Welcome to the City of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

As a result of our gun crisis, tens of thousands of Philadelphians might be suffering the same psychological trauma as people in Afghanistan and Rwanda. In a world like that, do two young boys stand a chance?

“How many of you,” Shawn Banks asks his class, “if a friend said, ‘Hey, I need you to take a walk with me to the store,’ would just roll out and go?”

Every boy raises his hand.

“You’d all just go, no questions asked?”




The boys keep their hands in the air, heads nodding.

“You wouldn’t say, ‘What do you need at the store?’ And ‘What do you need me for?’”

The kids are emphatic, shaking their heads no, firmly, without hesitation.
“Nah,” says Banks. “When a friend is a little mysterious like that, then you gotta start asking questions.”

The kids stare back at him, inscrutable.

“I lost a friend,” says Banks. “Because a guy he thought was his friend was in trouble. And he said, ‘I need you to roll out with me,’ and my friend went, just like you’re saying you would. But listen to me: You don’t owe anyone your life.”

 

It was the afternoon of this past Memorial Day, and Antwan Pack was napping. He’d been pulling double shifts, picking up hours from people calling in sick. And he was going to get some rest. But a friend, Jahid, one of the boys he’d been running with for years, arrived and woke him.

“I need you to roll out with me,” he said.

Antwan hadn’t been hanging around Jahid so much since the shooting, but this was different. No one knows exactly what Antwan thought when Jahid showed up, but friends say he was essentially being asked to man up. And by the rules he had grown up with, he likely didn’t perceive himself as having any choice in the matter at all.

They set out on foot a few minutes later from the 800 block of Uber, where they’d dropped off a dirt bike with some neighbors. Then Jahid led Antwan north. Before they could even get beyond Poplar, however, they were confronted.

Two teenagers blocked their path, supposedly carrying on some beef with Jahid. Antwan must have understood, at this point, precisely why Jahid had asked for his company. The story that made it back to his mother is that he tried to forge a peaceful way out. “C’mon, it’s not even worth it,” he said, dragging Jahid away with one hand and pushing the younger boy back with the other.

A security camera soon caught a video of two boys—Melva thinks Jahid and Antwan—walking to the 1700 block of Ridge Avenue, moving easy, like whatever happened is firmly behind them. Then they disappear around a corner, out of the camera’s view.

A few seconds later, bystanders in the video turn, staring expectantly in the direction the pair has traveled. Then something happens. They stiffen, craning their necks like antelope suddenly catching signs of danger at a watering hole—and they run, scattering in every direction.

Melva Pack got to the hospital as fast as she could. The first doctor she saw told her the good news: Antwan’s heart was pumping strong. The worst was over. She felt a relief it’s hard to understand—her son spared, twice, from the price of his loyalty to his friends. But then time passed. Long minutes. No one emerged to tell her she could come see Antwan, could kiss him on the cheek.

After an hour, a second doctor came out to see her. He asked Melva Pack to sit down. And the next thing she knew, she was being helped up off the floor.

Antwan Pack’s funeral drew hundreds of mourners. The staff of the Hopkins Center was so broken up, management gave them paid time to attend. But when it was over, the life of the center had to continue. Aqullia Thomas returned to work.

She started by catching up on her voicemail. She sat down, picked up the receiver, and set her messages playing. The first was from several days before, on Memorial Day, time-stamped 1:59 p.m.

The voice registered, suddenly yet slowly, and for a moment Aqullia Thomas couldn’t believe it: She was really hearing Antwan. “I was just calling to tell you,” he said, “I really love my job.”

 

There’s a solution available—a remedy that might change this city’s funereal culture. But when entire neighborhoods become toxic, the medicine has to be vast in scope. “You really only have two choices,” says Drexel’s Sandra Bloom. “You can remove the person from the environment, or you can change the environment itself.”

So, says Bloom, individual treatment can be helpful, including both talk therapy and pharmaceutical interventions. But big cities like Philadelphia, with large neighborhoods subjected to decades of violence, need to think in broader, more dramatic terms. “To treat large populations and cause a cultural shift,” she says, “we need to look at the kinds of group treatments”—including group therapy sessions and a wide mobilization of mental health resources—“that have been employed in war-torn places like Rwanda and Bosnia.”

Upon first reading, this seems an outrageous statement. In 1994, Rwandans suffered 800,000 deaths in 100 days. But Bloom’s point isn’t that the horror visited upon Rwandans and the murder and injury rates in Philadelphia are statistically equal. Her point is that they are shared experiences of protracted violence that have shaped the way entire communities think and live.

 

Seven blocks away from where Melva Pack sat, grieving, Joseph’s mother, Diana, had been saving her money—$550, enough for a one-way ticket.

When she bought it one day in June, she sat Joseph down and told him. And just like she figured, he didn’t believe her. So she showed it to him:

U.S. Airways
Flight 1061
Depart: 9:45 a.m., Philadelphia
Arrive: 1:37 p.m., Santo Domingo,
Dominican Republic

“You’re leaving in three days,” she told him.

“If you want me gone so bad,” he replied, icily, “you can send me away today.”

But Diana was too concerned for her son’s well-being to be moved by his anger. If she could enroll him in a boarding school or move him to a safer neighborhood, she’d bring him back right away. But the streets of Philadelphia seemed far more dangerous to her than living in the Dominican, where the boy’s father had opened a barbershop in the countryside. He described the violence as better controlled, less random and all-encompassing than in Philadelphia. And that was that. Joseph was leaving.

The following days passed strangely. Sometimes Joseph seemed excited about seeing his father. Sometimes he seemed scared at leaving all he’d known. “I’m going a long way away,” he’d say. But when Saturday morning arrived, he acted cool.

He dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt, the neighborhood uniform, topped by a Nike zip-up jacket with black kicks. He rode shotgun to the airport, fiddling with the radio while his mom drove. “I ain’t gonna hear music like this for a long time,” he said, trying to find every hip-hop song on the dial.

Even at the airport, he remained mostly silent. He ate the breakfast his mother bought for him—egg-and-cheese and a carton of orange juice. And a little after 9 a.m., his flight was called.

His mother’s face was already wet with tears by the time they exchanged I love you’s. But he kept his composure, even as they embraced. He always needed to act so brave.

It was only after he crossed to the other side of the gate, when he looked back over the thin nylon strap that separated him from his mother, that Joseph Garcia—a child, making his escape from Philadelphia—finally started to cry.

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