By Sikivu Hutchinson
There are few accessible youth community centers in the over half-mile stretch where fifteen year-old Hannah Bell was killed in April 2018 in front of a South L.A. hamburger stand on Western and 78th Street. Out for a bite to eat, Bell and her mom, Samantha Mays, were engaging in a familiar weekend ritual that should have been one of ordinary, average mother-daughter togetherness. Instead, she became one of the scores of African American youth slain on Los Angeles streets with no leads on their killers. At a spring 2018 press conference and vigil organized to commemorate Hannah and call for the apprehension of her killer, her family and friends highlighted the irony of national focus on the Parkland, Florida mass shootings when gun violence disproportionately impacts working class African American communities. Bell’s brother commented that, “If we’re supposed to be this great ‘sanctuary state’ we need to make sure it’s a safe place for our kids.” Hannah had “great, positive role models. They were all headed to college, they were all learning. She was a great person.”
Nearly a year later, Bell’s murder remains unsolved, the City’s offer of a $50,000 reward for information on her killing is still in play, and the corner where she was slain bustles with “normal” activity.
It is not normal for a child to be killed at virtually point blank range on a busy street at nighttime. Hannah, like seven year-old Jazmine Barnes, whose recent murder in Houston, Texas elicited national outrage when it was reported that she was potentially targeted by a white killer, was more than likely killed by someone from the community. By a person who knew that targeting a black girl from the neighborhood would probably not elicit national attention.
A student at nearby LAUSD Santee High School, Hannah lived in an area that is notoriously bereft of safe, culturally responsive spaces for young people. Though violent homicides have purportedly declined in Los Angeles, Black women and girls remain disproportionately vulnerable to gun violence, intimate partner violence, and sexual violence in greater numbers. The nexus of these issues makes basic safety in school communities and neighborhoods a pressing Black feminist concern. Being deprived of the right to patronize local businesses safely is not an issue that white students have to contend with in L.A.’s Westside and Valley neighborhoods. This, and the constant specter of an early death, or sexual violence victimization, are not issues that define the mental health and wellness of white children. Yet, Black girls must navigate these traumas in their everyday lives while they are still expected to be high-functioning, mega-strong caregivers conditioned to meet the needs of others before themselves.
During a recent feminist of color mental health institute for Black and Latinx girls from three South L.A. high schools, students identified stress from caregiving, violence, and harassment (at school and online) as being the most pressing issues they confront on a daily basis. In intergenerational workshops with Shaunelle Curry, founder of Media Done Responsibly, and storyteller/poet Jaden Fields, they discussed self-care and community empowerment strategies, and explored the power of creative writing as healing and resistance, drawing upon Black lesbian poet Audre Lourde’s maxim about self-care as a political act. Fittingly, newly appointed Black female California Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris has identified preventing and addressing toxic stress among children as one of her highest priority agenda items. She notes that, far too often, “mental trauma is considered unrelated to medical care”. This perception only reinforces the systemic denial of mental health care to Black girls.
Bell was killed a stone’s throw away from where LAPD officers gunned down 18 year-old Carnell Snell in the Westmont community near Washington Prep High School in 2017. The corridor is still dominated by fast food joints, storefront churches, 99 cent stores, and beauty salons. Pushing back against the absence of culturally responsive spaces for youth of color in Los Angeles, the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) and other activist groups pressed for the passage of a Youth Reinvestment Act in the California Legislature. The 2019 Youth Reinvestment Grant fund provides $37.3 million to fund “diversion programs & community-based services for youth at risk of system involvement”. While the fund is a good start, it’s still a drop in the bucket, which is why the National Center for Youth Law is asking that the fund be boosted by another $100 million. It is precisely because of the lack of educational, job training and therapeutic facilities in communities like South L.A. that Black and Latinx youth are at “greater risk” for becoming victims of violence and system-involved. After a long battle with city and county government, YJC was recently victorious in its efforts to get an abandoned South L.A. jail facility converted to a new youth center for its community offices. But, in most neighborhoods of color, the lack of access to designated youth spaces, coupled with high rates of criminalization and police suppression, make Black girls especially vulnerable to street violence, sexual violence, and domestic and intimate partner violence.
Speaking on the tragedy of Hannah’s killing last year, Rashad Mays pleaded, “Imagine if it was your daughter that was taken. I’m asking the community to come forward and help us out.” We owe it to Hannah and all the other victims of “normalized” gun violence right here in our communities to make their lives visible.