Community Trauma

I’ve been feeling an urge to use this blog to tap more deeply into my creative self, especially in exploring my experiences of place and identity without focusing as much on writing toward neat and tidy conclusions at the end. I’m not exactly sure where that will take me, but here’s to experimentation!


About a week before the Fourth of July I began to have the experience of jerking awake to a loud boom.


I live in a busy part of Oakland, where people stay awake late and the noises never completely die down even on a regular night. There’s always a fire truck running past or dull beats of music coming from somewhere. The fact that small-scale explosives seem to have been for sale everywhere lately in the name of Independence means that the nature of my neighborhood’s late night festivities has only increased.

Knowing it was just fireworks didn’t quell the sensation I experienced in waking up to a very sudden and loud noise multiple times throughout the night. Panic seems to spread quicker when the sleeping brain is in control. I would wake up with adrenaline running throughout my entire body, my heart leaping five times a second. And for a moment I would be sure that I was hearing gunshots.

Then eventually the cloudy feeling in my brain would pass and I would understand that I was just hearing fireworks. The slow process of trying to get my body’s physical stress reaction to calm down would begin, and eventually I would drift back off to sleep, a little grumpier perhaps than before.

The whole experience (which fortunately only lasted for a few days) felt like a tiny glimpse into the world of community trauma. There is no rationalizing with the physical and psychological reactions to sounds and situations that induce fear — it’s an immediate and visceral response, and I can only imagine what that repeatedly triggered response can do to the body and mind over time.

Despite the amount of activity and noise in my neighborhood, it’s actually pretty safe overall. I know that I’m not likely to encounter physical or gun violence while walking around, and as far as I know there aren’t any active gangs claiming my area as “turf.” So while the loud noises unsettled me in the moment, I knew, come daylight, that everything in my neighborhood would be fine and that I would be able to go about my life as normal.

What about the neighborhoods where that’s not true? What about the places where you wake up in the morning and it turns out someone you knew got shot last night? There are communities where gunshots are a part of life to deal with always.

A friend of mine who worked with East Oakland youth told me once about guest teaching in a classroom where a car backfired suddenly very close by. Several of the students flinched or ducked a little, before recovering and realizing that nothing violent had happened. Many tried to laugh it off, make a joke of the automatic reaction. But these small, instinctive movements are so incredibly telling of what the nervous system has to get used to in certain communities.

I think of other contexts. Nigerian women and girls being kidnapped and their bodies used over and over again for the pleasure of others. Regular employees in New York City whose lives were shattered on 9/11. Churchmembers seeing their spiritual homes go up in flames in the South (now and in the past). Hurricane Katrina.

All these are examples of communities where for some period of time trauma became the norm. I try to hold that reality in mind this week and act out of gratitude that I have not had to be tested in that way, that so far in my life I have been safe when too many others are not.

Post Image: Ben Grimmnitz via Flickr

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