The Trauma of Violence and Our Broken Communities

Alex Kotlowitz, our inaugural writer-in-residence, tells the story of Eddie Bocanegra, one of the characters in the new documentary The Interrupters, and discusses the effects of violence on individuals and communities.

Eddie Bocanegra
Eddie Bocanegra
Fifteen years ago, I was on vacation with my family in upstate New York, when late one night I got a phone call from a homicide detective I knew from the West Side. She was calling from my house. Pharoah Rivers, one of the boys I wrote about in There Are No Children Here, was staying with us, and earlier that evening he’d taken a cab from our home in Oak Park to his mom’s home on the West Side. The detective told me that when the cab pulled up in the city, two men approached the car. One of them yanked Pharoah out, and they then both rushed into the backseat. As they tried to rob the cab driver, something went amiss, and they shot and killed him. The detective wanted us to know that Pharoah was okay, that he was back at our house, in shock.

The next day—this was before cell phones—we tried to check in with Pharoah. We called him at our house. We tried his mom’s house. We tried his brother. But we couldn’t find him. Needless to say, we were deeply concerned. Finally, that evening he called. He told us he’d been out clothes shopping all day at Marshall Field’s, preparing to go off to college. I remember my wife and I looking at each other and thinking, “How can you go shopping the day after witnessing a murder? After coming so close? How can you be so nonchalant—so desensitized and so detached?”

But Pharoah was traumatized. Still is. He grew up in a community that discouraged people from talking about such moments—where you just keep moving, mostly because if you slow down, you think. And the more you think, the more it hurts. And so moments like this roil inside.

Eddie Bocanegra knows this better than anyone.

I first met Eddie two years ago over lunch, at an empty Mexican restaurant on Cermak in Cicero. Eddie, who’s of slight build, has a quiet, contemplative demeanor. As his boss, Tio Hardiman, likes to say, Eddie dresses like a college student (which he is): collared shirts, sweaters, pressed jeans. We talked about a lot of things that day, including the murder he committed when he was 18, a retaliatory gang shooting, but mostly we commiserated over the violence in the city and how deeply scarred it has left both individuals and communities. A “violence interrupter” for the Chicago-based anti-violence group CeaseFire, Eddie became one of the central characters in The Interrupters, and his narrative in the film became that of someone trying to come to terms with the violence, both its effect on him as well as on others. So much of Eddie’s journey is his effort to forgive himself for what he did—to make sense of a senseless act.

Pharoah was traumatized. Still is. He grew up in a community that discouraged people from talking about such moments—where you just keep moving, mostly because if you slow down, you think. And the more you think, the more it hurts.

At one point in The Interrupters, Eddie meets a teenage girl, Vanessa Villalba, who spends every day with her family at the gravesite of her brother, Miguel. Miguel died in her arms after being shot. Does it matter what it was over? What could possibly explain it? He was 15. Vanessa, who’s a petite, tenderhearted girl, had been a top-notch student and played soccer, but after her brother’s death, everything unraveled. Her grades dropped, she stopped playing sports, and, completely out of character, she got into a fight at school.

“This person made a comment, she was already enraged, and that was probably her boiling point, that was it,” Eddie says in the film. “One day you might have all the strength you think you have, and you think, ‘You know what? I could go continue on with my life.’ But then the next day your emotions are triggered by something, and it kind of puts them back to square one. I don’t think people ever get over it.”

Eddie told me that when he was in prison, where he served 14 years, he was visited by his brother, Alex, who had just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. Eddie had a kind of epiphany. Alex talked about what he’d seen in Iraq, including the loss of a close friend who was shot while riding in a convoy. He also talked about what he’d done, things that felt so out of character, things that shamed him. He did this with purpose. Alex was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, and he saw some of the same struggles in Eddie.

Indeed, Eddie has told me he has trouble sleeping at night. He feels the need to be busy all the time, out of fear that if he slows down he’ll have too much time to think about incidents from the past. “I can’t sit still,” he told me. And he gets agitated at small, petty things. Eddie saw some of himself in his brother. And then he looked at the kids from his neighborhood, Little Village. And he saw some of his brother in them. They were fidgety, had trouble staying in one place. They got agitated easily. They had no patience. They couldn’t focus. “They’re looking for something to calm them down,” Eddie said, and so many turn to smoking weed and drinking. They, like his brother, he realized, suffered from PTSD.

Why not, Eddie thought, bring war veterans into a community like Little Village, to share their experiences? Not their experiences of war, but their experiences of coming home, of grappling with what they’ve seen and heard. Maybe, Eddie thought, it’d be a way to get guys in the neighborhood to talk about what’s drowning them. It’d be a way to make them realize what they’re up against. So beginning this fall, Eddie plans to have war veterans who, like his brother, have battled PTSD to talk with young people in Little Village who have witnessed their own share of bloodshed. “Unless we start healing ourselves, we can’t expect the community to heal,” Eddie told me.

I think about the family of the six-year-old girl who was fatally shot last week while sleeping on the living room couch, and about the family of the 13-year-old-boy who was shot playing basketball. And I think of their friends. And of those who witnessed the violence, those like Vanessa and Pharoah. We make the mistake of thinking that somehow people move on, that people get numb to such brutality. But they don’t. And yet outside of having someone like Eddie, there’s really nowhere to turn. This is the untold story in parts of our city: communities and a people sapped of their spirit, communities and a people back on their heels.

Driving by Manley High School on the West Side the other day, I saw a sign outside that read, “Have a Peaceful Summer.” What does it say about a community—and about our city—that we even need such a reminder?

 

Photograph: Chris Strong

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