daily californian logo

BERKELEY'S NEWS • FEBRUARY 02, 2023

Ring in the New Year with our 2023 New Year's Special Issue!

A luxury we cannot afford

article image

SUPPORT OUR NONPROFIT NEWSROOM

We're an independent student-run newspaper, and need your support to maintain our coverage.

|

Staff

OCTOBER 18, 2022

Trigger warning: gun violence, violent crime

“This is a follow up to the 1:35 a.m. Saturday WarnMe about the incident near Durant and Telegraph Avenues: Four individuals were shot and taken to a local hospital. One has since died. According to the City of Berkeley Police Department, no one involved in the incident is a UC Berkeley student.”

On Oct. 9, 2022, I sat in bed at 9 a.m. with my hair unbrushed and my face unwashed, revising an editor’s note with two members of upper management so that it acknowledged the shooting of four people on Telegraph and Durant avenues the night before.

We cut a piece from the issue that would have constituted a potential trigger and published everything else.

I thought little else of it until, the following Monday, I was notified by the newspaper that the note was being taken down. A number of people had reached out pointing out that it seemed insensitive to link the shooting to the department issue.

I said I would follow up with a Slack message later in the day, got off the phone and shuffled into the kitchen, where my housemate was cooking herself lunch.

“I can’t do this anymore,” I told her.

Though somewhat bewildered, she offered me a hug and, for the first time that weekend, I cried.

“AVOID THE AREA of Telegraph and Durant until further notice 10-08-2022 01:35:34.”

On Oct. 9, 2022, I forced myself awake at 9 a.m. to prepare my department issue for publication despite having only gone to bed, shaking, six hours before.

When the shooting occurred, I’d been standing outside IB’s, dancing to Ylvis’ “What Does The Fox Say?” playing from a stranger’s portable speaker. My housemate had just come back from the counter to tell me that her order had been delayed. Mere moments after the strangers had walked away and up Durant Avenue, I heard the rapid fire of an automatic weapon, the screeching of car tires, my housemate telling me to get down.

I don’t remember how I went from standing to not. I felt myself coil as tightly around my own body as possible as I peered around the side of a white pickup truck, watching a car careen past me. Then I was pulled into IB’s, where I was pressed, still crouching, against strangers who looked exactly like me — young, dressed for a Friday night and absolutely terrified. 

“Close the doors,” people were yelling.

“Stay down. I’ve been through this before,” said a boy in a denim jacket as he peered cautiously out onto the street.

I didn’t fully understand what had happened until I saw the ambulances.

“On 10-07-2022 01:54:00, a robbery occurred at 2400 block of Durant Ave in front of Blackwell Hall.”

My housemate was completely unbothered.

Leaving the apartment with her the next day, I tensed at the pop of a car tire puncturing; she hardly noticed. Sitting with me at brunch, her water bottle tipped over and clattered. I jumped in my seat. Unflinching, she set it back upright.

While she carried on with her weekend, I found myself trapped in a hazy middling state. I sat with her in cafés staring at blank word documents and walked right into traffic on one occasion, not realizing the pedestrian light had turned red. I was haunted by the sound of gunfire and the clamor of the people around me as they sought shelter.

“At least I didn’t see it happen,” I told myself one too many times. “At least I didn’t see the shots get fired.”

Over a comfort food dinner of popcorn chicken and dumplings, I confessed feeling left behind. She said that she had just been through episodes like these too many times to be bogged down by them.

“Experiencing this with somebody who isn’t used to it has actually made me stop and think about it a little bit more,” she said. “That was really bad.”

“On 09-29-2022 23:45:00, an aggravated assault occurred at Bancroft Way at Ellsworth St.”

On a phone call to some friends I made after hearing from management about the editor’s note, one of them pointed out that, perhaps, I had felt the need to include the note because the Weekender was such a big part of my life that I couldn’t detach my personal experience from the issue I was publishing. She pointed out that violence like Friday night’s happens every week, and the Weekender’s sudden mention of it might have created some of the controversy around the editor’s note I had published. 

“My friend was robbed with an AR-15 the week before,” she confessed.

Sitting outside the Physics Building with my eyes finally drying, it occurred to me that — while I do value my department — it was not the Weekender I was too personally attached to, but the shooting itself. This was the first brush I’d ever personally had with gun violence; not seven hours later, it was, inevitably, at the forefront of my mind — and something that I felt the need, as editor, to address — if only because I had been there.

But the truth is that she was right. Violence like this happens all the time. It is, at this point, hardly news to anyone; it hardly gets the attention it should. Having lived in Berkeley for a year, I am realizing now that I have become a part of the problem. Somewhere along the way, WarnMes about stabbings or armed robberies stopped fazing me, becoming mere suggestions to take the long way back to my apartment.

These days, it takes the sound of gunfire in my ear and having to crouch behind a pickup truck, watching the getaway car drive by, for me to think an act of violence in the city of Berkeley is relevant — or damaging enough — for the Weekender to acknowledge.

Having finally cried the tears I needed to shed, I felt the fog in my head begin to clear.

I don’t want to be a part of the problem anymore.

“On 09-29-2022 21:22:00, an aggravated assault occurred at Lower Sproul Plaza.”

The other friend I had on the phone went on to ask, “If something else happens next week, are you going to acknowledge it too?”

This was likely a rhetorical question, but I found myself searching for an answer. My first instinct was “no, we can’t do this every week,” but perhaps it should not be. Why should the growing frequency of violent crime make each new incident less important? Why should every life lost make every next one seem less valuable? In a developed country and a mature democracy, why should any of this be normal?

Why should violence only be noteworthy when it happens 200 feet away from you? How have we, collectively, become so numb to the violence we live in the midst of?

The amount of violence in the news started a process of desensitization long ago. This is not a question of indifference or cold-bloodedness, but one of survival: To protect us from events we are not equipped to handle, our nervous systems literally stop processing them, allowing us to shut out the grief and trauma of the violence we continue to witness and hear about every day. Though we do not yet fully understand the cognitive processes through which this occurs, studies have suggested that exposure to traumatic stress can physically change the shape of our brains.

As we are inundated with more and more news of violence, we become more and more numb to it. Unfortunately, this also means that this violence becomes normalized — it becomes something we accept and move on from to be able to live functional lives.

“On 09-15-2022 13:30:00, a sexual battery occurred at 2650 Haste Unit #2 Cunningham.”

My country’s founding prime minister, the late — and controversial — Lee Kuan Yew, once called poetry “a luxury we cannot afford.” As Singaporean society has developed and its literary scene has grown, this has become a refrain many writers refer to. Many have realized that poetry, along with art more broadly, is not a luxury we cannot afford, but a necessity we cannot afford to lose. It is what makes the spirit of a nation.

In the same way, conversations about trauma cannot become something we cannot afford. These conversations, while upsetting, are necessary. Without them, the atrocities around us become not just real, but normal. In silence, we sink into submission. Discourse and its ability to shape society are what makes America’s spirit as a nation all that it is. The power of speaking is what makes the United States great.

“On 09-19-2022 08:45:00, a hate crime – aggravated assault was reported to have occurred at the Intersection of Durant Ave and Ellsworth St, Berkeley.”

Yet, we find ourselves in a situation where most school shootings don’t make it onto national news or into national conversations anymore. We find ourselves ignoring issues we don’t think we can solve as individuals. We find ourselves moving on from murder committed just a block from campus because it’s the only way to carry on. In doing so, we find our progress slowed, stalled and maybe set back.

The nature of the news cycle often leads to stories falling off audiences’ radars once they are no longer new. The war in Ukraine rages on, but it is no longer on many front pages or Instagram stories. When problems drag on for long enough, we manage to forget that they exist, and that means that they never go away.

“On 08-21-2022 07:45:00, a hate crime – aggravated assault was reported to have occurred at People’s Park Housing Construction Site.”

So my answer to my friend is yes, as a department that writes about what it means to be a person, alive and breathing, we should acknowledge it every time someone has had to fear that they will no longer be, and we should certainly acknowledge it every time someone has ceased to be.

This essay has laid out every WarnMe message sent over the course of the semester up to that Friday night. Every one of these cases is worth acknowledging. Instead of seeing an email or a number or a news story, see the fear in a person’s eyes. See the hurt that was caused. See the trauma that victims have to live through, again and again and again.

See it, speak it out loud, and demand the change that this city — this community — deserves.

Lee Xuan is the Weekender editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @8leexuan8.
LAST UPDATED

OCTOBER 18, 2022