Local News
5:00 am
Mon August 19, 2013

Dorchester, Roxbury Teens Resist Routine Of Violence

C.J. Victor
Credit James Edwards / WGBH

At 15 years old, Meosha Jackson has experienced the kind of violence most people never will.

When she was 11 …

"I witnessed one of my friends get killed in front of my grandmother’s house, early in the morning – 7 o’clock – going to school," she said. "Somebody came and shot him to death."

Two years later …

"I lost my uncle to violence," she said. "Someone went in his house, and they, like, shot him to death. And it was kind of tragic because he was my favorite uncle. When I lost him, it was kind of like I lost everything."

And at 14 …

"Last summer, July, my friend was stabbed to death in Dudley," she said.

How does a girl cope, see her world, after three murders before her 15th birthday?

"The first few times it hit hard cause I was young, but now, like, it’s not even surprising anymore," Jackson said. "It’s just something that kind of is expected to happen, and I’m numb to it. I mean I have emotions, but I don’t react as much."

That numbness isn’t unique. According to trauma experts, people such as Jackson who experience trauma suffer from similar feelings – whether it’s avoidance and numbing, or re-experiencing the event – all symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The breaking point for Jackson was her uncle, who she describes as being a father figure to her.

"When it happened to my uncle, that’s when I became numb to it, 'cause after him, it was just, like, I don’t feel like I could take anymore, so when it happened to my friend last year – it hurt, 'cause I knew him well, but it was just, like, the fact that – I feel like the fact that he was gone is what hit me the most, but the violent part is something that’s kind of expected to happen around here," she said.

"Around here" is Dorchester, Jackson’s neighborhood, also home to 16-year-old Nikki Johnson. In just the last few months at least five of Johnson’s friends have been shot – one of them almost died.

"Every time someone gets hurt, it’s like the first time," Johnson said. "How does this happen? Why is this happening? And you just keep questioning, and you try to figure out what can you do to stop it. And you keep trying to figure out, 'What did you do wrong? What could you have done to prevent this?'"

Johnson’s first experience with violence happened when she was eight, when a friend was shot and killed. She says as she got older and saw other friends become victims of violence, it forced her to think more about her community and what she could do to help make it better. It’s led both her and Jackson to work with Teen Empowerment, a group that hires young people as community organizers to take on critical issues in their communities.

For the young organizers in Dorchester and Roxbury, one of those critical issues is violence.

"I feel like people act like when somebody dies the only thing they can do is put a pin on their shirt or on their hat, or something like that," Johnson said. "And to me it’s more of like, how can this be a norm? Why are we letting this be a norm? Why is this okay? We see it in other countries, and we see it and, we think, 'Wow, that’s tragic.' But when it happens here, we think that’s tragic, but we don’t do anything about it."

Johnson’s perception isn’t new. It’s a perception that earlier this month brought out over 100 people to rally at City Hall Plaza, soon after the city passed the sad milestone of 100 shootings since the Boston Marathon bombings.

It’s a perception that was also acknowledged at a press conference for murdered South Boston resident Amy Lord. There, Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley pleaded for the public’s help in another killing: that of 19-year-old Joseph Morante, who was shot just a week after Lord’s death. Conley said Morante’s case "deserves the same outpouring of public support we received in Amy’s."

"It’s like they only pay attention to us when it’s a baby losing their life, or a mother, but when it’s regular teens, it’s like, 'well, that’s just the way things are,'" Jackson said. "But that’s not the way things should be."

C.J. Victor
Credit James Edwards / WGBH

Not too far from Jackson and Johnson is Roxbury’s Humboldt neighborhood. For decades it’s been a hotbed of gang violence. Earlier this year it was where 13-year-old Gabriel Clarke was shot while walking to church. Months later, it was the scene of a gang crackdown that saw 75 people arrested. But 17-year-old C.J. Victor sees a different Humboldt. He sees families playing in the park, going to church events, buying homemade slushies from a woman in a wheelchair.

"That’s the community that we live in," Victor said. "We don’t live in a 'hood' community. We live in a community where everyone can have fun and just hang around each other."

Like Johnson and Jackson, Victor also works with Teen Empowerment. A critical issue for Victor is a simple one: what people call his neighborhood.

"When I talk to someone from school or somebody outside of school, I say, 'Hey, do you know about Humboldt?'" Victor said. "The moment they hear that, they say, 'Oh, you mean H-Block?' As in, it’s not even worth being called Humboldt anymore."

H-Block refers to not only the street names in the area that start with H, but also the gang of the same name.

Victor said he gets offended when he hears H-Block. Johnson is more pointed in how she thinks people outside of communities such as Humboldt perceive them.

"They try to make it seem like all of these shootings are just black people in the ghetto having money issues," Johnson said. "And it’s like nobody looks at the real root of the situation and what’s going on. You guys are coming in and taking our houses. It’s harder for us to get jobs. There’s so many things that’s going wrong, and I feel as though everybody is looking at us as the problem – not people with problems."

One problem is work. According to a recent United Nations report, the global youth unemployment rate is near its crisis point. In the U.S. alone, the share of young people out of work for at least six months has quadrupled over the last decade. The numbers are even bleaker for African-American teens. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 42 percent are unemployed.

"We wouldn’t be throwing house parties if we were at work," Johnson said. "We wouldn’t be out in the streets if we were at work. We definitely wouldn’t be selling drugs if we were at work. They don’t understand the fact that teens are bored, and then on top of that, they’re broke. So they’re gonna do something to get money. The quickest way I know to get money is throw a party one weekend. I could make $1,500 in one night."

Such house parties have attracted complaints from some residents, as well as its share of violence. A triple murder at a Roxbury house party this past June prompted Mayor Tom Menino to direct police to immediately shut down house parties that drew complaints.

Although she said her personal experience with such violence has left her numb, Jackson maintains she hasn’t given in to settling for it.

"We all need to come together," Jackson said. "And it shouldn’t just be when it seems tragic because regardless of the situation, it’s tragic."

Jackson wants to one day go to college and study history. So it was fitting when she said her hope was for as many people to organize against violence as those who came together for the March on Washington. As that seminal event turns 50, Jackson, Johnson, Victor and their peers are busy planning their next effort to spread peace: one march, one meeting, one block at a time.

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