I was about 8 or 9 years old when I first realized the man who stood at the end of my street was a drug dealer. I remember being warned to stay away from him and never, ever talk to him. Throughout my childhood I’d seen the many ways drug abuse and addiction can affect someone, but it always felt like a dissociated fact of life; it was normalized for me. As a child watched a man overdose in the middle of street before I ever knew what it meant. We were always hurried away from things like that, and taught not to talk to the people who roamed our streets in drug induced fugues, either.
I was 11 the night a bullet came through my window, inches from striking me or my brother in our sleep. I was much too young when I shot my first gun, aiming innocently at a beer bottle set up on a fence post while I sat in my cousin’s lap. I didn’t understand why he thought it was important that I know how to hit a target- how to defend myself with lethal force.
I grew up in the 1990s in a small area of Hollywood, FL called Liberia. I have vivid memories of watching drug dealers run from the cops, sometimes literally running across the roofs of the green and white, one-story apartment buildings. The put up giant barred barriers and created permanent roadblocks to help reduce the number of people who got away. I remember hearing angry adults liken it to a prison without a ceiling.
I’ve witnessed a thousand street fights and been involved in a few of my own. When I was in 6th grade I found a gun hidden by a tree outside of my cousin’s house when I went to pick up her kids to walk them to school. In 8th grade and friend and I stumbled upon a duffel bag full of money and immediately ran away, terrified we would be killed for even seeing it. At 18 I was waiting on a bus to get to my first job when I saw a man threaten his girlfriend with a gun while she dared him to shoot her. Bystanders defused the situation but they never called the police out of distrust. There was a lot of “street justice” back then.
The neighborhood I grew up in has been and will be labelled a great number of things: ghetto, dangerous, high-crime, etc. Despite all the judgement and stigma encompassed in those labels, it is rarely called what it truly is: underserved. It kills me to hear people who know nothing of the community make brash judgments and rude comments because of prejudice, stereotypes, and ignorance.
When you pictured the neighborhood I just described, did you picture one of the highest ranking middle schools in Florida? What about a performance arts elementary school that encourages creativity and discipline? Did you imagine community-funded programs that teach character building to children and provide resources for families in need? Scholarship opportunities for graduates provided by local businesses? Community stores willing to take dip in profit to help a single mother feed her children? Bartering of services to make sure the elderly of the community don’t go without? No? Of course not.
I will never be ashamed of where I come from, but it is incredibly frustrating when I hear the judgments placed upon my childhood neighborhood and places like it. There are so many pointing fingers, but so few helping hands. We ridicule people who perpetrate drug abuse, but do little to rectify the situations that lead them to a life of drugs and violence.
I am one of the lucky ones. I was able to claw my way out of the situation I was born into and stay above the oppressive cycle of drug abuse and crime that ruins so many lives. Others aren’t as lucky as me. I’ve watched my friends and family get sucked into the mentality there is nothing better in their destiny. I’ve watched them struggle because society decided long ago they weren’t worth the effort.
We’ve created an endless cycle- a self-fulfilling prophecy that will never end until we stop looking upon people on both sides of drug abuse with disdain. Until we create better accessibility to rehabilitative services for both drug addicts and the dealers that feed their addiction we cannot say we care about ending the substance abuse epidemic ravishing this country. We cannot scorn the poor life decisions of people in underserved communities without providing solutions through educational support and greater access to opportunities.
Breaking the cycle is possible- but we must all be responsible for seeing it happen.