A bullet hole in a window. Photo by lalito/Shutterstock.com.

OPINION: Rainier Beach — A Beautiful, Safe Place to Live?

by Reagan Jackson

This fall marked my 10th anniversary of owning a house in Rainier Beach, making this the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere. This year, instead of hosting a celebratory gathering or painting another wall, I stood sobbing in my living room, trapped in a nightmare while my neighbor boarded up my window and hung a sheet of canvas to keep the glass from further falling into the house.

When I arrived home on the evening of Oct. 26, 2021, I knew something was wrong.

I noticed there was a hole in my new sheer curtains. The carpet, which I recently replaced, was crunchy with tiny shards of glass and the fine, white dust of fibers. 

What Makes a Hole in a Curtain?

I called a friend, the way I have learned to do when there is something scary I have to deal with alone — like a spider I have to trap and remove or squash if it gets too jumpy. I didn’t hear anything. There wasn’t a burglar. For the most part, things seemed as I’d left them, but there was a circular chunk missing from the marigold-yellow wall of my dining room. It should have been obvious, but my first thought was “What makes a hole that size in a curtain? An animal? A giant moth? Something with teeth?” It wasn’t until I pulled back the curtain and saw the window that I understood. There was no animal. This was a bullet hole. Two bullet holes.

Two bullets had come through my window, sliced through my curtains, and sailed over my couch and coffee table. One came in high, ricocheted off the ceiling leaving a scorch mark, and lodged inside the white molding of my living room wall. One came in at head level, piercing the walls I’d just had painted berry fizz. The bullet had hit so hard it knocked a chunk of plaster from the wall behind it, blowing white dust across the room. 

“I have to hang up,” I told my friend. “My house has been shot.” And then, “Oh, God, I’m going to have to call the police.” 

I don’t know which felt worse. My sanctuary had been violated, and in order to be made whole by insurance, I would need to invite the further violation of the police. It wasn’t until I was on the phone with the dispatcher explaining what had happened — for what would be the first of so many times — that it really hit me. I started to cry. “Was anyone injured?” the dispatcher asked me. “No,” I said, though it wasn’t true. This hurt me in ways I still can’t articulate.

An officer arrived promptly. He was polite, but he didn’t take off his shoes. There was glass and it was safer that way, but it still bothered me. The process was compassionately brief. We both took pictures to document the damage. He asked for duct tape and taped two silver crosses over the bullet holes like Band-Aids to keep the heat in. From the outside, they looked like small grave markers.

He gave me a card with his name and phone number and an incident report number. Another house down the street was hit too, but no one was injured. No one died. It could have been so much worse. 

When things are shitty, that’s what people tell you. “It could have been worse,” as if somehow that makes it better. The officer seemed very interested in the trajectory of the bullets and where the person would have been standing. Were they on foot, were they in a car? Did I see anything? Did I have any reason to suspect I was targeted? He asked if I wanted him to try to dig the bullets out. I asked if it would help him find who did it, and he said no and that he’d have to break open the wall even further, so I declined. My house took those bullets for me, and they remain in its bones.

I called my parents. It was too late to call my insurance company, but I composed an email with pictures and the incident number, and then I got out the vacuum and cleaned the carpets and the couch. I wiped down the coffee table and the windowsill and vacuumed again, thinking that in all the endless hours of Law & Order or whatever casually violent movies or TV shows I’ve watched, you never see anyone vacuuming. 

The Part They Don’t Show on TV

Calling insurance, explaining what happened. Calling contractors and glass companies, explaining what happened. Getting referred to an insurance adjuster. Explaining what happened. Realizing three days later your bookshelf is still covered in dust. Bursting into tears. Wiping everything down. Compulsively vacuuming again. Watching a spider crack develop between the two bullet holes as the rainstorms beat against the house. Wondering if the window will break. Scheduling an emergency therapy appointment, explaining what happened. Crying until you puke. Going to work like nothing happened, because you don’t want to have to explain what happened. Taking a day off of work, because each time you have to make a call, you have to factor in time to have an emotional breakdown. Calling more window companies, because COVID-19 has ruined our supply chain and most of the companies the insurance agent recommended have shut down or are scheduled out and can’t fit in your repair until March 2022. Realizing your urgency is no one else’s urgency. Staring every day at the holes in your beautifully curated walls and the crack growing larger in your window. Talking to your insurance agent and adjuster and backup adjuster again. You know them all by name and recognize their voices. Buying replacement curtains. Asking neighbors to come help hang replacement curtains, because you are too emotionally exhausted to do this alone. Explaining what happened. 

Declining multiple invitations to stay at your friends’ houses because you want to sleep in your own bed and have done the strange mental calculus of assessing safety as the number of walls between you and the front window. Asking a friend to go through the multiple phone calls and convoluted bureaucracy it takes to get a copy of the police report, which tells you only three useful things: the name and address of your neighbor who is at his house doing the same thing, the time of the shooting, and that no one was reported dead or injured. They don’t know who did it. They don’t know why. The term “ongoing investigation” seems nebulous. Call your friend who knows people who know people involved in gangs, start your own ongoing investigation. Receive no answers. 

Expect no accountability. Experience bouts of paralyzing rage. Thank God and whatever angels helped you to miss the shooting by 12 minutes. Wonder how much bulletproof glass costs. Get the wall patched. Watch it dry like a splat of oatmeal. Get everything repainted. Contemplate the duct tape crosses on your window and painting a mural around the bullet holes. Realize the crack has grown larger. 

Come home one day to find the window is all the way broken; a huge piece of glass has sliced through the curtains you just replaced, and it’s raining onto the new carpet you’re so precious about. Cry some more as a neighbor boards it up to keep the rain out. Realize your neighbor, who you initially thought of as a gentrifier, is now a friend. You can’t sleep in a house with no front window, with wind and rain playing the plywood like a drum. Find a place to stay. Wait for the repairs, which continue to be delayed. Wonder about actual justice, and know there is no point in holding your breath. What’s done is done. 

When the window finally gets replaced, I rearrange all the furniture so the couch is against the wall. I have to practice sitting in my own living room again five minutes at a time, like exposure therapy. 

The Things We Say and the Things We Don’t

Even after explaining what happened over and over, I don’t know how to talk about this with my friends. Some conversations have been nourishing and grounding; others have made me feel judged and victimized.

I feel sad, angry, exhausted, frustrated, and violated. There is a deep well of grief inside my heart at the loss of sanctuary. Unexpectedly, there is also shame. I didn’t do anything wrong, but when people ask me if I plan to move or want me to come stay with them, it makes me feel like I should be ashamed and afraid of this place where I chose to live. Anyone who knows me, and any stranger who has read my work over the years, knows I rep Rainier Beach hard. Something about this happening feels like a betrayal of that. Like I vouched for this community, and it didn’t live up to my ideals. I know this isn’t fair. Whoever was out shooting was not doing so on behalf of the community and probably wasn’t even in their right mind to be considering the collateral damage. It’s not logical, but it’s how I feel.

I find myself wondering if friends will now be afraid to come over for dinner. Should I be afraid to host them? Will they be safe? Will I? When will I feel at home in my home again? A few days after the shooting in Rainier Beach, there was a shooting in Northgate, and a man died. I wonder if anyone has decided that Northgate is a dangerous and bad place to live. I also wonder about the impact of the pandemic on people’s economic and mental stability and how that will color our access to safe neighborhoods. I don’t want this to be the thing that makes me give up on Rainier Beach. Does this one experience define my relationship to my neighborhood?

A Story of Home

This home has been my sanctuary. When days are hard, I come home and rest. I can cry or scream or be mad, and no one bothers me or tells me I am bothering them. I paint murals on the walls and cut roses from my yard for my table and take long baths in my beautiful deep tub. When days are good or there is something to celebrate, I light up the grill and host back porch lounge sessions. These walls hold so many memories: birthdays and slumber parties, podcast recording sessions, so much laughter, so much peace. 

Last year, I had wheelchair ramps built so my dad could come live with me. He stayed for several months, and I was so grateful to be able to share my home in this way. Thankfully, he moved to Portland a few months ago, because if he were still living with me, he would have been at home. I try not to think of what might have happened if he had been home during the shooting. There are some things insurance could never cover. Windows and walls can be fixed. But the reparation for a sanctuary, returning to a sense of normalcy after this kind of violation, is another process entirely.

On Fear and the Fallacy of Safety

I didn’t choose this neighborhood for its reputation of safety. I wanted to live around other BIPOC-identified folks, and, depending on who is telling the story, that can be seen as a dangerous proposition. 

When you come home to a house that’s been shot, it’s hard not to feel like safety is performative — a nice idea, but hard to execute with so many uncontrollable variables. Even before this, the concept of safety for me existed in a form of suspended disbelief. There are times when I might feel safe, but I rarely confuse that with actually being safe. How could I, when it’s common knowledge that bad things happen to people like me regardless of what neighborhood I’m in? 

Black women in America live some of the most toxic superlatives. We are most likely to experience rape, assault, violent crime, generational poverty, intimate partner violence, structural and systemic violence, and bias that leads to us being paid less on the dollar than everyone else and having inequitable access to housing, jobs, and basic social services. We are most likely to be under-medicated and disbelieved in medical situations (ask Serena Williams about that), to die in childbirth, to be disproportionately punished in school settings, to be routed into the school-to-prison pipeline, to have Adverse Childhood Experiences that result in negative health outcomes through the rest of our lives. 

The list is long. And it is worth acknowledging that there are many folks, such as trans and Indigenous people, experience parallel oppressions. I’m not here to play the oppression Olympics. No one wants to medal in that. I simply want to bring some awareness to the fact that often, conversations around “safety” seem tone-deaf and impossibly ridiculous in the face of my lived experience. 

I am making a choice not to fill this paragraph with numbers or statistics, though these things are all easily Google-able, along with the very public deaths of Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Charleena Lyles, and … you know the names, you know the stories. The numbers are not how I know I am vulnerable. I know I am vulnerable because I have the lived experience of harm. I exist in a community that holds a generational memory of lived experiences of a broad spectrum of ongoing, daily harm and trauma. 

The closest approximation I have to safety is an optimism that, though I will 100% experience harm, I might live beyond it to have other experiences too. And that I also have a generational legacy of resilience and of cultivating an unbothered stance. Black women make it look easy, but spoiler alert, it’s not. It’s expensive. Living in this country takes literal years off our lives and puts us in impossible situations regularly. There are some days where I will Michelle Obama and take the high road. There are some days where I will get knocked down and have to just lie there wallowing in rage and grief while I catch my breath. And there are some days where I’ve got my sword in one hand and my sage in the other — ready to do battle.

When my friends ask if I feel safe at home after this, I have to ask myself, “Did I ever?” I think a better question is, “Am I afraid?” And the answer is, “Sometimes,” but I face it and work through it, because that’s not how I want to live my life. 

Unpopular Opinion: Guns Create Gun Violence

Though I know how to clean, load, and shoot a gun, they don’t make me feel safer. I never want to be in a position to end up shooting and possibly killing someone. I don’t think I could survive the weight of that, even if it was in self-defense. People with guns are more likely to kill people. This is true with or without intention. NPR just put out a story about the rise in accidental shootings during the pandemic, while kids are quarantined at home with their gun-owning parents. Not everyone is equipped to handle the responsibility of gun ownership. We get it wrong when we focus more on maintaining our right to do something rather than focus on what we’re actually doing

The National Rifle Association has been having a juvenile, well-funded temper tantrum about this for years. Their game is to convince us that not having access to guns infringes on our rights, rather than admitting that such unrestricted access endangers our lives. As usual, death is more profitable than investing in new ways of living that might be beneficial to us all. But that doesn’t make it right. I would rather build a world where people would feel safe enough to go unarmed than to continue arming people who compromise everyone’s safety. Whoever shot my house had no right to put me in danger or damage my home, but they were given access because America cares more about money than it does about safety.

When I first moved to Rainier Beach, I attended several meetings of the Rainier Beach Action Coalition. The group was just in the beginning stages of drafting up a community vision for making Rainier Beach a beautiful and safe place for all. I loved this mission. I loved that there was a group of neighbors coming together to host the Back 2 School Bash, to distribute backpacks full of school supplies, to feed the community, and to actively disrupt danger by providing corner greeters. This was exactly the kind of community I wanted to participate in. 

My house getting shot has surfaced for me the ways in which I have normalized the inaccessibility of safety. That is something I am carrying with me everywhere I go. And it’s not healthy or fair or okay, and I don’t want to. I want to have a lived experience of safety in my body, in my home, in Rainier Beach, in Seattle, in this country. I have been in survival mode for so long that I’ve stopped dreaming into this possibility. 

It’s time to dream again. The window has been replaced, the walls patched and painted, but a deeper repair must also take place. It’s not enough to be unafraid. It’s time to stop normalizing and accepting the unacceptable. We can do better, for ourselves and our families, for Rainier Beach, for Seattle and beyond. If the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that it’s entirely possible for the whole world to change in the blink of an eye. When it’s important, we can move mountains. And this is vital. It is time to reimagine safety in a way that is radically inclusive. We’ve started the conversation about defunding the police, but what about defunding gun lobbies? What about teaching meditation in schools and shifting punitive practices to restorative ones? What can we be doing to cultivate a culture of connection and accountability that can lead to safety? We owe it to ourselves and to the next generation to create a framework where all communities can truly be called beautiful and safe. 

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

Reagan Jackson is an award-winning journalist, multi-genre writer, activist, artist, and international educator with an abiding love of justice, spirituality, and creating community. She is the co-executive director of Young Women Empowered and the co-founder of Blackout Healing. Find out more at www.reaganjackson.com.

📸 Featured Image: Photo by lalito/Shutterstock.com.

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