Three minutes. That's all the separated us and the gunshots. I can't remember how many there were. I want to say it was six. Amidst all the chaos and kids scattering, time managed to stop. We had nowhere to go.
We were headed to the Sacred Heart Festival - a small Catholic school hometown festival. My friend only lived two blocks from the school and it was a beautiful summer night, so it only made sense to walk. We had decided to cross at a different light and cut through an alleyway behind the small stores lining the main road because of the huge crowds gathering on the next corner.
As we made it to the other side of the street, we see a group of at least 30 kids coming our way. "They're just teenagers," I thought. "They won't hurt us. Besides, I have a black belt and I can use it if necessary." Then I heard the noise. That noise you know is not firecrackers only if you went to war or grew up in the hood. I've never been to war. It was a sound I heard many hot summer nights followed by the sounds of sirens or helicopters.
We froze. The group of kids were running in every direction; many of them towards us and up the alley. Was the gunman with them? Were they running from the shots? If we went the wrong way, we could be running right into more gunfire and not away from it. My damned black belt wasn't going to do a thing to defend myself from a bullet. I wish I could say my street smarts kicked in, but I have lived a sheltered life for too long and they have been significantly weakened. So I prayed.
The screeching tires and sirens from a bunch of police cars flooded the air. The teens had all scattered over fences and into the neighborhood backyards. We decided the best thing to do was to head into the festival and be surrounded by people. As we did, we passed three teens with their faces shoved into the asphalt being handcuffed. Patrol cars were speeding down the alleys and side streets looking for more hooligans.
Once inside the school grounds, we knew we were safe. But that on-edge feeling didn't go away for me for the rest of the night. I closely watched every person that walked past to see if they were up to no good, especially if it happened to be a larger group of kids. My maternal, "grew up in the hood and needs to always be on alert" instincts had kicked in and couldn't be shut off so easily now.
As I watched the teens walk back and forth through the festival, I noticed how different it was from when I was a kid. Yes - I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. But there was an innocence that had been long-lost on these kids. They way they dressed and strutted through showed that they garnered their sense of value from a completely different place than we did.
Or maybe it was that they didn't feel valuable at all. Maybe they have long since lost a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives. I don't know how these kids have grown up. The surroundings aren't that much different than where I did. But life - somehow perhaps life just didn't give them a glimpse of hope of getting out like mine did.
As I reading newspaper articles on this event, I saw many people say stuff like this is why they didn't go to that side of town anymore. Mind you - where this happened is still a beautiful suburb with amazing residents in it. But our city is one of "white-flight", and many have moved further away from downtown to avoid the riff-raff. These "kids" - about 100 of them - had hopped a bus and rode over to start trouble. What people don't realize - although this didn't happen in our town, it did happen in our backyard. It was simply one more bus ride from "our" festivals. One more car ride to "our" malls. 10 more minutes for a drive-by to happen at "our" house or "our" schools.
Moving further away is NOT going to solve the problem. It is not going to keep our kids safe. It is ever so much closer than everyone realizes. And it's not a race issue. It's not a status issue. It's a societial issue. We're all affected. We don't even realize it. Our habits and traditions have changed because of this shift in a sense of purpose. We've stopped going to places and stay home more. We avoid driving through certain parts of town. We don't let our kids go out and play by themselves, let alone ride their bikes to the corner store. This is our backyard people!
If we want to stop running, WE need to be the change. We need to be the ones to start making a difference, not only in our own lives, but in our neighborhoods and the ones that we've been avoiding. We need these kids to see that there is so much more out there than what you are wearing today and who you can pop a cap into. That life, even from inside the hood, can be beautiful. That the world is so much bigger than it looks from the city boundaries and so much smaller than it seems from the streets. That these teenage years - as important as they seem - are just a blip in the timeline of our lives. That is - if they make it past them.
So, do something today to initiate change even if it is just sharing this post with others. Pay it forward. A random act of kindness. Cover someone's bill when they don't have enough money. Serve a meal at a soup kitchen. Teach a person to read. I know there are a lot of people that need help outside of this country, but there are so many people living just minutes away from our homes that need help too. Make a difference in one person's life. Show the future that our generation is the one to say "we no longer accept this as our reality!" Be the change.