking him as he struggled to talk to me. What was he trying to tell me? What would his last words have been? He closed his eyes. This wasn’t the movies.
That’s when I remembered something former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey had said, “In some of our neighborhoods, the kids need to have a gun shot safety plan.” Like a fire rescue plan but when they hear gunshots, they need to have a safe place to hide like behind a refrigerator or washer or in the bathtub. To avoid being hit by a stray bullet.
I could tell that made sense to that young man. He could understand that. He filed that away in his mind to relay to his grandmother later. It pained me to have such a discussion with a child but he deserved honesty. Deep down, I couldn’t help thinking to myself that career days shouldn’t be this way.
This experience drove home what I already knew, our children all across the city, are intimately familiar with everyday gun violence. When you combine that everyday gun violence experience with the general increased threat of a mass shooting today, there must be a broader impact that we have only begun to understand.
Afterwards, in my dreams I was always saving my dad. First I was able to get him down behind a car and the bullets narrowly missed us. Then, we were able to get to the top of a building and take a helicopter away to safety. Another time we were able to speed away in a fast car. Every time I woke up, despite the powerful feeling of the dream, my dad was still dead.
These are not the kind of dreams our children should have.
Our children should have positive dreams of career and travel and wonderful shared experiences with loved ones. Dreams of all the great celebrations of everyday life, not everyday gun violence. Not trauma dreams. Graduations, weddings, promotions and dreams of precious time with friends and family should fill their heads. And unlike Bryanna, their dreams should not be deferred. They should be realized.
Just last week a 12 year old child was arrested with an AR-15 assault rifle in Philadelphia. Lucky to be arrested alive, he was just walking down an open city street with a military style gun on his way to a shootout. A child soldier on our city’s streets. Many were shocked and surprised. A symbol of so many things wrong with our society. What has this child seen? What has he learned? How did he get a weapon of war nearly his size? How can this happen in America? In Philadelphia?
Lost in all this national tragedy are the lives we lose and the surrounding lives impacted in our neighborhoods every single day. Why is that? Why don’t they get the focus these victims deserve? Is it because these victims are poor? Is it because they are predominantly people of color? Is it because this “street violence” happens with too much frequency? Whatever the reason, it needs to change.
I don’t know what type of value system and circumstances can lead a 12-year-old to develop the will to use (and the ability to obtain) an assault weapon—but I know it probably begins and ends with early childhood trauma. And I also know that behind the tough façade of a gun wielding child, is a child that has dreams too. Dreams that deserve to last well beyond the age of 12. But when you combine the easy access to guns and the hopelessness of poverty, a lack of quality education with a culture of violence, why should we be surprised?
Bryanna has been changed forever. But she had the support to help her overcome the challenge she faced. She and her mother grew even closer during her recovery. She started college and made sure she traveled, with three study abroad semesters on three different continents. Today, She is serving in the Peace Corps in Ghana. She is dedicated to helping others and hopes to make it to 24 countries before her 24th birthday.
Aleida also came from an amazing family. Her parents are both public servants; they started a nonprofit called the National Homicide Justice Alliance to help support families of homicide victims. Aleida supports their efforts whenever she can but perhaps most impressive is what she does everyday: She is serving others as a school psychologist and is studying to get her PHD. No doubt, Alex would be proud.
Many of our children don’t have that level of support. Not at home, not in school and not in their extended community. That is why, in addition to gun reform efforts, it’s important that we laser focus on the overall well being of our children. Taking important steps towards common sense gun reform is just the start. We must also work to tackle the many socio-economic issues that afflict our communities and impact their resilience to trauma. If we are still talking about gut-wrenching poverty, a broken education system, a lack of conflict resolution skills and everyday gun violence a decade from now, we will all pay a very high price as a society.
Rich Negrin is a gun violence survivor, former Philly City Manager & Deputy Mayor, and a former prosecutor and candidate for District Attorney. He is a Board Member of CeasefirePA and an advocate for common sense gun reform.You can follow Rich on twitter @RichNegrin.
Photo via Rich Negrin