Criminal Justice
 

Behind the crackle of guns in a violent city: a search for peace, a brush with death

 

Strong woke up to find himself stapled together and breathing through a tube.

Derrick Strong/ used by permission

Strong woke up stapled together and breathing through a tube. Repeated surgeries lay ahead.

It started off like any normal Tuesday. I woke up early on Nov. 1 and was at work by 10 a.m. I’m a well known peace advocate, rapper and community organizer, but for the past nine years, I’ve also been a certified carpenter working on houses blighted by Katrina and the flooding that followed.

The job that day was close to my parents’ house, so after work I passed by to get a good meal and wash up before heading out into the night.

I was scheduled to perform at a local poetry spot on St. Claude Avenue called Sweet Lorraine’s, so, to promote the event, I had been in touch all day with people who know me. I’m a member of the Icons for Peace, a group that advocates alternatives to street violence. I’m also a member of other local organizations, including the Who Dat Poets, Justice and Beyond, and The Collaborative. I record with Gorealla ENT, which I helped found.

I had a lot on my mind that night. On the way to Sweet Lorraine’s I had a talk with my ex-girlfriend, trying for closure for both of us. I wasn’t sure what I was going to say when I hit the microphone because I wasn’t focused. But my older brother, Neworleansown D. Strong, and Teaux, one of the brethren in a sacred order to which I belong, were already at Lorraine’s, and this put me in the right mindset quick. It was a birthday party for Altina Sims, the spoken-word artist, and I was the opening act. I did a heartfelt piece called “Livelihood” and a verse from a duo rap song called “Understand my Struggle.”

Afterwards, Shakespear, D. Strong, and a few other fellow artists joined me for a little picture-taking in front of the night club. That gave us a chance to talk about collaborating on ways to promote positive experiences like this one in other parts of the city. It was after midnight when we headed off in our separate ways.

Teaux lives on St. Roch, the street I take home to Gentilly, so we walked together for a while, then stopped under his carport to talk for a few minutes more. That’s when my phone rang, a friend of mine — I thought — wanting to know where we were at. No sooner did I hang up than I saw the caller out in the street and realized he had been following us, with more on his mind than a cigarette and a friendly chat.

The minute he saw me, he opened fire and I felt the sting of bullets melting into my flesh. The banging of the gun echoed under the carport, amplifying the sound as I was shot repeatedly: four times in my left leg, twice in my right leg, once in my right arm, once in the gut, once in my chest — nine shots all told.

My stomach, lung, bladder, intestines, rectum, back, right elbow, lower right leg, and the whole of my left leg were completely busted open. I fell to the ground and pretended to be dead, hoping not to get shot in my head. The gunman fired off another shot or two anyway — in my back, not in my head. Then I heard him run off.

Teaux had also hit the ground but was not shot. Now he jumped up and ran into the house for help. I got up, took two steps and stumbled. It felt like my left leg was disconnected from my body. I lay back down on the carport floor, trying to make sense of this attack. “Why? Why did he shoot me? What did I do him?”

Let me be honest. In my teenage years, I lived violently. I was shot at many times from just day-to-day living in New Orleans but never hit. I was convicted of felonies such as drug possession, arson and burglary of a religious building. I was in and out of jail because of countless warrants — but that was half a lifetime ago. These days, I have found a way to turn anger and rivalry into an ironclad grip on righteousness and justice.

Getting shot was like my past catching up with me — or with someone like I used to be. Maybe the shooter thought I was someone else, I said to myself, as I lay there on the carport floor. Or maybe he thought of me as competition. Maybe his jealousy had turned into resentment and hatred. You see that too often on the streets of New Orleans today, with guns everywhere, stupid turf rivalries and so much drugs.

There, at the edge of death, I reached an understanding about living.

Inside the house, I could hear Teaux’s family in a panic, trying to piece together what had happened.  “Where’s Sonny?!” someone shouted. “They Shot Sonny D!”

I called out and used what little strength I had left to beat on the side of his house: “I’m here, I’m right here. Come get me, pick me up off the ground, get me inside. I’m banged up and bleeding, them bitches shot me!”

The pain was incredible. I concentrated on my breathing — in through my nose, out through my mouth — to keep from going into shock. Then, thinking I would die anyway, I dug into my pocket, pulled out my phone and began texting anyone I could think of to let them know what had just happened. When I saw Teaux’s brother looking at me from the door, I yelled at him to pull me inside, but he refused, saying that I was in too bad of a shape to be moved. I have to say, I felt alone at that moment.

Then, I could hear his mother: “Oh, Lord, hold on Sonny; I called the ambulance, they on they way, don’t move, just stay still. You’re going to be OK if you stay still!” I was challenging myself to keep from blacking out when I heard sirens and then the paramedics talking about how to move me to the truck.

By now the pain and blood loss was pulling me into a trance-like state. In the back of the ambulance I felt relief, knowing I was on my way to the hospital. I didn’t know which one, but it felt like we hit every pothole in the city getting there.

The air from the oxygen mask was cold inside my collapsing lung and I began to fall asleep, waking up periodically to the lights shining on my face. When I heard the surgeons, doctors and nurses talking medicine I knew we had reached the hospital, University Medical Center, as it turned out.

That night I dreamed of a black sand desert. As I wandered through the sand storm, I was suddenly snatched up in the claws of the devil. It ripped my skin but instead of screaming, I just ground my teeth. I began to lose my breath, blacking out and waking up again and again.

Just as I felt my soul fading away, a lightning bolt struck the beast’s leg, breaking it, then hit me, filling body, mind and soul with strength and light. It gave me the spiritual power to grab the beast’s arm and break it, a blow that sent the monster screaming back into dark sands from which it had risen.

The lightning had become a being floating before me. I couldn’t look at it directly but knew it was looking at me. I had bowed in respect and gratitude for helping save my soul, when it touched my head.

I woke up in a jumble of tubes and stapled flesh. At first I had no memory of how I got to University Medical Center. Then the searing pain set in and I could remember everything. The surgeons came in to see their handiwork and told me what they had done to save my life. Shortly after that my family and friends were allowed into my room. Since then I have been through two leg surgeries, five stomach surgeries and will need 10 months of physical therapy. Four bullets are still inside me and three more surgeries lie ahead.

I know how great God is because I don’t believe in luck; I know that I’m here for a reason.

Being in the hospital and unable to move gave me time to think back over my life, how I helped so many people, how I hurt so many people. I wondered if moving past that and learning to live large — getting up there on life’s stage — had triggered resentment from someone still trapped in violence. Maybe I was overlooking the most valuable proverb: Leave a fool to his folly.

And then I thought to myself: You know what? I don’t care. I can’t help wanting to make a difference; I refuse not make a difference. I feel that through the arts, hearts can be changed towards peace instead of violence. By promoting peace, life, and self-sufficiency, lives will be changed and love will prevail.

Seeing the constant sorrowful stories of gun violence and injustice done on TV news points up a sad irony — that they never show our communities in a brighter light. Media likes to report the problems but not the solutions, the negative side of the neighborhood but not the positive things that go on every day. But I have been through too much already to ever abandon my path toward peace.

My violent youth was all about survival. Then I lost everything to Katrina and rebuilt my house. Despite all these tribulations, I know that I am not alone in my spiritual battles. The war we are waging is one that pits righteousness vs. wickedness. Waking up every morning is a blessing because the quest for peace, knowledge and understanding is so fulfilling. It’s also endless.

The NOPD is still working my case. The shooter has been arrested and charged with attempted murder.

I’m grateful for that, even though I really don’t like the police. That’s because they never seem do anything in the black community unless they’re responding to a shooting or busting someone for drugs. I feel that if police officers would engage the communities they serve with righteousness then they could do better at their job.

Black communities are at war with cops all over the country. This needs to stop, but it’s no mystery to me why that war is heating up.

I need to give thanks to the surgeons and staff at University Medical Center for putting me back together: Dr. Harriet, Dr. Mue, Anne Kelly Rhudy, Eamonn Mehaffey, Samantha Howard and all the rest.

Thanks also to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for their continuing prayers and support throughout this ordeal. Being baptized was the best decision I ever made. This was the first church I ever joined, because a lot of the churches I passed through seemed more like businesses than places of worship and prayer. This one is nothing like that. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has ordained me an Aaronic Priest as I deepen my faith through continuing study of the holy scriptures and words of wisdom.

Though I have not been a member long, I feel like my life has been blessed with divine intervention. Faith has kept me from losing hope, and it has granted me the grace to plant seeds of faith in others. I call it atonement of the Strong, a play on my name.

For the past two years, I have been working with the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office as a volunteer prison minister, and I plan to continue this work once I heal up. Till then I’m writing and composing music, working out and eating healthy, getting ready to get out of my wheelchair and walk again.

Meanwhile, I thank God for allowing me another day to bear witness to His greatness. To others who may still be living the violence I have survived, I say this: Go towards what is reality by following divine interventions in your life. Or as we say in the Icons for Peace: Go Realla or Go Home.

New Orleans resident Derrick “Sonny D” Strong is a rap artist and community organizer affiliated with Icons for Peace, a group that advocates for alternatives to violence. He will participate in an evening of poetry and rap, from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 27, at Sweet Lorraine’s.  

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