this american life podcast breaks open gun violence amongst american youth

February 25, 2013

America is no stranger to the stark realities of gun violence in schools. The Sandy Hook tragedy unfolded as, not only the nation, the world clung to every premature development. As a collective, we may cry for the victims and their families, we may even express rage. We’ve been known to dissect these types of suburban tragedies, the ideology of the killer, inquire about the circumstances that could permit such bloodshed.

By: Nathaniel Bentley-Johnson, AFROPUNK contributor 

Still, be it intentional avoidance, or sheer ignorance we dismiss the endemic of gun violence happening in urban schools and communities everyday. Only two months into the year, Chicago is on track to exceed it’s last year death toll of 506, and mainstream media largely ignored the cries of Shirley Chambers, who lost her fourth child to gun violence this year. Perhaps these stories are largely ignored because we carry biases, or natural assumptions that every victim is gang affiliated. This assumption lost all ground with the tragic death of honor student Haydiya Pendleton, who just returned from performing at the president’s inauguration a week prior.

Pendleton was gunned down mid-afternoon just a few blocks from President Obama’s Hyde Park home. Gun violence is a public health crisis in Chicago, a crisis, we as a nation willingly ignore. This American Life, is a fascinating weekly public radio show (whose podcast you can subscribe to via iTunes); their strength is unraveling small and unlikely stories of everyday people, and making them universally compelling. Their most recent episode is about a Chicago high school, William Rainey Harper high school located in the neighborhood of Englewood. In the last year alone, 29 current or former students were shot, eight of them dead. This American Life reporters follow the students and staff for their two-part episode. In the first episode, through the testimonies of students and staff we begin to understand the minefield in which they live. The episode exposes our misguided assumptions of how gangs work in urban communities.

The students discuss in detail how gang formulation is only dependent on what block you live, rather the participant is willing or not, their part of that gang, as discussed by a Chicago police officer, “There use to be if you played sports, or was academically better than the average kid, they didn’t bother you. Now it’s different, it doesn’t matter.” Perhaps one of the most striking moments of the first part episode is what happens when school is dismissed. None of the students use sidewalks; in fact they all walk down the middle of the main street. A teacher admits, initially she assumed it was “plain hooliganism”, but a student shed light on the reasoning. “We feel safer like this, for some reason we feel safe like that. We never like to walk past the trees, too much stuff going on.” This American Life reporter further explains, walking down the street helps to keep a better view on things, while providing an opportunity to run if shots break out. 

This is just a taste of some of the survival skills the students of Harper High have adopted to stay alive. This American Life represents everything Afropunk represents, giving voice to a collective largely ignored, with hopes of sparking a dialogue. Is it natural or normal for teenagers to face the fear of death on a day to day without universal acknowledgment from the world around? I applaud This American Life for their compelling investigative journalism, and hope that with awareness, a true change can begin.