Birth of a “Shooter”
Roots of Black Violence Can Be Found in a Community’s History
BY KIM WHITING
Tay Ramey was a “shooter,” a violent young man who handled conflicts and emotions with guns. He grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, in a small and equally violent enclave outside of San Francisco that, like Tay, became more violent with time. The evolution of a bright, happy, life-loving child into an exceedingly violent criminal, and the town that bred him, is deep and complex. Tay explains:
When you’re young and successful on the street, you’re a target. I was 14 and had a thriving drug business when a guy who had just gotten out of prison started hanging out in the area of the street where I was hustling. It didn’t take him long to notice that I was making good money. He came up to me and asked for a bag of weed and a loan of $6. This was an innocent enough request so I wasn’t careful to hide how much money I had as I pulled a wad of about $300 out of my pocket. I saw him notice the money and he said, “Looks like you’re doing good out here Lil’ Nigga.” And so it began.
This guy had a violent reputation and was feared on the streets.
He started to come to me daily, asking for a bag of weed and $10. Then it grew to a couple bags of weed and $20. I could tell by the way he asked that if I didn’t give him what he was asking for there was going to be a problem. I could also tell that he was going to keep asking, and asking for more. One day my girlfriend and a couple of her friends stopped by to bring me lunch and the guy walked up to me and said he needed $35 and four bags of weed. I knew that I was on display with my girlfriend and her friends and so I needed to man up to this guy. With all the courage I could muster, I told him that I didn’t have it. He said, “What the f%$! What do you mean you don’t have it?” I puffed out my chest and used my man’s voice to say, “It means I don’t have it.” He yanked me by my jacket and said, “I’m coming back here in 30 minutes and you’d better have it.”
My girlfriend wanted to show her support for me and said, “He told you he doesn’t have it, he doesn’t have it.” The look in the guy’s eyes told me he was ready to slap her backward, so before he could act I said, “Alright, come back and I’ll have it.”
Six weeks before, I had found a gun in a ditch and one of my “street uncles” had given me a clip for it. I had it hidden in a bag behind a store dumpster.
I knew that if I didn’t put an end to this guy’s harassment it wasn’t going to do nothing but get worse. I also knew that I couldn’t pull the gun on him and try to scare him because this dude was the real deal. He would kill me. The only way to ensure that this dude ended his tyranny was to stop him from breathing. The thought of this terrified me, but I didn’t see any other options. I told my girlfriend to go ahead shopping with her friends. I gave her money and the keys to the car. She knew I had the gun and was afraid for me. She kept asking me to leave with her. I told her not to worry about it, that I would be alright, but I really wasn’t so sure.
About 10 minutes later the guy showed up and said, “You got that for me?” I responded, “Yeah, walk with me to get my stash behind the dumpster.”
As I pulled the gun on him I was terrified of what he’d do to me, but as soon as I pulled the trigger and watched him fall I felt pure power and control. I felt so much rage and fury going into that bullet. I know it was mostly rage that belonged toward my father—and maybe a hundred other things—but at that moment I just wanted people to stop messing with me. It didn’t even matter to me if he got back up. I still felt like, with a gun, I had the upper hand and no one would be able to hurt me again.
That was the last time anyone ever just took something from me.
One of Tay Ramey’s old prison mug shots from the 1990s.
What is it about the environments where so many young black men like Tay grow up that make them such breeding grounds for violence? What are the factors that contribute to a higher tendency to kill and be killed? What are the elements that create “shooters?”
Tay (now 47 years old and serving a life sentence in prison for his crimes) and I are co-authoring Thug: A True Story, a book that chronicles his journey into, through, and ultimately out of violent criminal life; it also highlights the reverse alchemy that turned a golden, gifted child into a gifted violent criminal–into a gang leader and a shooter.
Shooters by the Numbers
Since 2010, blacks have accounted for approximately half the murder victims in the United States despite comprising only about 15 percent of the population. What’s more, 90 percent of these murders were perpetrated by other blacks, according to 2016 FBI crime data.
Most of these murders occurred in communities with a high number of “shooters” (a term used by law enforcement to describe youth engaged in gun violence) like Chicago (27.9 murders per 100,000 people) and St. Louis (59.3 homicides per 100,000 people). Compare these stats to the national rate of 4.9 murders per 100,000 people.
Starring in Tay’s story is North Richmond, California, a tiny unincorporated town outside San Francisco, (with a population of about 3,000), where Tay spent most of his upbringing. North Richmond and its larger neighbor Richmond (population 100,000 or so, where Tay also lived and went to school at times) have been breeding grounds for homicide and other violence since the early 1970s.
In fact, San Francisco Bay Area journalist and Contra Costa County service coordinator Robert Rogers, who wrote an in-depth series of articles on North Richmond once stated:
The North Richmond community has been one of the most murderous handfuls of blocks in the entire United States.
Because of its small size and unincorporated status, a sliver of North Richmond’s homicide statistics get blended into the Richmond homicide data and the rest into the Contra Costa County data. But Rogers tracked homicides in North Richmond from 2005 to 2010 and found that five people were killed each year. Five killings in a population of less than 3,000, Rogers concluded, was akin to a rate of 217 killings per 100,0000 people–almost 10 times the current homicide rate in Chicago.
Neighboring Richmond, had an average of about 40 murders per year between 2003 and 2010, a homicide rate per capita that’s almost double that of Chicago’s. Since 2010, homicides have dropped to between 20 and 30 each year, now making Richmond’s current homicide rate almost on par with the Windy City.
San Francisco Bay Area journalist and Contra Costa County service coordinator Robert Rogers
The homicide statistics for North Richmond and Richmond are actually even crazier than the statistics show. On the streets we knew of at least a half dozen people who had been killed but they were never even reported as missing and their bodies were never found.
Tay says that all but one of the guys that he grew up with have done prison time. In his cell block alone (which houses about 1,000 men) are two of his cousins, also raised in North Richmond. He estimates that about 25 percent of the guys he grew up with were killed, most before the age of 20. When Tay talks of his friends and family, the stories are peppered with “but he was killed” or “she spiraled into drugs and was lost to the streets.”
History Reveals Reasons for Violence
The history of Tay’s North Richmond community reveals some of the factors that lead to the kind of violence and devaluing of life that were the norm for Tay and his friends and family.
In 1941, a giant shipbuilding endeavor was started in Richmond and tens of thousands of new residents arrived, mostly from the rural areas of Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Mississippi. A high proportion of the newcomers were African American. Whites came from these areas too, and both whites and blacks brought their cultural prejudices and hostilities with them.
Tay’s great grandparents were part of this migration. Three of his great grandparents and a few great uncles came from Louisiana, while one great grandmother came from Arkansas. With pride in his voice, Tay says that one of these great, great uncles owned and operated the first African American barber shop in the San Francisco Bay area. But like most blacks who came to the Bay area at that time, Tay’s ancestors were relegated to living in North Richmond.
Says Rogers, “The area that became North Richmond was, geographically, an unstable place to live; it sat on a flood plain that flooded when it rained and it was surrounded by industry and pollution. Its undesirability made it the place to push and ghettoize the new wave of black residents.”
By 1943, North Richmond was almost exclusively black, sandwiched between the refinery and the garbage dump. The town had few streetlights, unpaved streets, inadequate fire protection, no junior high or high school (which is still the case today), and its police protection consisted of a single sheriff who was spread thin across an entire county. The lack of police protection led to a growing crime problem as the population grew.
Sheriff’s deputies respond to a distress call in North Richmond (photo courtesy Robert Rogers)
Key North Richmond leaders called for more police protection in the neighborhood from as early as 1943, but they didn’t get it. Over the decades, North Richmond would lobby the City of Richmond again and again for more public safety resources, but they were perpetually under resourced, according to a Sacramento State history professor, Shirley Moore. Moore believes that the unrest that developed between black, Latino and white residents in Richmond during and after World War II emanated from inequitable conditions in housing, schooling and other public services. The black community saw other ethnicities getting resources that they were denied.
Rogers paints a vivid picture of the environment that Tay and generations before him have endured. In a 2011 article he penned for The Richmond Confidential:
From the corner of Filbert Street and Chesley Avenue, the unofficial center of North Richmond, a person gets the full sensory onslaught that the community has endured for decades. To the west, the largest oil refinery on the West Coast spews plumes of white smoke that spout during “flaring,” a process that releases airborne gases generated during the petroleum refining process. To the south, empty buildings stand next to noisy railroad tracks.
To the north, one may hear the rumble of trucks, which incessantly roll by loaded with various wastes (leaving behind airborne toxins), en route to the nearby landfill. On any given block at any given time, there may be a pile of discarded trash—mattresses, paint cans, diapers.
In the late 1990s, North Richmond was literally a dumping ground for private and commercial interests all over the Bay Area looking for a place to unload garbage for free. Dumping was illegal and subject to fines, but sheriff’s patrols were stretched thin.
Newspaper accounts from the time describe entire blocks and vacant lots covered in flotsam and jetsam, the noxious loads dumped under the cover of night… Progress has been made, by virtually all accounts, but the environmental challenges – and the stigma of being an unhealthy place – remain.
A Town’s Troubled Past Still Defines the Town Today
In a recent interview with Rogers (who now spends a significant portion of his workweek in North Richmond coordinating services), he shared more of his observations about North Richmond’s conditions and their correlation with violence:
The psychological toll of living in a community like this is that life is cheapened, but there are so many variables at work as to why. The unincorporated status of North Richmond has fed into the violence because law enforcement is provided by the county. With counties, you have sheriffs that patrol distant places and make arrests, whereas city police provide interventions and supportive programs. North Richmond has always had a lawless flavor due to its lack of law enforcement.
There’s one school in North Richmond, an elementary school called Verde and it has always been the only school in town. For generations it has been underfunded and a place of poor resources and poor education. The school has only recently, after over seven decades, gotten an increase in funding and resources.
There are also geographical factors involved. North Richmond is isolated, with the large oil refinery on one side, a garbage landfill on another, as well as railroad tracks that make it so that only a few roads go into town. This geographic isolation has made North Richmond residents feel apart from the rest of the metropolitan area and this separateness has bled into community groups and fueled blood feuds, particularly between North Richmond and Richmond.
North Richmond’s oil refinery (photo courtesy: Reimagine!)
The isolation of North Richmond has also created a major drag on the achievements of its students. Once students graduate from elementary school, they go to junior high in Richmond where they are faced with the stigma of being “the North Richmond blacks.” They are seen as “country” or dirty and poor and are intimidated and harassed. If they do make it through junior high, they then attend Richmond High School, which is another underfunded school. The result is that most kids from North Richmond don’t graduate and many don’t make it past junior high.
Shooters Perceive They’re Seen as “Less-Than” at an Early Age
Tay describes the strong feeling of community and community pride that was fostered by North Richmond’s isolation, as well as outside prejudices against his community:
When I was little I assumed that everyone lived the way we did. Until I was older and went outside the community, I didn’t know anything different.
I know now that my neighborhood is scary to people who didn’t grow up in an area like mine, but I loved my neighborhood. It was what I knew and it was comfortable for me. There was never a dull moment—always some activity going on; kids playing dice or riding bikes, people talking in their front yards.
A North Richmond neighborhood (photo courtesy Robert Rogers)
People greeted each other and looked out for each other and (as long as it wasn’t something violent) would step in with the kids when a parent wasn’t around to do the job. There were elders in the community who were like everyone’s grandma, grandpa, aunt or uncle.
The houses weren’t big or fancy, but we had people who took pride in their homes. They painted them bright colors and kept their lawns nice. But then there were the houses that were abandoned or so run down that they looked like they were abandoned. Many of them had people squatting in them. Drug addicts were sleeping in them or using them as a place to get high. It was normal to walk through an alley and see a heroin addict shooting up or a woman performing sexual favors for drugs, but it’s what I knew.
It wasn’t until I began attending junior high school in Richmond that I really became aware of the prejudices and stereotypes that the world held for boys like me, especially kids from North Richmond. And every time a white person walked across the street to avoid passing me on the sidewalk, or a sales clerk –or anyone –looked at me with wariness or fear, a stick was added to a fire that started as hurt and grew into rage.
Like Tay, Joe McCoy grew up in North Richmond during the 1970s and ‘80s His childhood recollections mirror those of Tay:
I enjoyed growing up in North Richmond. There was a sense of community –the people looked like you and talked like you and stores would barter goods with people.
But when I was a little older I went on a field trip to see The Nutcracker in San Francisco and in the bathroom there were some white kids a few years older than us talking down to us. We ended up in a fight. We had heard about the Black Panthers and Martin Luther King but we were isolated in North Richmond and we hadn’t really had an experience with racism before that. Those kids called us niggers. Afterward, one of the kids in our group was crying. We had to leave and we didn’t understand why we were in trouble when we were just defending ourselves. I went home with a bad vibe.
As I got a little older I would learn that even blacks from other towns considered North Richmond kids to be poor and dirty –and yes, this had an impact on me.
Feeling Undervalued, or Unvalued, Altogether
At the core of violent neighborhoods is a chronic perception of being undervalued or altogether unvalued and the result can be a feeling of very low self-worth. Tay says:
I grew up in a world that preferred that poor black boys like me weren’t in it and that took a toll on me. It’s hard to feel anything but hatred for that kind of opinion of you and in my community this opinion of us lit a lot of angry fires in people. It did in me.
My grandfather owned a construction company that built about a third of the houses in Richmond. But even with a grandfather who had modeled for me that blacks could be very successful, thug life seemed the only acceptable path for me. I didn’t believe that I belonged in the legit world –which in my mind was the white world. I didn’t believe that I would be accepted by “them” or allowed to succeed.
Tay felt this way despite the fact that he had plenty of legitimate achievements. He says he was allowed to skip two grades in school, and won a math scholarship that earned him training in computer programming and engineering in a professional environment. He starred in a play and got a standing ovation –and a congratulatory handshake from Alex Haley, the author of Roots, a gesture that Tay said, “meant the world to me.”
He also excelled early and quickly in the drug business (he started selling marijuana at the age of nine) and ultimately built his business into a multi-state enterprise that spanned from California to New York, using skills that could easily translate to legitimate entrepreneurial endeavors.
Says Rogers: The bottom line is that you don’t just deprive generations of a certain group, identifiable by skin color and then expect them to start the race at the same point as everyone else.
Tay’s conscious reasons for getting started in the drug business were about economics and excitement, but under his words one can hear a desire to stand out in some way and be looked up to–to be in his words, successful in the only way that seemed feasible.
When my mom finally had the courage to leave my dad I went to live with my Aunt Gina while mom got back on her feet. This was where my criminal life went from petty to career track. My mom believed in going to school and being a good citizen. My aunt didn’t see much use for school. She hadn’t finished school and made six figures selling drugs and hosting high stakes poker games and she was intent on helping me do the same.
When I first started sitting in on those poker games I was about nine. I would help with those games in small ways that made me feel important and part of the action. The poker games were attended by pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers and even members of the Oakland A’s and Raiders sports teams. Aunt Gina called me her “card boy” or “good luck charm,” and I could earn up to $200 a night in tips at those games. That’s a lot of candy money for a nine-year-old. At my own house, mom was working hard and barely scraping by but at my aunt’s house people were wearing nice clothes, driving nice cars and the food was always plentiful. These guys were constantly surrounded by beautiful women and people treated them with respect. The life these guys were living (my Aunt Gina included) looked exciting, whereas the majority of the people I knew who were living legally were working hard and struggling.
I was too young to appreciate the deeper rewards that come with an honest hardworking life so that life didn’t seem to have anything to offer me. I wanted to be financially successful and the best at something and drug dealing was the only career in my neighborhood that I saw that could provide me with those opportunities. It seemed like street life was the life I was born for.
Finding Loyalty, Respect and Safety – in a Gang
One doesn’t have to read between the lines to see the desire to be valued as an attraction to join a gang –or “organization” as Tay calls it:
I was so impressed with the brotherhood, loyalty and respect that they showed one another. I fell in love with the sense of family and working together toward a common mission. I believed I could do something positive for the black community within the organization.
People see the violence of the gang and the havoc it wreaks on the community and think my values are totally twisted, but the organization also did a lot of good. We held regular fundraiser concerts where we enlisted comrades who were well known rappers, musicians and other prominent figures to talk and perform. We’d have sold out concerts and the money would go to support the homeless and others who were unfortunate. When they closed the Boys Club due to lack of funding we bought the building, hired local contractors as well as addicts and homeless to paint and fix the place up, bought sports equipment and kept the Boys Club alive.
A fair percentage of the money that was put into the community came from the illegal side of the gang, because it was easy to make big money from the illegal side, but the goal of the gang was to help its members transition into a legal life. We supported guys coming out of prison and provided them with housing, clothing, food and any resources needed to get them back on their feet and make a better life for themselves. We’d help those with talent get their start and expand their success into other ventures
And the education that they provided was impressive as well. Literacy classes were mandatory for members, so kids who’d had no motivation to learn to read or write were provided the motivation. They also taught leadership classes, African and African American history, Swahili, and lots of other classes. Many of the guys didn’t have more than a 4th grade education coming in so they were taught and mentored. We helped them clean up their grammar and present themselves more respectably. The goal wasn’t that they assimilate into the white middle class world, but to show themselves and others that they had something to offer.
But while finding ways to feel of value–and to compensate for society’s lack of valuation–can be a strong motivational component for those who choose violent lives, it isn’t the only one. Tay says the desire for safety compelled him just as strongly toward a violent lifestyle:
When you live in an environment where violence is commonplace, it’s very alluring to have others around who can be depended on to always have your back. With the gang we didn’t have to face the streets—or the violence in prison—alone.
But he adds:
It felt like we were creating strength by joining together as a group, but I know now that by breaking into separate groups that opposed each other, we decreased our community’s strength. At the time, though, we didn’t see any other way to feel protected.
Surrounded by Violence – In the Community and at Home
Like most kids in Tay’s neighborhood, he was exposed to violence frequently and at a young age.
As a young child I heard about people I knew being killed, and people pretty close to me were killed, like the boy across the street who I sometimes played with. But I had my first, first-hand experience with a shooting at the age of about eight. My friend Booker and I were walking down the street and he got caught in the crossfire and was shot, but thankfully not killed. It was traumatic for me seeing my friend laid-out and bleeding and thinking that he might die.
At about this same age, Tay was walking toward the mall with his Aunt Gina when she was shot by her ex-husband in a drive-by and nearly killed. Tay had to leave her bleeding in the parking lot while he ran for help, wondering if she’d be dead by the time he returned. He says it was one of the worst days of his life.
Growing up with this kind of violence, where even a walk to the mall can be a life or death experience, can cause one to develop a very reasonable anxiety about safety. But it wasn’t violence in the neighborhood that most fueled the flames of Tay’s anxiety, it was violence at home.
Tay says he was raped and molested by his father from the age of seven until his mother (who didn’t know about the rape and abuse until Tay told her at the age of 25) left his father when Tay was nine. A couple years before his father began attacking him, his father (who Tay says had been a decent man and an involved father up until that point), began beating his mother.
Tay says of those beatings:
When I was five, the situation at home took a perplexing nose dive and my father declared war on his own family. He became a madman. He lost his job and spent his days drunk and on the couch until his agitation mounted and he began taking it out on my mom both physically and sexually. From behind the closed bedroom door I would hear the sound of flesh pounding flesh and my mom crying. Some days he would beat her so badly that she would beg him to “kill her and get it over with.” I would cry because I felt completely helpless to do anything to help her.
Research shows an undeniable link between poverty and sexual violence. According to a 2016 report by the Pennsylvania Coalition against Rape, low-income families are significantly more likely to have to contend with domestic violence, as poverty can act as a fuelling factor in this type of conflict.
But we don’t really need studies and experts to tell us this. Common sense tells us that neighborhoods rampant with residents awash in low self-worth, hopelessness, rage, depression and addiction would also be rampant with abuse and other violence. The pain and emotion has to go somewhere and with few or no constructive channels with which to express it, it’s to be expected that it will come out in destructive ways. Tay’s peers are also likely to have experienced violence on the streets and at home–meaning that there may have been few if any safe places for them.
And It Goes Much Deeper Than That
The cumulative effect of repeated exposure to violence (or even one violent event) can wreak havoc on the psychological wellbeing of children. According to the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, studies have found signs of PTSD in young children and even babies. Youth who have lived through an event that may have caused them or someone else to be killed or badly hurt are likely to be PTSD sufferers. Such events include sexual or physical abuse or other violent crimes, a friend or family member’s suicide, or simply seeing violence in the area they live.
Two of the four primary symptoms listed by the National Center for PTSD are particularly noticeable in the psyches and behaviors of shooters:
*Negative changes in beliefs and feelings. The way they think about themselves and others changes because of the trauma. They may not have positive or loving feelings toward other people and may stay away from relationships. They may think the world is completely dangerous, and no one can be trusted.
*Feeling keyed up (also called hyper arousal). They may be jittery, or always alert and on the lookout for danger. They might suddenly become angry or irritable. They might be hyper vigilant and want to have their backs to a wall in a restaurant or waiting room.
In Tay’s case, he doesn’t just feel hyper vigilant about his own wellbeing and safety; he’s also extremely anxious about the safety of those he cares about. He won’t sleep until he hears that a loved one has driven home safely after visiting him and, as much as he treasures visits, he asks that people don’t make the drive out to see him when it’s raining. He doesn’t rest easily when his loved ones travel, particularly by airplane, or when they explore new environments where they might be unfamiliar with the risks. Tay has learned that good situations can turn bad in a heartbeat and that good people (like his father) can turn bad without warning—and that loved ones can get hurt and even killed.
Tay is also constantly aware of his surroundings, and wary. When I visit him his eyes continuously scan the room, even as he’s listening intently or telling a story. He’s been doing this security checking most of his life and the vigilance is rote for him.
Other symptoms of exposure to violence or abuse include fear, worry, sadness, anger, and feeling alone or apart from others, feeling as if people are looking down on them, low self-worth, and not being able to trust others. Behaviors such as aggression, out-of-place sexual behavior, self-harm, and abuse of drugs or alcohol are also commonplace.
Tay’s story brings these symptoms and experiences to life:
Besides my grandma’s house, school was the only place I felt safe. I got sick to my stomach when I heard the bell at the end of the school day because I didn’t know what the day would bring and what state of mind my father would be in. Some days he was a monster and other days he acted like he gave a damn. I would come up with every possible reason to go to my grandma’s after school. Many days I would be told to go straight home and that there would be consequences if I didn’t, so most days there was no way of avoiding him. It was such a relief when I was able to go to my grandma’s house and stay until my mom got home from work.
I couldn’t tell grandma what was happening at home. I felt I couldn’t tell anyone. The best I could do was find a reason to go to grandma’s that day–and the next day and the next. Grandma’s house was my sanctuary from violence.
My grandma’s sanctuary was the neighborhood church and she took me there any Sunday that I wanted to go. I loved church, it was a place where everyone was kind and everyone was treated as family. I loved Sunday school, too. The pastor was one of the very few men in the world who I trusted and respected and his approval meant a lot to me.
Once a week my grandmother would cook a feast and I would help her load the food into the trunk of her Pinto station wagon and we’d drive to the derelict neighborhood park where the homeless people lived. Hungry men, women and sometimes children would already be lined up when we arrived, ready, not only for the best meal of the week, but sometimes the only meal. I felt proud of how much people liked her pies and proud to be part of something that made people smile. Grandma said that the way you could tell whether you were doing God’s work was if it made people smile.
I liked the idea of a God who liked to make people smile. I liked the God I was reading about in the New Testament; a loving god that kept his children safe from harm. I was taught that if I read the Bible, said my prayers, followed the golden rule and otherwise stayed on the good side of the Lord, I would be protected and cared for. I did all of this with dedication, believing that when I was good enough, God would deliver me and my mom from the hell that was my home life.
But that’s not quite how things turned out. One day I made my way to Grandma’s house and no one was home. When I got to my house my mom sat me down and through tears told me that Grandma had died. My mom was sobbing, but I was too angry to cry. I felt I had been lied to. I decided right then that there was no God. I preferred to believe that there was no God than acknowledge a God that would allow a little boy and his mother to suffer so much pain and humiliation–a God that would take away the one safe and bright place in my life. What little hope I had left about the world died that day. I shut off my heart.
From that point on I felt only distrust and hatred for the world. As far as I could see, the world was a horrific place, a jungle filled with predators and bad intentions–a place where I had to constantly keep myself protected. It would be two decades before I would even begin to trust again—and by then I had done a lot of damage.
Tay’s post-trauma coping mechanism was to reach for the empowerment and protection of a gun when circumstances replicated his childhood experience of being preyed upon, and when they triggered his feelings of helplessness. In juvenile detention and later prison, when Tay didn’t have access to a means with which to protect himself, he would attempt to kill himself (the first time at age 11 when he hung himself with a bed sheet). For Tay, death was preferable to reliving the extreme anxiety and helplessness of being preyed upon; suicide was a way for him to take control in a traumatic situation, to take action and choose his own destiny.
But it goes even deeper than that.
Dr. Jennifer Tolleson, a clinical social worker and faculty member of the Institute for Clinical Social Work in Chicago conducted in-depth interviews and analysis with five black teenage gang members doing time in juvenile prison–boys who were following the same trajectory that Tay once followed.
Dr. Tolleson found that because the violence that poor urban black youth experience is chronic and part of their landscape from birth, their relationship to violence is different than someone who goes from a relatively stable environment to a violent one, such as a war veteran. Their adaptations tend to become woven into the fabric of their personalities and modes of operation, until it seems that their coping mechanisms are not just coping mechanisms, but who they are. Says Dr. Tolleson, the violence “organizes their development from the beginning.”
In other words, what Tay and others in his community experience is not just standard PTSD.
I wasn’t afraid of dying. I took pride in my fearlessness and saw it as bravery and even valor. That’s how I saw myself back then and I was high on it. I had been so full of anxiety after the abuse by my father that not feeling afraid felt like freedom and the respect I got for my fearlessness fueled the high.
But today I see that a big part of the reason that I wasn’t afraid of dying was because the life I thought was possible for a guy like me, a black kid from the streets, didn’t look that great in the long run. It wasn’t just that respect and self-respect were so important to me; it was that life wasn’t so important. On top of that, I was carrying around a toxic fire of bottled up hurt, shame and rage inside of me and deep down the only way I could see to extinguish that fire was to extinguish myself.
Starting when I was just a kid, my plan was to die by pulling my guns in a police intervention so that they’d have to shoot me. What’s crazy is that I didn’t see this as planning my own suicide; I saw it as taking control of my destiny.
Those of us who joined life on the streets knew that we had a code to live by and that if we didn’t live by that code we would suffer the consequences, which was often death. A lot of people were killed when I was growing up. We didn’t see these deaths as murder or even as a disregard for human life, we saw them as capital punishment for codes that shouldn’t have been broken. In our minds we were honoring the rules and ethics of the street. We saw what we were doing as noble instead of destructive.
Do I see it differently now? A big part of me doesn’t want to because that would eat me up inside. But I can admit that most of us didn’t see much of a future for ourselves and we all had at least a little bit of a death wish. We had a greater respect for the codes of the street than we did for life because life didn’t seem to have much to offer us.
Dr. Tolleson found that youth who have endured chronic trauma adapt in a way that is designed to reduce the “intense terror, vulnerability and helplessness, which they see as their only psychological alternatives.” This adaptation often shows up as all-powerful character traits that help them feel they “have control over their universe.” In the case of shooters, the adaptation is violence, which for obvious reasons is noticed for its destruction, not its curative properties.
“I always had courage ’cause I was already dead when I was little,” said Kujo, one of the subjects in Dr. Tolleson’s study. A 17-year old member of a Chicago gang, Dr. Tolleson saw Kujo as “plagued by a sense of deadness, a psychic obliteration which he strove frantically, wildly, violently to rid himself of.” She says of Kujo and those like him, “Killing does not simply provide him with excitement…in the act of killing and watching his victims suffer and die, he brings to life [the experience of his very early childhood trauma] otherwise lost to him, banished from consciousness.”
Relating this to Tay’s case, when he shot and killed a predator who had been preying on him a the age of 14, it recreated the dynamics and emotions of the abuse from his father, only this time he was able to be the victor instead of the victim—powerful instead of powerless. The relief, release and empowerment of the experience was so overwhelming and, ironically, healing for Tay, that afterward he says he wanted to have a gun with him at all times.
Another symptom of repeated exposure to trauma is that the body creates its own elixir that acts similarly to morphine. It inhibits pain, reduces rage, decreases depression and paranoia, and tranquilizes extreme hyper-arousal, according to a 1994 Harvard Psychiatric Review. This self-created cure might seem effective on the surface but Dr. Tolleson points out that the numbness can make the person feel deadened, and motivate them to create new situations that provide enough stimulation to give them a sense of aliveness.
In Tay’s case, he says he has felt most alive when “outsmarting” cops or enemies–which has sometimes meant perpetrating violence on an enemy before it could perpetrate it on him. He says he felt “a heat and excitement in my belly” in these situations that felt good to him. He has put himself in situations (like gang membership and criminal life in general) where he would experience this “rush” regularly. It’s not a stretch to see how repeatedly putting himself in situations similar to those of his childhood traumas has provided him, not just with a sense of aliveness, but also with the chance to prove to himself, over and over again, that he has the skills to survive trauma.
Anger Feels Like the Only Acceptable Outlet
Compounding these issues is the fact that urban blacks are unlikely to talk about their problems or seek professional help for emotional trauma. Tay didn’t tell a soul about his father’s abuse until he divulged the story to his mom when he was 25–and by that time he was 11 years past a murder conviction and was an established shooter. Of his violent lifestyle, Tay says:
In the streets we were taught that to expose yourself as having been a victim of any circumstance was to expose a weakness that others would take advantage of, so I went out of my way to keep the abuse hidden.
North Richmond, California (photo courtesy Robert Rogers)
I understood that by pushing people away I was not giving myself the opportunity to get to the core of what was going on with me, but I didn’t feel like I had a choice. I held it all in and let it fester into something monstrous. I had a lot of emotions bottled up, but anger was the only emotion that was acceptable for a boy in my neighborhood, so I channeled all of it: grief, sadness, pain and hopelessness–into anger.
By the age of 13 I felt a hatred for the world so fierce and violent that it hurt to look into another person’s eyes. I began acting out and was so totally lost and unyielding to my mother and everyone else that all they could do was pray for my soul.
Why is it that youth like Tay believe they have to hold it all in and keep their victimization a secret?
Dr. Kimya N. Dennis, a sociologist and criminologist with Salem College in North Carolina, studies mental health, suicide and suicidal self-harm in African American populations. She discusses why victimization is such a point of secrecy for youth like Tay, and why they believe their victimization, if known, would lead to more victimization:
Contrary to popular belief, African Americans are extremely conservative and place heavy emphasis on morality and religion. Generally speaking, African Americans tend to attribute emotional issues as a side effect of a lack of faith.
The stigma around emotional trauma for African Americans, and the obstacles to seeking support, began with the patriarchal social structure in Africa that valued strength over emotion and a deep spirituality that was then reinforced when they were introduced to Christianity. To this day, emotional issues resulting from trauma are often viewed as occurring because of a lack of faith and not praying enough. Victims of rape and sexual assault are often blamed for having placed themselves in danger and it is not uncommon for them to be seen as having deserved the sexual assault because they are gay, weak, a “ho,” or were in some way living an “unrighteous life.”
Experiences associated with slavery significantly deepened the stigmas. In order to survive being taken away from their families, homes, cultures and languages, and to endure the traumas of slavery (and later, discrimination), people of African descent were encouraged and even forced to be strong and resilient rather than emotional.
Starting right at the gate, a lack of emotionality has been associated with strength. As a result many African Americans are taught to hide emotions and to express emotion only through anger and violence–through a display of invulnerability.
Dr. Dennis says that blacks also aren’t as likely to seek professional help for their emotional traumas because most mental health experts are not African American. It can be difficult for blacks to seek professional help when the health experts are not familiar with their culture or don’t have training in addressing cultural variations. She says many health experts can be unintentionally patronizing and condescending, creating obstacles to African Americans when they attempt to get help for their emotional and psychological issues or deterring them from seeking help in the first place. And being unable to talk about one’s emotional trauma or seek support allows emotions to fester, often into destructive and self-destructive behaviors.
Dr. Tolleson adds that violence by urban black youth is almost expected by many in society, and as a result they are usually channeled into the correctional system where, as Tay points out, “they become more traumatized and violent.” In contrast, Dr. Tolleson says violent white youth tend to receive therapy for the same levels of violence.
Reasons to Believe There is Hope
Homicides are on the decline in North Richmond and Richmond, and have been since 2010. When asked why, Rogers says:
The Las Deltas housing project was built in the early 1950s. It was comprised of 220 units that housed nearly 1,000 people, which is a third of North Richmond’s residents. Las Deltas was notoriously known for being underserved and having very poor conditions. When it was built they didn’t realize the impact of putting lots of poor people into very crowded conditions, nor the importance of incorporating elements that foster the healthy, community-oriented culture of black neighborhoods. This housing development spawned violence and gang warfare. It’s hard to estimate how many body bags this area produced over the decades.
The Las Deltas housing project in North Richmond (photo courtesy Robert Rogers)
They began depopulating Las Deltas in 2010. That same year homicides showed a marked decrease and have continued to decrease as Las Deltas’ residents have been relocated. Las Deltas is now almost completely empty. The residents were given housing vouchers so that everyone was ensured a new place to live.
Is it too much of a stretch to assume that having people see the residents of Las Deltas as worthy of nicer housing may have ignited a spark of self-value and hope that quelled some of the hopelessness and rage?
Another factor that likely contributes to Richmond and North Richmond’s decrease in homicides is that in 2007, Richmond opened the Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS), a program to prevent gun violence and stop shooters. The program collects information and analyzes public records to determine “the 50 people in Richmond most likely to shoot someone and be shot themselves.” It then offers selected individuals a spot in a program that includes a stipend to turn their lives around. Over an 18-month period, if the participants demonstrate better behavior, ONS offers them up to $1,000 a month in cash, plus opportunities to travel beyond Richmond.
Joe McCoy, the man who grew up in North Richmond at the same time as Tay, now works for the Office of Neighborhood Safety. Joe says:
I think every male friend I had took a try at crime. I was a drug dealer and arrested three times for drugs and once for murder as an adult. I never went to prison because I was never convicted, but I did about two and a half years in jail waiting for trials.
When I had my first son in 1991 I decided to go legal, but I backslid into hustling at times. I could make so much more money in the underworld than legitimately so when things were tight it was too tempting to go back to hustling.
I began surrounding myself with healthier people who were making a legit life for themselves. I opened my eyes to the rest of the world and saw that North Richmond was just a dot on the map –therefore there was a lot more possibility outside the neighborhood.
But having other people be proud of me, especially my mom, and being proud of myself has been my greatest motivator.
North Richmond native Joe McCoy now works for the Office of Neighborhood Safety.
As for Tay, he says his own rehabilitation came about, not through a prison correctional system, but through the love and positive regard of his former wife:
I met my wife Laura when I was in the County Jail for the case that I’m now serving time for. Laura was a clergywoman at the jail and we met when she was assigned to tell me that two of my nephews had been killed. She met with me frequently after that first meeting, in a counseling capacity, but when our relationship evolved past counselor-client to friendship, she quit her job and began visiting me weekly. We married after seven years of friendship and were married for 11. Now, more than 20 years after our first meeting, we are back to being close friends and she continues to visit me regularly.
Laura loved me when I thought it wasn’t possible for any person to love me–especially not a white, highly educated woman like her. I was willing to sit down and talk with Laura in the first place because she didn’t seem to be afraid or intimidated by me. Here I was, this thug in prison with tattoos all over my arms, teeth covered in metal and hair down to my waist–and I wasn’t making it easy for her—and she seemed completely comfortable. It seemed like she genuinely had an interest in talking to me. She let me be me and accepted me as I was. She helped me see the underlying good in me and the same underlying good in others.
With Laura I began to learn to trust again and I finally started to heal.
Tay, who over the course of his criminal career climbed eight levels of street gang hierarchy to achieve a leadership position, and who continued his criminal life well into prison, finally left the life eight years ago. He bowed out of the gang, promising not to divulge any of its secrets and was placed in a secure needs yard, which protects former gang members from the gangs that they left. He says that leaving the gang was the hardest thing he’s ever done and he grieved deeply. He lost his identity, his culture and way of life, the comrades with whom he had felt community and security, and his source of importance and meaning. He told me he missed the rush, which, using Dr. Tolleson’s findings, could be seen as missing the sense of aliveness, the empowerment, and the emotional outlet that he got from violence.
Tay says he felt “completely lost.” The loss was so devastating for him that he began a calculated slow suicide through methamphetamine usage, drugs that manage to flow freely into prisons. His use was interrupted when he was placed in administrative segregation after a new gang began threatening him.
Tay Ramey, today
Tay is now in his third year sewing garments fulltime for prisoners and has been promoted three times in that time. He attends classes and support groups and coaches the prison football and softball teams. He says:
I spent my whole life being destructive and now I want to be constructive in some way. I want to do something positive for the world.
Although he’s in prison serving a life sentence, Tay considers himself lucky to be alive, to still have the chance to create a life he can take true pride in, and to be the man he’d like to be. He’s now beginning the hefty work of self-forgiveness, for all those that he hurt. I think he’s lucky to have come out of the violence he’s endured, and the violence he has perpetrated, with his humanity and his heart intact.
What Can Be Done
Dr. Tolleson says, “It is of dire consequence that the workers who come into early contact with [shooters and budding shooters] recognize the traumatic maelstrom which underlies their behavior” –and see their “violence as an indicator of underlying trauma…To presume that their behavior can be altered through reason, punishment, or kindly forbearance, leaves out a multitude of considerations, including the compulsivity of trauma-driven violence.”
Dr. Tolleson believes that those in support roles with violent youth need to be aware that gang violence is “a culturally mediated adaptation to a specific set of psychological experiences.” To be of benefit to these youth, they need to look past their antagonistic posturing and ask them about the traumas they’ve endured and the violence they’ve perpetrated.
She maintains that the people who will be of help to violent youth are those who are not afraid of them, who stay calm and clear-headed in their midst and “gaze unflinchingly at the insidious transformations of mind which come from living a life endangered”—and I would add, who see the goodness and humanity under their defensive and violent veneers.
Laura’s lack of fear, clear-headedness and ability to see the humanity in Tay was what compelled him to open up to her–and she was ultimately the first person, besides his mother, whom he told about the abuse by his father.
Joe McCoy discusses the strategies utilized by Richmond’s program to prevent shooters from killing or being killed:
The most important thing for these kids is love from others and love for themselves. Most don’t have positive role models so we try to surround them with as many positive people as possible –people who believe in them and see their potential. We can’t get them into programs so we have to go out to them in the community.
We don’t push our beliefs on them. We let them get there themselves and once they believe differently they’ll act different. We have guys who were shooters who are now in college and working. Our main goal is just to keep them alive and if down the road they pick up other skills great, but we just try to keep them alive and keep them from killing others.
We take the kids who are doing well to other countries and introduce them to whole other worlds–Africa, Paris, Mexico. We take kids, who are groomed to do so, across the country to speak to foundations. Our staff is trusted by the kids on first contact because we have a reputation and history in the neighborhood. The kids know us and most know our stories too.
And finally, Tay shares his thoughts on what he believes will make a difference:
These kids need environments where they feel valued for who they are–and a place where they can make a difference, feel a sense of pride or stand out and shine. They need people who see the good that’s inside of them. They need a place where they feel so safe and understood that they can start to talk about their feelings instead of putting all of their emotions into rage. And they need something to feel hopeful about–a future that’s bright enough that they want to stick around in this life and put their energy into living it fully.
Kim Whiting can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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