Last Wednesday, there was a shoot-out at our site. A few coworkers, kids, and I had entered the center. I was starting to help a 9th grader with her resume. The fan was whirring in my ear. Then came the popping sound. One of my coworkers dove down immediately, sprawling, followed by another, who grabbed and shielded a kid as he fell, taking the impact on his shoulder. I dropped next to a man whose name I didn’t know. We were shouting for the kids to get down as they kept spinning on their swivel chairs, checking their email, working on homework. I heard 5 shots; some people, who were still in the foyer when the shooting began, heard up to 8. We phoned parents and asked them to come pick up their kids. We asked them to bring ID. In retrospect I wonder if this might have been in case a gang member came to pick up someone in a mostly gang-affiliated family, since some of the kids spoke very loudly that day about having brothers who’d shot someone, or been shot, in gang shoot-outs before. I helped a usually bubbly 12th grader arrange a ride home with a friend’s parents. I overheard kids muttering, “Man, they buggin’, I gotta go home, I can go myself, this shit happens all the time here.” I helped a 9th grader print his homework. I lent my phone to a 10th grader I’d helped the previous day; after I’d edited his essay, he exclaimed, “Oh man, I’m so happy!” and hugged me. He lived in a decent neighborhood and had never heard gunshots before. He asked me if I was scared: a loaded question. Other kids were listening. I hedged, “No, but it will probably seem more real to me later.” He seemed to respect that. He told me he was scared. That he didn’t quite understand what had been happening, and that to keep his mind off the fact that we were in danger he’d kept doing his homework. Then there was a strange moment of disjuncture where we both looked at his computer screen, which was left on the YouTube video he’d been watching when the shots began: a gameplay demo of an unreleased Xbox shooter game.
By 7:15 we’d gotten the kids out of the center. One of my coworkers had called the police. We found out that the shooter was a 16-year-old. A bullet had clipped the neck/ear region of a man involved in the altercation; he was arrested. Police tape was put up. A coworker’s car, parked directly in front of the center, had been hit and its windows were shattered. I kept thinking, This building is fronted with glass, facing the street. The glass is not bulletproof.
Coworkers and I stood around for a while, talking to try to make sense of it. My immediate boss said she’d had to walk through the remains of a crime scene that morning, a stabbing around 125th St. She said the blood was still there; she could tell by the spatter pattern how the victims must have died. She said, “I don’t like the sound of a stray bullet hitting me.” We talked about the 90-degree weather, how conducive it is to violence, how when it gets hot the knuckleheads fill up the corners and want to flex their muscle, step to each other, play-fight or talk shit, and the moment shit goes bad someone pulls a gun and starts shooting. A coworker said, “At least in Brooklyn, you know when it’s coming. There’s an argument. You can hear it escalating. In Harlem, there’s no warning.” Another coworker added, “At least in Brooklyn, they don’t shoot in front of churches or schools. They know better than that.” They said that it was because these people just sat out on the corners and did nothing all day. I said it wasn’t necessarily on them, it could be something like learned helplessness, being repeatedly told that growing up in the projects means you amount to nothing, that gang-banging is all you’re good for. It’s survival mode. Shoot before someone shoots you. The premise almost doesn’t even matter anymore. There doesn’t need to be any rhyme or reason to it. The moment you’ve pulled the trigger, you’ve earned your stripes; the moment you show fear, you’ve lost it all. Supposedly the shooter had chased the other man up the block—I don’t know if he was armed but we’d assumed both men were—and almost into the center where we were huddled on the floor. I remembered that the man beside me, whose name I didn’t know, had said to me: “If they come in here, we’re screwed. There’s no way out. Not even a window.”
The receptionist, who has worked at this site for 2 years, talked about previous shootouts and stabbings. Last summer, she said, wasn’t so bad. There’d been a stabbing on the corner in June. I worked in the school so I hadn’t directly experienced that, though in the fall I was about to leave work when shots rang out and a stray bullet killed the brother of a kid in our program. Incidentally, last summer was a mild one. The one before that, summer 2008, shootings happened regularly. A 7th grader was killed by a stray bullet. I taught his friends in 2009. They wrote about him, or doodled in the margins of their papers, RIP [Name].
There were so many names.
The next day, Thursday, I went to work. I didn’t wear my iPod. I talked on the phone to give myself the illusion of security. I thought about Sri Lanka. I thought about the boy who died in the fall. I thought about the gunshots. The 10th grader. The shot-up car. My coworkers. Myself. The fact that the center is fronted with glass, and this glass is not bulletproof.
Few kids came in that day. We talked to them about the experience, but many of those who were there hadn’t witnessed the shooting. They asked me with new respect, “Miss, you was there?” More loaded questions. Yes, I said, I was; no, no one was hurt. We told them that even if they were used to street violence, the center is a place where they should feel safe, and the sound of gunshots shouldn’t be a comfortable thing, that it’s okay to be afraid. Most of the kids said it didn’t affect them because they hadn’t been there. I thought, They should feel safe. The glass isn’t bulletproof.
One of my coworkers, the first to hit the floor when the shots began, didn’t come into work. He’d mentioned Wednesday night, after we sent the kids home, what I’d been thinking dimly while keeping my face intact: “There are no safety measures here for us. We’re in that street all the time. We stand outside and make phone calls, eat our lunch. We cross the street to go to the school. We walk up and down the block. We go to the corner store. If we’d been five minutes later walking into the center, or chosen to walk out, go to the store, down the block, across the street, it could have been any of us bleeding, maybe dying, on the sidewalk. And that would have been that.”
An arrest was made, but no one “snitches” in this culture. By ourselves, we talked about the likelihood of retaliation by the other gang, about it happening on our block. My boss went across the street. I spent the whole day running back and forth up and down the block, listening to people talk and reenact the shooting, pretending that I didn’t feel a bullet boring through my ribs the moment I stepped out into the street. I went back to the center, sat down at my desk, began to make a handout for senior seminar. Any loud sound made me look up. I realized that the entire side were I was sitting was fronted in glass. That proper security measures, according to the site director, probably won’t happen. That here I am telling my kids that the center is a sanctuary, where they can escape the violence, when they know as well as I do that the glass isn’t bulletproof, and it isn’t humanly possible to save everyone.
It’s not the first time violence has broken out on our block. We’re situated in the worst neighborhood in the entire agency, between two avenues “run” by two warring gangs. The premise of these shoot-outs are often as ludicrous as “You’re not from around the way”—in other words, you don’t live where I live. It happens to kids who grew up together; one family moves to the wrong avenue, and suddenly these kids are at each other’s throats, when they used to behave like brothers. There was a fight in program between two boys, over a situation like this. Our block has seen shootings, stabbings; we lose roughly 5 kids a year to stray bullets and gang violence; and yet security wasn’t at the center when the shots began, there’s only one entrance and exit—both facing the street—and I’ve said enough about the glass.
I have thousands of questions in my head right now, some of them pertaining to my own decision to remain at the center and brace for the continued violence (it’s likely to be an intensely hot summer), some of them related to my slow realization of the fact that I, my coworkers, or my kids could have been seriously hurt or killed, the fact that this happened within walking distance of my apartment, the helplessness of knowing I can’t protect these kids, whose toughness is just a brittle cover for fear. But first and foremost, I’d like to ask this: Why isn’t the glass bulletproof?
Bulletproof glass (or bullet-resistant glass, as the industry calls it, since glass cannot be made thick enough to stop a bullet at point-blank range) ranges in cost from $3-$15 per square inch. For a nonprofit, perhaps this is pricey. Buying it for one site would require buying it for all ~10 sites. Ceiling-to-floor windows constitute several square inches. But our mission statement is about serving the community, protecting kids from the streets many of them inevitably have to go home to. How can we convince them that we can protect them, that the center is a safe place to relinquish their bravado, if we all know that there are no security measures to really protect any of us? If they see us, their advocates, tutors, teachers, counselors, mentors, and friends, afraid for our own lives, questioning the security measures in place, wanting more security, it might suggest that the reason they lack this security is because someone thinks they aren’t worth it. That this violence cannot be prevented. That all we can do is drop to the floor, hide under desks, wait for it to end, pray for it to pass us by.
On a larger scale, inner-city schools and nonprofit after-school program sites often lack the necessary security measures to make staff and children feel protected, and this makes it extremely difficult to work and learn. I thought of Frank Marrero’s speech about the crisis in inner-city education in Richmond, CA in 2006, which I’d recently stumbled across. The primary issue seems to be that there’s no money, not even for school supplies or functional plumbing, let alone bullet-resistant glass. And yet once a lawsuit was brought against the school, these problems were magically resolved.
Does it have to take a lawsuit to effect change?
This is my question: if there are available resources, why aren’t they being used to improve the flawed systems we’re working in? We need security personnel posted at the door. If not bulletproof glass, we need something that shows the kids that we are invested in their safety beyond just shouting for them to get down, which many of them are used to hearing, if they haven’t shouted it at others themselves.
I expect when I go into work tomorrow, it will be like it never happened. The kids will be outwardly fine. The staff will be outwardly fine. On Thursday, coworkers greeted me with odd sort of exchanges, such as “How’s it going, in spite of everything?” Well, it’s going, going, going, gone. Most of the kids already think our program is a joke due to our lack of real organization. They know we don’t know what it’s really like to live in those streets. I’m typing at my computer right now comparing my reality to theirs, and the comparison just can’t be made. The gap is too vast. I struggle on my adjunct’s pay to get by, but they’re afraid for their lives every goddamn day.
So the glass isn’t bulletproof. There was a shootout last week. Tomorrow it’s back to work as usual. I’ll walk up and down the block like I usually do. So will kids. We’ll all watch and listen for retaliation. We’ll rush them into the building if guns go off, where we’ll huddle in a corridor with no escape route and look out at the not-even-close-to-bulletproof glass and think, I don’t want to die; I don’t want to witness anyone die.
Where can we go from here? All I can think to do is ask if they have a grant writer. The government allocates a certain amount of grant money for nonprofit organizations. I’ll even do it for free. Bullet-resistant glass wouldn’t just a relief to staff and students, I think, but symbolic as well: of the fact that people outside their community are willing to make an investment in them, believe they are worth protecting, and that the buildings where they receive their education can be made safe, indicating that their education is worth it, too.