Torian’s Death, Trauma’s Effects, and What We Could Have Done

The Town is a violent place. The reaper prowls the “murder mile” and regularly camps in Deep East and West Oakland. And he touches too many Oakland families.  Not even city councilmembers are immune, as we were reminded when Torian Hughes, grandson to councilmember McElhaney, was laid to rest, after yet another seemingly senseless shooting.

The Chronicle ran a powerful piece that dug beneath the headlines, and what we see is a tragedy, or several tragedies.  The short story is simple.

Torian died on a bright, brittle Sunday afternoon. He and a 16-year-old friend had gone to a desolate stretch of Mandela Parkway to meet up with two acquaintances — a man police identified as 19-year-old Shiheim Johnson, and a 15-year-old whose name police withheld because he’s a minor. They had allegedly promised to sell Torian a gun.

Instead, the two pulled out guns and tried to rob Torian and his friend, according to court documents. When Torian resisted, the 15-year-old allegedly shot him.

He died from his injuries at Highland Hospital. His friend was not injured. Johnson and the 15-year-old were arrested in January and now face charges of murder, robbery and unlawful use of firearms.

The long story is much more complicated, and all too common.  Torian had lived in Oakland, hearing and seeing the gunfire symphonies.  He had experienced trauma, and was traumatized.  He was struggling with depression.

Torian had spells of fear and sadness, McElhaney said. In fifth grade, a counselor told McElhaney he appeared to be depressed. Although he began therapy, he remained haunted by past traumas and was never far away from crime and poverty.

and he was scared for his own safety and that of others.

Shortly before his death, Torian told his mother that he wanted to buy a gun. He’d been robbed several times, and the girl he was dating was a sex trafficking survivor who would occasionally run into her former pimp and panic, McElhaney said.

Put this all together and you have a young kid on a desolate stretch of Mandela Parkway, trying to buy a weapon for self-defense, from some other young men, both teens.  Something went wrong, and 3 lives are destroyed.  Maybe more when you throw in grieving families and friends, potential retaliation, or Torian’s friend who watched him get gunned down.  Trauma ripples and is born from tragedy.

We don’t know anything about the other young men really, but I will bet you that they will have similar stories, similar trauma, and likely similar mental health challenges.  Being born in the wrong place, at the wrong time, to the wrong parents, where you are faced with being a predator, fighting back, or being eaten.

The line between victim and victimizer is often a fine one, and the thread that connects them can go both ways.  I have written before about kids that have been victims of violence, those who were “victimizers” (though victims too), and the traumas that shaped their worlds.

The thing about trauma—whether it’s the accumulation of chronic stressors, or more from one or a few extreme events, is that it changes the way that you see and react to the world.  It literally changes your brain.  Our normal “fight or flight” mechanisms are on overdrive, fear is more prevalent, and traumatized people generally “feel” a heightened sense of danger, and have a harder time distinguishing “real” danger from “false” danger.  Wested has some great resources that look at trauma informed schools and the research and science behind best practices.

I don’t know what went through the 15-year olds mind when he shot Torian, it doesn’t seem to make sense.  Why kill some kid who you are in a financial transaction with and apparently leave a witness unharmed?

But that’s the thing about trauma, it changes the way we react, it makes us do things that don’t seem to make sense, we may “feel” threatened, or overreact.

Oakland is a very dangerous place.  Many of our kids have seen extreme things, or live lives that regularly expose them to things kids should not see or feel.  Many children suffer from trauma, we see them every day in schools, and every day not in schools.  Trauma is a disability and we should treat it as such.  We need trauma IEPs, and students should get resources and specific services to help them through this.

One final thing about trauma, it can be healed, and schools can identify and address it.  The very poison that seeds trauma; danger, unpredictability and broken relationships is its antidote; strong caring relationships, safety, and predictability.  There is an increasing body of research pointing us to solutions that we need to incorporate.

Oakland is a very dangerous place, particularly for children.  With each violent event rippling in the lives of young people who see and feel them, creating more trauma, which creates more fear, a real need to protect oneself, and more violence.

Schools are the starting point, we can heal these wounds, and create our own positive ripples, even if one less family has to bury a child or wave goodbye to them as they are buried under years and tears, it will be worth it.


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