Sometime during my junior year of high school, I got the news. Daniel, a friend and classmate was dead – shot in the throat the day before. He was sixteen. The story began much in the same way as a lot of murder victims in the city. He was hanging out at a pizzeria with members of his gang. A rival pulls into the parking lot, whips out a pistol and opens fire. Ambulance Police sirens. The inevitable.
The shooting happened in the same Chicago neighborhood as our school, blocks away from my home. By that point in high school, two other classmates had been shot on separate occasions, one fatally. Shootings didn't happen every day or every week. But they happened often enough in our proximity to collectively remind my classmates and I the possibility of us being a target or victim was not farfetched. Many of us knew this from our neighborhoods.
The first time I'd ever been close to a murder scene was when I was about five. I woke one morning to my brother's account of what took place in the early morning hours.
A man had been shot to death on the same major avenue across the street from our second –floor apartment. I slept through the raucous. The only sign of what happened was the pool of dried blood I could see on the cement sidewalk.
For much of my youth, I lived with a perpetual anxiety about getting shot. Anytime a car passed by on my walk to or from school, I made sure to glance at the driver to see if he looked like a gangbanger. If he did, I would remain on guard in case he pulled out a gun. If he made any sudden movements, I wanted at least enough reaction time to be able to jump into some bushes or sprint in the opposite direction. Even though I wasn't a gang member at the time, I knew I could always be mistaken for one. It happened in the past – a fist flying toward my face from a random passerby on the sidewalk because I looked like the opposition; a gun flashed by a passenger in a car shouting gang slogans while I waited for the bus home.
Sometimes the attacks came even when the attackers knew my friends and I weren't affiliated. To some of the neighborhood bangers, we made good outlets for violent male aggression – not worthy of shooting at, but at least worthy of being chased down and beaten with bats or whatever weapon they had at the ready. By that point, behavior became predictable. If I just kept my head low and kept to myself, at most I might get jumped. If I exhibited more aggressive behavior, the chances I might get shot grew exponentially. All the neighborhood gangs by policy made sure a firearm lay nearby and accessible to their members. It was common knowledge.
The constant vigilance I felt compelled to maintain against perceived and real threats made school work seem trivial. It also grew what became an adolescent obsession – to get a gun of my own. And as time passed my friends and I began emulating the same callous behavior we saw daily.
So by the time I found out my friend Daniel laid dead, I already reconciled myself to the idea death could happen to me or anyone around. When I went to his wake the next day, I saw Daniel lying in the coffin as his parents and sibling stood nearby emitting the painful wail that only comes from the suffering of losing a loved one to violence. But as much as I could see the sadness and despair around me, it was a melancholy I could not feel. It was as though my brain had erected a cement barrier between my cognitive side and the part of me that felt anguish. There was mostly just a cognitive understanding that my friend was dead and I would never see him again.
This disconnect from emotion was something I encountered time and time again when meeting other kids living in the city. By the time Daniel was shot, I had willingly been sucked into the same vicious criminal behavior so many kids in Chicago succumb to. I'd been arrested and charged as an adult for armed robbery and spent time in juvenile detention while waiting to reach the age where I could be transferred to adult facilities. While there I met other kids who told me stories about shooting other kids or, in some cases, were on the receiving end of the bullet. The recounting almost always gets told the same way. It didn't matter whether they were the victim or the victimizer. There's a blank stare. No direct eye contact. For some, the stories of violence were told with glee. They were often the exception. For most others, the stories came from the same cold, detached place of the brain telling us something was wrong but without the feeling or sentiment that arises from empathy. But it also didn't come from a place of maliciousness. It was too matter of fact. It was though at some point in their young lives, they learned to suppress fear but lost any sense of empathy along with it. I understood. I would eventually be locked up for pointing a gun at people and robbing them. I knew it was wrong. I knew it was destructive. But at the time, I could not feel the pain or anguish I inflicted on innocent people.
This was almost 20 years ago. Today, I am a journalist and licensed attorney in North Carolina. But the same headlines of young kids shooting each other on the same city streets I used to inhabit persist. According to a Chicago Tribune report, the city is on pace to surpass more than 500 murders this year for the second time in almost a decade. A new generation has emerged bearing the same violent tendencies I picked up two decades ago.
My transformation from victim to thug to professional can be attributed to a multitude of different factors. Somewhat ironically, I give a lot of credit to the Illinois Department of Corrections. It was while incarcerated where I learned the merits of group therapy. At one of the facilities where I was sent, I joined a group therapy program where I read psychology books and attended weekly meetings with other convicts dealing with many of the same issues I wrestled with. In that secure setting where I saw other inmates reflect honestly on themselves and on their condition helped me to open up. There I learned how to express emotions through words instead of suppressing them. I learned a new way of life at an age where I was young enough to use the knowledge to change my condition.
It's just a shame I had to go to prison to rediscover my compassion. Here's hoping others will be able to learn the same life lessons I learned without having to take the same route to get there.