I moved to Prince George’s County, Maryland, with my family when I was thirteen years old. Having spent all of my other years in Europe and Upper Michigan, both of which are geographically immune to the violent crime most US cities struggle with, I remember very clearly looking forward to living near the White House, which was just a quick jaunt across the county line into the District, and being so close to so many other things. Culture! Highways that lead to other big cities! Shopping malls! (Remember, I was thirteen.)
My first-ever outing into the city, just a few days after we’d arrived, started innocently enough at the National Zoo. It was a sunny summer day, humid and hot, as DC summers tend to be, and we were happily being tourists in our new hometown. My parents’ friend also drove us by the Washington Monument and explained to us how the DC Metro Transit lines worked. It was exciting to be living near such an important city, a place people took vacations to and not from.
When I learned of this move, sometime during my 7th grade year, my best friend had learned her family would be getting a new assignment, too. They were heading to Homestead Air Force Base in South Florida that summer. She felt pretty lucky. Though we would miss each other, she was equally excited that my family would be moving to the nation’s capital. I loved my friends and my simple teenage life in Upper Michigan, but Washington, DC? I felt pretty lucky.
Late in the afternoon, after our excursion to the National Zoo and a number of touristy drive-bys, the excitement over our good fortune ended at a red light near the DC city/PG county border with assault weapons and more police officers than I could count. It seems the vehicle stopped next to us in the right-hand lane, just outside my backseat window, was carrying a weapons cache so large that more police had to be called in. I watched intently for what seemed like an hour as the cops pulled the occupants out of the vehicle, scuffled with them, and eventually handcuffed them all. Then I stared on in disbelief as one officer pulled weapon after weapon after weapon from the vehicle’s trunk.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said my mom’s friend. “You get used to it around here.”
And I did. My excitement over our supposed good fortune to move to the DC area? BOOM. Gone.
I spent the next seven years having gotten “used to it” but always wishing I lived somewhere else. My father’s assignment at Andrews Air Force Base, in Prince George’s County, was ironically the longest assignment he’d ever had in his career. I finished up middle school in Southern Maryland and started at my gang-infested high school in 1990 just outside of Southeast DC which, at the time, was one of the most violent areas in the country. In fact, 20% of all murders in the state of Maryland occurred in PG County during the 1990s.
My best friend quit school and moved to Tennessee after a classmate pulled a gun on her. My high school was featured on CNN one day when gunshots were fired into a line of buses arranged in order for after-school pickup. My husband’s best friend was beaten to a bloody pulp after he inadvertently found himself involved in a gang fight for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A gang versus one single kid under the supervision of the school’s lackluster administration? He didn’t stand a chance.
Kids who’d just moved to the base would ask my friends and me, “What high school do you go to?”
We’d reply, “Crossland.”
“Oh, I’ll be going there, too. What’s it like there?”
Our best answer to this was always, “Have you ever seen the movie Lean on Me? Crossland is like that high school, but before it got cleaned up.”
Two students who graduated high school with me in 1994 were later charged and convicted of murdering an elderly gentleman after they stole his car and credit cards. His body was found in a ditch; his face blown off by a gunshot. A girl who graduated the year before me was murdered by her ex. She was abducted and driven to North Carolina in the trunk of a car, which was then taken to a field and set on fire.
Outside of school, other violent crimes took place. I listened one Christmas Eve as gunfire erupted nearby, uncomfortably close, and learned the next morning that a family less than a mile away had been murdered while the youngest child watched. He survived. Another afternoon I paid my car insurance bill at the nearby shopping mall where my agent was located. A few hours later, a brutal carjacking took place that was caught on camera and broadcast all over the country. I made one more trip to my agent’s office to pay my bill in full so that I’d never have to go there again.
But that’s just the way things are there. Or, at least, that’s how things were. My friends and I all jokingly refer to ourselves as survivors. Survivors of Prince George’s County. Those barbed-wire fences that surround the military base only protected us so much. Many times the violence from the outside seeped in. And, just as my parents’ friend said would happen, I just got used to it.
I think Prince George’s County made me lose a little of my compassion. When my daughter tells me about a fight she saw in the halls of her Oklahoma City middle school, I shrug my shoulders and say, “Eh. It happens.” When I hear of a teenager who has committed a horrible crime, I’m almost unaffected save for the urge to see this kid go to jail with no chance for parole. When I watch television coverage of a school shooting, I feel nothing. I’m never surprised by it. In fact, I’m only surprised that it doesn’t happen more often.
What made me think back on all of this was learning that Kevin Durant, who was just named MVP by the Oklahoma City Thunder and the NBA, was raised in Prince George’s County, too, in a town called Seat Pleasant. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the forced bussing laws and shutdown of many DC high schools led to a merging of middle-class families and inner city gangs. PG County used to be a good place to live and raise a family, until the uncontrolled violent crime of the District made its way in. Unfortunately, as is the way of American inequality, African-Americans tend to have to absorb the brunt of such stereotypes and criminal statistics.
Seat Pleasant, Kevin Durant’s hometown of roughly 4,500 people, is no exception. In 2013, there were 521 violent crimes reported to the local police. I suspect that in most towns with fewer than 5,000 residents that this rate of crime would cause some kind of public outrage. In Prince George’s County, however, the fact that you have a greater than 10% chance of being robbed, raped, or murdered is no big deal.
I mean, it could be worse. You could live in Bladensburg.
Prince George’s County is a fascinating study in racial tension and class inequality. Even as it continues to stump state officials with its high crime rates, the county was recently noted as being one of the richest counties in the country. It’s actually the richest county in the United States with a majority African-American population. I’m terribly interested in learning, if it has so much going for it (money, history, culture, etc.), why the county is such a disaster in terms of safety and local (mis)management.
I don’t know if Kevin Durant ever goes back to visit Prince George’s County, but I know I never will.
Kevin Durant grew up surrounded by the criminal elements that were statistically working against him and he still came out of it all in one piece. What blows my mind even more is that he left PG County and came to Oklahoma City with more compassion that I may ever be able to muster.
He never lost his compassion because of that damn place.
Congratulations to you, Kevin. You deserve it. You deserve it all.