By Brian Pacheco
June 28, 2018
Warning: The story below includes descriptions of violence and murder.
It’s impossible to make sense of senseless violence. And yet so many of us have been trying to do just that over the last few days. Jose Velez. Lesandro “Junior” Guzman Feliz. Antwon Rose II. These are the names of three young men of color who were killed in separate incidents of community, gang, and police violence last week.
A harsh fact is that young black and Latino men are more likely than any other group to become victims of violent crime, according to NYC’s Vera Institute of Justice. But we don’t usually hear their stories or even learn their names. All too often, they are blamed for their own deaths. But as my colleague Brooklyn Community Program Director Kimmi Herring reminds us, “Any life lost is of the utmost value.”
Here in New York City, no one could escape the news coverage of Junior’s murder. There was video surveillance footage of the killing. It was deeply disturbing and painful to watch. I saw the footage by accident when I clicked on the #JusticeforJunior viral hashtag. I was filled with rage and grief after viewing that atrocity, as I can imagine so many others were.
As a man of color, these three tragedies brought up memories of my own, like the time I came back from college to learn my childhood friend had been stabbed and killed by another childhood friend. Why? They were “fighting” over a girl. Or that time my uncle was a victim of police violence in Massachusetts, and my concern for my mother when she got out of the car to intervene. In speaking with my colleague Sebastian Vante for this article, he shared with me his own experience of being “jumped” as a kid.
The truth is that too many boys and men of color have a story that includes violence and loss. That’s why I am proud to work for an organization that is strengthening and expanding their services for young men, recognizing our hurt and pain. Part of that commitment is having staff who reflect the community. I sat down with two colleagues who identify as men of color: Paul Barrett, Jr., Project Manager for Safe Horizon’s Enhanced Service for Boys and Young Men of Color and Sebastian Vante, Supervising Coordinator for Safe Horizon’s Streetwork Project. We talked about these recent tragedies, how we can better support boys and young men of color harmed by violence, and why toxic masculinity can be a problem for many men.
These tragic deaths have fueled more conversations among boys and men of color concerning the realities of violence in our neighborhoods. As men of color who do this work, what do you want people to know?
PAUL: The people affected are more than just the young men. Their family, friends and neighborhoods are impacted. Jose left behind a fiancée and daughter. We’ve seen Junior’s mother grieve publicly. We’ve seen whole communities mourning. Part of our work is engaging families and communities in healing, such as our work with our families of homicide program.
SEBASTIEN: We have to talk about the relationship between police and communities of color. Deaths like Antwon Rose Jr., can contribute to the distrust. This is relevant as I think of Junior’s murder: Why didn’t the bodega owners call the cops? I grew up in the “hood” and I know that there can be a distrust of the police. There is this valid feeling that, “Justice isn’t for us. It’s for other people.” There can also be this mentality that “If it doesn’t involve you, mind your business.” Some of it is a survival tactic, “If I get involved, will I be harmed?”
For Junior Feliz, it was a case of mistaken identity and a gang looking for revenge. Acts of revenge like this often intentionally cause more harm in retaliation than in the first event. Why is that?
PAUL: This can be true for boys and young men regardless of socio-economic or racial identity, but there is this idea of exerting power to demonstrate manhood. I don’t know what was in the heads of those young men who killed Junior, but I imagine that in the range of options in their mind, violence felt like the only viable option. This is rooted in toxic masculinity.
Toxic and hyper-masculinity can do great harm. Talk to me more about that.
PAUL: I (heard) that the sister of one of Junior’s assailants was sexually assaulted and it was videotaped. They mistook Junior as one of the guys in the video and that’s why he was targeted. You hear that your sister is sexually assaulted and you go straight to ten [on the emotional scale]. I understand having an extreme emotional response to something like that; it’s valid and normal. But when you take that response and add the way that violence is normalized as a way to “get payback” for the harm that was done to you or a loved one, it can be a vicious cycle. This is not just true for men of color. Think about how many times you’ve seen two men arguing because one of them felt disrespected by the other. One of the most common examples I can think of are the numerous times I’ve seen a guy yell at some random person because he thought the stranger was staring at his girlfriend.
At Safe Horizon, we know that violence can be a response to a traumatic event in an effort to feel “in control.” What alternative coping strategies do you want boys and young men of color to know about?
SEBASTIEN: Experiencing violence can make anyone hypervigilant and not trusting. Too often, boys and men can live in this world in fear but it’s seen as weak for them to say “I’m scared.” Instead, that fear comes across as toughness or anger.
At Safe Horizon’s Streetwork Project, we have a men’s group. We do meditation, mindfulness and grounding exercises. We often talk about separation and loss, because so many of these young men have lost family and loved ones to violence, or have been disconnected from their families. It’s a space for young men to heal and engage in conversations they may not otherwise have.
In the last group, I heard the sighs and like, “Ugh, what is this about?” when I asked them to close their eyes and do some breathing techniques. But afterwards, I looked around and asked “So, how does that feel?” So many of them said it was amazing. Part of it is just exposure. They may have assumptions that something will not work or will not be helpful to them, until they actually experience it themselves.
PAUL: Storytelling can be an extremely helpful coping strategy. It is a powerful way to gain a level of empowerment over experiences with harm or trauma. Storytelling can be a way of healing, to make sense of what happened to you. A key component of healing is reestablishing a sense of hope and seeing your life outside of harm. Storytelling can help a person understand and take control of their story. “Who was I before this? How has this experience affected me? Who do I want to be?”
We know that many people, including boys and young men of color, may walk around with unaddressed trauma: witnessing or experiencing violence, abuse, and racism. How can we better support them?
SEBASTIEN: Create a safe and non-judgmental space for young men to talk in. So many young men are waiting for someone to say, “How are you?” and really mean it, not just pleasantries. I see this in my own work with the young men at Streetwork. I ask them, “How are you?” and they usually respond, “Good.” Then I pause and ask again, “No, how are you? Tell me.” And the faucet opens and they start to communicate how they are really feeling.
PAUL: There needs to be a more equitable dispersal of government resources to communities of color. Therapeutic resources, social services, and financial resources can all provide more options for young people who are managing stress and trauma. Providing more viable options like these may also direct a person away from situations that leave them exposed to harm. These resources are readily available in most white communities. Yes, there are poor white communities that also lack access. But at a disproportionate rate, these resources are not as accessible to communities of color. When you look at the intersection of class and race, people of color are more likely—even if they are not poor—to live in less resourced communities than white people. Investing in more resources can help victims, their families and their communities to heal.
At Safe Horizon, we are committed to strengthening our programs to better support and respond to the needs of boys and young men of color (BYMOC) harmed by violence. Since 2016, we have engaged other non-profit partners so we are part of the community that responds to BYMOC harmed by crime and violence. We have worked with these partners to develop a toolkit to provide tools to those serving BYMOC including tools for engagement, trauma screening, and safety planning. Lastly, we have engaged in self-reflective and interrogative conversations about race, racism, and our own bias to better understand how we interact with young men.
My heart goes out to the families and loved ones of Jose Velez, Lesandro “Junior” Guzman Feliz and Antwon Ross II. Rest in peace young men.
For help with any crime or abuse, including support for family members of homicide victims, please call our 24/7 free and anonymous Crime Victims Hotline: 1-866-689-HELP (4357).