Inequity, Violence, Grief and Trauma: The Battlefield at Home


boys and girls club altar 24 oakland

Ain’t nobody got time to cry in a war zone; where I live — “*even the birds sing bass”.

–WordSlanger, (*Reginald Lockett)

Anthony Lake, the head of UNICEF, observed during an Al Jazeera interview on the impact of war on children that, “Children in war exist in a state of toxic trauma.” He surmised that, these children traumatized in childhood, are the future of the nations in which they live, or take refuge in, and that they, and the trauma they have endured will have an effect on them as adults, their children, and neighboring populations. Children born in war, raised in terror, forced to flee homelands, living in perpetual violence that becomes normalized, have “diminished potential.” Lake also observes that, “No society is healthy if the inequity in that society is growing.” He (Lake) extends his thought beyond  recognized war zones, to developing countries looking not just at rural areas but urban settings as well, observing how the implicit violence of extreme poverty,  and lack of basic essentials play heavily in the outcomes of children. I would like to extend Lake’s thought even further, there are children that I know, growing up in states of war. They live in North America where violence is a way of life, and inequity is an elephant on a broken table littered with unacknowledged enactments of hubris and hexis that feed, condone, and make both implicit and explicit violence acceptable.

When we look for solutions to significant social problems we must out of necessity consider causes. The same is true when one finds one’s self in an untenable situation. Violence has become untenable in American communities who are defined and discussed in relationship to their murder statistics. Gabor Mate says, “No society can understand itself without looking at its shadow side.”  The violence that is inherently a part of American culture, is playing itself out on city streets in tragic ways, we find difficult to comprehend, or fully process. The frequency of the event of murder on the television, both fictional and real, are parts of our daily lives imbibed with morning coffee and at the dinner table. These displays have colluded to cheapen the value of human life. We have collectively rationalized “good-kills”, murder can be justifiable in the hands of authority, while lawfully punishable by murder if not done with authority, and is suitable as play in video games where characters reanimate to kill or be killed again, and again.  America has a long standing shadowy, love-hate relationship with violence, and there are places in urban America that are in all respects war zones. There are opposing forces, fights for geography, violent battles, casualties, and survivors

Living in a war zone affects the ways in which people address, display, and process grief. While we are pained by the plight of children in developing countries, those in acknowledged war zones who are subjected to a constant parade of violence, those who suffer from lack of access to the essentials of life like food and shelter; it seems we think less about the plight of children here. Many children in North America live in less than optimal situations which are fraught with explicit and implicit violence, both equally horrific, often cyclical, and without doubt profoundly traumatizing. I submit that many are overwhelmed by the volume of the violence.  They have gone to more funerals than most people three times their age. Death has become a companion.  I work with youth who have written their own eulogies in anticipation of an early death. The inability to conceive of yourself as a grandparent is symptomatic of a break in our society. They predict their outcomes based on their families lived realities, the grimness of how they live, and the number of friends in coffins who they have stood over.  I have stood in rooms where there are no words that will suffice, only tears, frustration, loss, and eventually the anger that fills such spaces, that often encourages acts that do not fill the void but make it deeper.

A great deal of the youth I work with have endured the invisible violence of poverty, hostile educational spaces, slum lords, public housing, lack of housing security, lack of food security, lack of access to medical care, and suffered most of it in communities that are marred by violence and aggressive policing. Murders are a visceral display of visible violence. The way in which these children struggle into adulthood is a tale fraught with invisible forms of violence. The saddest part of the tale is they are raised by parents who have experienced the same thing. In these spaces there is nothing to feed the human assumption that things will get better, rather weltschmerz takes root here, a lack of calm, confidence, the absence of happiness, or the expectation that things will get better.

There are too many neighborhoods in this country where the greatest commodity is mutual lack and great quantities of weltschmerz.  In places where people mired in cycles of inequity become past desperate to survive they employ any means necessary. Inequity buys bullets. When you live in an environment where the acquisition of commodities and violence are ennobled, the use of violence becomes an acceptable means to acquiring what one feels necessary to be in life.

To ignore that poverty, inequity, and the marketing of copious consumption, fuels both illegal underground commerce and the violence that attends it is at best naive. To not make the connection between the children of the war zones populated by American soldiers with American children in the inner city is worse than naive. These children like Lake’s children of “toxic trauma” are the future of their communities.  The state of toxic trauma in which they exists diminishes their potential.  The poverty that affects everything from where they live, where they can’t live, the schools they go to, the breakfast they had before they left the house, the likely hood that they will be personally exposed to some form of violence, the normalization of death, and the trivialization and glorification of violence on TV, movies, and video games creates a perfect storm. Yet we don’t mourn the death of their childhoods.

Where is the space for grief in a war zone? We have little time to mourn our dead. We struggle forward. We remake normal so that new tragedies can be stuffed on top of the old ones. The need to carry on in life and the large number of violent deaths compress the time allotted to process traumatic events. Murder by police is a good example of how overwhelm is enacted, as outrage for one victim of police shooting reaches a critical mass, it is eclipsed by another similar event. Studies state such an event occurs every twenty hours in North America. It is not humanly possible to process such an atrocity. Grief is a process. When there is no space for that process to run its course it is subsumed, tamped down, carried with you, it becomes a lens that informs your way of being in the world. Creating the kind of traumatic hubris that is passes from parent to child and lives for generations.  Compounded complex-trauma is a house mate that does not pay rent but takes up space in all of us.

At a summer arts camp that I facilitate for inner city youth, who are mostly elementary and middle school students, the first two weeks of their improvisations are peppered with violent scenarios. We spend a full two weeks enlarging their imaginations beyond gun play, robberies, beat-downs, and cops and perpetrators. Some of the influence is television and popular media but some is from lived reality either heard about, witnessed, or experienced. I believe that children’s play reflects the things they experience and/or are concerned about. In a recent project with youth from Hoover elementary school in West Oakland CA,  I asked how they would change the world if they had super powers. The third grade class was overwhelming concerned about inequity and violence. I get the same answers to that question in every youth population I poll. Even children make a connection between inequity and violence and hold the two responsible for the ills of their respective communities.

Inter community violence, the police murders, the mass shootings, and the declared war statistics, combine to surround us by visible violence.  The lack of respect for life is fueled by the omnipresence of death.  We are fragile. Bullets will end our lives. So will enduring trauma. In the grip of fear that does not fade, and a general dis-ease that anticipates the possibility of something bad happening, we like all under siege populations trapped in warring societies make life in the pauses. Stress is the number one contributory killer of North American Africans who in large part inhabit some of the most violent urban areas in America. The statistic is born out in lower life expectancies.

Pretending to be well has a cost, we are not processing our grief —  we have allowed it to instill fear: Fear of the young, fear of the other, fear of authority, fear of lack, fear of the unknown. We have allowed it to erode our compassion and our empathy.  As a society we address violence by incarcerating more people than any other developed nation on the face of the earth.  We buy guns, pepper spray, pocket Tasers, burglar alarms, bars for windows, place cameras in every device as well as in public spaces, we keep a standing army, yet we are not safe on our streets, or in our homes. In fact, there is no safety in spaces of great inequity.

So what do we do? As a general rule we discuss the symptoms of our illness, perhaps march, and ultimately do nothing substantive to change what has become normalized.  While we discuss symptoms and skirt around the absolute necessity to address the illness, we exist in varying states of psychosis. We are eating our grief, we internalize it, become desensitized to its sharp edges, we carry it with us — an invisible burden informing how we live, we ignore it – praying; may the symptom and the illness pass over us, –we endeavor to survive – unless it catches us, rendering us just another predictable statistic.

photo credit: a.nzinga