Op-Ed: Still Living in Gun City

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*Mr. Gonzalez will be a guest on the live-chat on gun control and school safety hosted by Radio Rookies and Youth Radio.The live chat is on January 31, 2012 from 1-2pm EST. 

I am a life-long resident of Bushwick, Brooklyn - a beautiful community besieged by gun violence. Over the years, attempts have been made to loosen the grip violence has on our community, but each initiative has been only a band-aid. Too often, solutions to gun violence in our community are discussed in closed meetings, - and people who look like me, with the baggy jeans, who walk down the street each day wondering if our time has come - aren’t invited.

It’s a weird feeling you get when you leave home, when you wonder if today is the day. Will you get in an argument that escalates, or just be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Living so close to death is surreal. 

Don’t get me wrong. Bushwick, Brooklyn is an amazing neighborhood. Its just that our community, like most in America, is struggling deeply with violence and the consequences of easy access to guns. While recent events such as the tragedy in Newtown made national news, those of us in Bushwick have lived with guns, and the threat of death, for as long as we can remember. To give you an idea, when I was younger, I believed guns were dropped into our neighborhood to help us kill each other. I’ve met good kids, with good grades, who even wore the school uniform who owned one.

In debates post-Newtown, the “guns are part of American culture”  and “it’s our second amendment right” arguments just don’t compute for me. It’s certainly not a part of our culture and its never been our right. In fact, it’s our nightmare. The incident at Newtown was horrific. It touched an entire country, and made me reflect on all the people, young and old, lost to gun violence in our community. But fortunately, for people in my neighborhood, gun violence is finally being treated as a mainstream issue and not just an “inner city problem”. Since my radio documentary, “Guns in Bushwick,” aired on WNYC in 2001, I’ve witnessed five incidents of gun violence and been to many more funerals.

One scene is engraved in my memory. Witnesses’ tears reflected the police lights as the young man laid on the ground. His eyes grew big, he had a piercing stare -it was like he could see into my soul. I placed my hand on his chest and it felt as if I could grab his heart. His heart was pounding strongly. I told him everything would be alright. The ambulance arrived and we all stepped back. His mother’s wails made my spine crawl. Later, young people gathered to place flowers and candles where their friend had been killed. And, the planning for another “Enough is Enough” rally began.

Why was this normal?

The solution to our gun problem will not come from the NYPD’s Stop and Frisk policy, from giving unofficial quotas to officers demanding they meet “productivity goals”, nor from placing armed guards inside our schools. Today, Mayor Bloomberg announced the City’s budget, which included significant cuts to youth services and education.

In the midst of our national gun crisis, the Mayor decimated the city’s summer youth employment program and educational funding. He thinks the trade-off is worth it. But, for someone so outspoken on gun reform, it seems like his proposed budget is forgetting what it takes to make real change in our neighborhoods. What it takes to tackle the root of gun violence in our city. Based on his decision, I’m guessing he’s never seen the last stare of a victim from gun violence.

I’ll tell you what worked for me: Access to a job, a good public school with culturally relevant curriculum at Bushwick Community High School. Safe spaces with youth programming, like the Youth Power Project at Make the Road New York, encouraging me to fight for justice in my community; and the Radio Rookies Program at WNYC. We need spaces for youth to heal and process their trauma. We need prevention programs, youth employment and an end to the stigma of mental health services.

I’m committed to make sure my community is engaged in taking action to make our neighborhood safe. To making sure community members get a seat at the table when solutions are discussed, so that something real - and permanent can emerge. And I’m pretty sure that solution will include not just law enforcement, but the people who who look like me, even with the baggy jeans, who live these streets, and who have been excluded from this conversation for too long.