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I was five years old when I almost lost my uncle to gun violence.
It was the night of his high school graduation. We were all celebrating together, family, friends, and loved ones. He left the party early to go hang out with his friends and was shot, paralyzed from the waist down. I specifically remember someone coming in the room, saying he had been shot and I just froze, feeling a strong sense of dread. Being five, I didn’t really understand what was happening while simultaneously knowing that there was a chance he could die or already be dead. I remember a stranger holding me, while I was crying because I was the youngest person at the party. Being so young and so scared, the closest adult near me felt the need to hold me, in a room where the energy was so raw and tumultuous.
I was fourteen the first time someone I went to school with died from gun violence. I was a freshman when he was a senior. I didn’t know him personally but I had friends who did. I knew of him and who he was. One day he was at school, walking the halls, and the next day he wasn’t. My friend called me the night it happened, so I went to school the next day with it on my mind. I remember sitting in Biology class when they were announcing it over the intercom and those same feelings that I had felt as a five-year-old girl all came rushing back. I felt shock, terror, sadness, and confusion. For many students it was personal, another horrific tragedy that happened to our young black men and women all too often. While for other students, it was sheer shock and confusion. How horrible is this thing that happened? This isolated incident. But it wasn’t an isolated incident, not for us. Not for many of the black teens who knew all too well what could happen in the streets of Los Angeles.
I was seventeen when the first person I was friends with was killed by gun violence. Her name was Brittany, just like mine. She was one of the nicest people I knew. Always so sweet and always spoke to me in the hallway. We had some of the same friends and associates, and we mostly knew each other in passing, but she always gave off such good vibes. Of course, we had that Brittany bond too, there were so many of us at my high school we could’ve created our own club. When she died, it was the first time that I felt devastated by an act of violence. Because it was her, of all people who were taken from us. The media and society always try to make us feel like people of color who live in urban neighborhoods, who fall victim to gun violence deserved it somehow. Somewhere along the lines, they knew someone or did something or smoked weed or got caught stealing, so therefore they deserved what they got. Or therefore it somehow isn’t as sad that this happened to them. But this one, directly confirmed to me the randomness of it all. It was all so terrible, and so wrong, that this could happen to her.
This story has repeated over and over and over. Too many old classmates and schoolmates of mine are dead now. Due to the same senseless acts of violence that we, in our community have often times inflicted upon each other. There are so many more stories that my friends could tell you that directly effected their friends, family, and acquaintances as well. Making me sometimes question my faith and the universe. Why is this happening? When will it stop? Why do we keep doing this to each other? Why do people feel like they can keep doing this to us?
This brings me to today, and dealing with the death of Nipsey Hussle. When the news broke about Nipsey’s death, my heart sank. I was brought back to that time when I was 5, 14, and 17, processing emotions and feelings that I had to process too many times before. Ermias was a man who grew up in the same area that I grew up in, at the same time. I don’t normally get emotional when I hear about celebrity deaths. Of course its terrible, but there is a level of detachment from them. Even if they grew up in LA or in SoCal, they are usually very detached from my personal experience. But Nipsey was different. So that day, I felt that all too familiar feeling that I had for so many of my high school companions, for him. As if I had known him, as if he walked the same halls as me. As if he was someone that I had seen walking by me one day, then gone the next. There I was feeling that same devastation, confusion, sadness, and terror. Why do these horrible things keep happening to people who are trying to make the world better? So, in an attempt to work through my feelings and process my emotions I decided to write him a letter.
I feel like we let you down. I feel like you envisioned and dreamed of what our neighborhoods and what our city could be and we let you down. I am so sorry that this happened to you. No one should ever die in this way. You were a beacon of our community and you truly cared about us. You truly cared about lifting people up and you truly cared about making the world better for people that society is so quick to ignore, discard, and destroy. Better for Black people in Los Angeles.
I didn’t know your music very well. I didn’t know the lyrics to your songs but here is what I did know. You were from LA and you went hard for our city
always. I knew you were an entrepreneur and property owner in the same neighborhood where you grew up, where I spent all of my teenage years. I knew you wanted to lift people up in a soon to be gentrified city that is full of transplants. You wanted black men and women to reap the benefits of the transformation going on in the city we’ve called home for decades, that has just recently begun to become appealing to others. That is all it took for me to feel the utter devastation that I felt the day I found out that your life was taken.
I remember about a month or two ago, my husband and I were talking about community activists and strong black people who make it big but then use their platforms to better their communities; LeBron James, Chance the Rapper, etc. I was reading Michelle Obama’s book and my husband had been reading a book about Stanley “Tookie” Williams. We began talking about you and your store. We had recently, in the last year or so, made a shift in our consumer habits and had made a point to support black businesses and clothing lines, and my husband brought up the fact that he wanted to get something from your line. We had talked about how you linked up with a tech guru to create opportunities for kids to make connections in Silicon Valley. You were on my list of people to watch. People I planned on supporting in the near future. I would say, “I need to start listening to his music. We need to make a trip to his store one day.”
I am sorry that I didn’t fully appreciate you while you were here. I am sorry that I didn’t truly grasp the vastness of your humanitarianism while you were alive. I am sorry that I didn’t research you until I found out what happened. I am sorry that I didn’t do a deep dive into all of the aspects of your community work until you were gone. I knew who you were and I knew what you stood for and I had such an attachment to your being because of that. I listened to what other people said you were doing or saying or rapping about and be like, “yeah I like him. I rock with him.” But I never got that chance to make that direct connection with your movement. I am so sorry that I waited. Thinking about it, I think that’s part of the complexity of my emotions in dealing with your death. I feel like I let you down. I am sorry that I didn’t do it before. But I see your mission. I want to support everything you did. It makes me want to go harder for my own vision for the Black people of Los Angeles. For the community you believed in so much. The community where I work, where my kids go to daycare every day, where I spent my teenage years. The community where so many of our young boys and girls, men and women are taken from this Earth. So thank you for everything that you have given us, for everything that you have taught us, and for everything you have done for us. Your legacy lives on. The marathon continues.