Growing up in my predominantly black and Latino town of Uniondale on Long Island, “the outdoors” was never about being healthy. One of my clearest childhood memories involves a group of girls beating me up at a park because they confused me for someone else. As a teenager, parks were where kids went to shoot hoops and buy drugs.
Even sitting outside for some fresh air felt dangerous. My brother, who was involved in gangs, was shot in a drive-by shooting in a neighboring town when I was in middle school. He survived with a long, nasty scar on his right arm, but the event took its toll on our family. For a long time, I was afraid his enemies would want to hurt me, too.
The trauma of gang and gun violence is something communities of color know all too well. It poisons their environments—like the air and water pollution that also affect these communities more than others. A study in 2008 found that a group of largely Hispanic fifth graders in Summit, Colorado, were quick to point to gang violence as an environmental concern—so much that they avoided the parks near their homes. Flint, Michigan, a city that became a household name for its lead-contamination crisis, is also notorious for its crime.
Now, a growing number of experts are starting to catch up with these communities. From academia to activism, more and more people are recognizing that gang violence is an environmental health issue and should be treated like one.
“We’re finally at a place where the science is catching up with the anecdotal information that we’ve had for years,” Mustafa Santiago Ali, the senior vice president of climate justice at the Hip Hop Caucus, told me.
Environmental degradation tends to conjure images of melting glaciers or logged rainforests. Perhaps even a child suffering from asthma exacerbated by air pollution. Guns and gangs, though? Not really.
That’s in part because, historically, the environmental movement has been led by the white and affluent. Early 20th-century environmentalism is peppered with examples of wealthy white men campaigning to save wildlife and lands, but not so much working to allay the suffering of the disadvantaged (to the contrary, the environmental movement’s history is fraught with racism).
While environmentalism is still way too white, it’s more diverse than it used to be, and a lot of today’s work does revolve around people who bear an unfair burden of pollution in all its forms. Among smaller community-led groups that focus on environmental justice, that includes gang violence.
These groups recognize that both “traditional” environmental injustices like a Superfund site that’s harming a low-income neighborhood, and gang violence, stem from a long history of segregation, disinvestment, and neglect within communities of color. They recognize that crime and toxic industry compound each other to poison youth and their communities, literally.
Just last year, researchers at the University of Southern California published a study suggesting a link between exposure to particulate matter in air pollution and bad behavior among 9- to 18-year-olds, whose brains are still developing. The parents of Los Angeles youth who were more exposed to air pollution from 2000 and 2015 also reported more bad behavior among their children, including lying, stealing, and vandalism. Other studies have found links between lead exposure in childhood and violent crime later in life.
Julie Sze, an American Studies professor at the University of California at Davis who’s researched the intersection of police brutality and the environment, characterizes many of the community challenges arising from pollution as “slow violence.”
“You don’t see it. It’s not catastrophic like a hurricane, and so that’s slow violence,” Sze told me. “That’s like the asthma, and it’s just chronic. People expect it to be there.”
Then there’s fast violence, like police brutality or gangs. “You have to think about violence in both of those ways,” Sze continued.
“Our communities are really in a constant state of stress,” said Ali, who before joining the Hip Hop Caucus used to head the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice department. “And because of that, it creates an opportunity for young people to end up moving into gangs or looking for a safe place, a place where they feel that people understand them and get them. And it all goes back to the lack of investment in our communities.”
If the big players in the environmental movement took on the issue of gang violence, environmentalism could accomplish far more in terms of cleaning up communities. “The idea that some lives are worth protecting and others are not is kind of the core issue of environmental justice,” Sze said.
Local environmental justice groups have already shown that gang violence and pollution can be tackled together. In the heavily Latinx Chicago neighborhood of Little Village, activists felt their community deserved a cleaner environment—one free from pollution and gang violence. And so after the federal cleanup of a major Superfund site ended in 2012, they demanded the city of Chicago invest in a park atop its former grounds. The $19 million La Villita Park opened in 2014.
Equipped with soccer fields, basketball courts, a skate park, and baseball fields, the park doesn’t only encourage kids to go outside and play. It’s become a safe space where violent crime is a rarity—a stark contrast to the extreme violence that’s become so normal for many Chicago youth. It’s a prized possession for the community.
The way Ali sees it, environmental justice is all about raising hope and expectations so that those inside and outside disenfranchised communities expect more and demand more. It’s about making all forms of pollution unacceptable.
The gang responsible for shooting my brother was MS-13—the same gang President Donald Trump has notoriously described as “animals” and is using to justify his border wall proposal. Unlike our president, I empathize with people who end up in gangs (even MS-13). And I know no wall will remedy the systemic problem of gang violence. Like air or water pollution, this problem cannot be contained by physical barriers. All a wall will do is destroy the delicate ecosystems that span the Mexico-U.S. border and further divide the nation into “them” and “us.”
The best way to rid a place of gang violence is to clean it up. Kick out the polluting industries that inflict violence on communities slowly. Invest in the youth so that they don’t turn to crime. Build green spaces that residents can be proud of, where kids can frolic worry-free.
With some trees and a dream, children can exhale their toxic thoughts around gang idolization and inhale the clean air their community fought for. A breath of fresh air might be all they need to succeed.