How My Run In With Gun Violence Inspired Me To Make An Impact In My Community
It happened the summer before I started my senior year of high school.
I was on my way home after work, listening to music, when the gunmen approached me. They left me with the bullet that is still lodged in my head, robbed me of my possessions and then fled the scene.
I tried to stand – with eyes bloodied, somewhat conscious – and seek help. I eventually lost consciousness, but by the time I came to, I was staring down the barrel of another gun.
This time, it was held by a Baltimore police officer.
Because I fit some stereotypical description of an assailant, I wasn't a victim to the police... I was a suspect. A threat. I can still hear the hostile demands and obscenities barked at me.
I can still see the shine of their lights, reflecting off their badges, as I tried to make sense of what was happening.
As onlookers flocked to the scene, I could hear my family calling out to me, defending me to the officers and, ultimately, getting arrested for their efforts to vouch for me.
The fear of being killed in front of my family because of a grave misunderstanding pulsed through me like the blood leaking from my head.
How could this happen? What's broken between the police and the people they are sworn to protect and serve?
It took me 10 years to publicly share my story.
Out of fear that I would be defined by a moment of victimhood, rather than my many moments of triumph, I kept quiet. I've since realized my story needs to be told because it's not just my story.
This type of encounter with the police has become all too familiar and, in too many recent cases, has ended far more tragically than mine.
I refer to that night as the night I became "them" to the police because I was viewed so one-dimensionally, as an adversary, and treated as such.
I have since dedicated my life to expanding the dimensions of the relationship between a community and its police.
I work every day to find solutions that challenge a system that paints victims as perpetrators, community members as rebels and police officers as an occupying army.
From my personal experience to my professional training, I understand addressing community violence and police accountability is no quick fix.
To tackle these issues, I work to develop and advocate for solutions for the victims behind the gun, as well as in front of the gun. Such change would require institutional reform and community empowerment.
On the institutional end, I've been working with Generation Progress, a DC-based organization in which young people promote progressive solutions to pressing challenges and develop Millennial-focused recommendations for repairing our criminal justice system.
Most recently, our work resulted in the #Fighting4AFuture report, an overview of which solutions would best address the disproportionate impact the criminal justice system has on young people, and young people of color especially.
But my primary focus is community policing.
Police departments are at their best when they implement initiatives that foster relationships between officers and the communities they patrol, so that the dangerous distance between police and community narrows, and a mutual understanding forms a mutual respect. This is critical.
To make this happen, and to start empowering our community, I, Dejuan Patterson, teamed up with another young leader in Baltimore City, Lamontre Randall, to start a consulting group called The BeMore Group.
With the help of a local financial institution, we're providing financial literacy lessons to local kids and their parents.
We put on events, dubbed "BeMore Family," where we physically bring police officers and community members together, serve family-style dinner and provide access to resources, such as mental health consultations, legal clinics and giveaways from donations.
We advise foundations and government agencies to ensure young people's perspectives are considered, and our voices are heard.
We're working from the grassroots to the grasstops to address these systemic injustices that disproportionately affect young people, and to prevent violence stemming from a lack of understanding.
Building a sense of community is a crucial solution to the problems we're facing.
We understand we need everyone on the same page, and to understand where we're all coming from, if we're going to move forward.
Together, we can Be More.