By Courtney Ham, LMSW
I wrote this piece when I was a Victim/Witness advocate working at the District Attorney’s office in New Orleans, LA. I no longer work there, but the work that happened during that time will forever leave an impression on me as a social worker and as a person.
i get these calls in the middle of the night, often
at the time that everyone is sleeping, except those keeping watch,
vigils at their windows, no one i work with knows how to sleep
anymore. these calls come and some reluctant investigator states,
we have a 30, i'll meet you at the office. it's a code, we all know
what it is, it means that someone has died violently, it means that
while i was sleeping someone took a gun to another person's head
and decided to end that person's life, in order to prove something,
the reasons vary and are locked up usually for the rest of their life,
prison takes on many forms.
i get these calls and i get out of bed, trying to get my brain
to assume the awake position, flipping a switch, pouring something
into my mouth, stepping into my clothes and i think only a few
things, where are my keys, where are my phones, and i get
into my car and drive.
at this point, i have seen more deceased bodies than i care
to count. i have looked for them in the street to make sure
i see what everyone else has seen. i can say, i was there
that night. i can say, i saw what you saw, to the families
that are heartbroken. the emotional moments come in waves,
as you would think, shock and disbelief, yelling, crying out
to God, and then the silence. i say what i can say,
i can say i'm sorry, i can say what's next, i can say
this is what will happen after someone has been arrested
for the crime of taking another life, a crime that has the most
consequences of any crime thus far. the absence of the loved one,
the person that cannot be replaced and the person that was stolen
from their family and friends. and us. and New Orleans.
i don't often know what else to say, and that's when
i become quiet. i hold hands, i say prayers, and i
take information and then i make plans.
i have seen more in New Orleans than i care
to ever tell anyone. i have seen more dark than
i want you to know about. the lights that shine through
are small, but always present. all i can tell you is that
i try to be that light.
when my phone rings in the middle of the night,
there's a power surge that happens in my brain.
i want to hear that the person is headed to the
hospital, and that all is not lost. i want to know
that the one action justified the next action,
but i'll never get these answers, and they have
to be silenced. in this system.
the silence is what perpetuates everything
this system and it's also the distance.
until you can know a family who has
lost a loved one to homicide, until you
can know a family who has a loved one
in jail accused of homicide, until you can
understand the intricacies of how much
it must truly hurt to see a loved one sit in cuffs,
stand up before a jury, speak the truth or
lie on the stand, until we can see both sides
of the system that we built, and how everyone is doing a life sentence.
until that happens, we are all silenced, we are all in the dark,
and the light that we shine just flickers in the wind, fed by our fears of
what happens if i get involved, what happens if i reach out,
what happens if i look and see the horror that is happening
on every corner. until we can truly understand the ripples of
the pain that takes place with every person who is killed to
gun violence in New Orleans, we aren't moving forward,
or pushing the numbers down or solving the issues.
i'm not sure we have the time to wait
for any miracles. i think the miracles are us.
Courtney Ham is currently practicing criminal justice social work in New Orleans, LA.