By Author's name withheld
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Illustration by Brian Lopez-Santos, 19

* We are not publishing the writer’s name to protect her privacy.

Growing up in Compton was frightening, with the sounds of police sirens, helicopters and gangbangers’ gunshots ringing in my ears every day.

I really became aware of the dangers in parts of Compton during middle school. Occasionally I’d see a few gang members beating each other up in the streets during the day. I wasn’t allowed outside at night so I didn’t know what went on. But if it was that bad during the day, I was sure it was worse at night. And then there was the gas station where people bought drugs all the time. Whenever we drove by the gas station, I would constantly see people going up to this one guy and giving him money in exchange for small black bags. I always wondered where the cops were.

I noticed that almost every night when I was going to sleep I would hear police helicopters flying around in circles above our neighborhood. It was really loud and the bright searchlight would blind me as it shined through my window. The light and the sound made it impossible to sleep. I would close the window and put a pillow over my ears but it would be no use.

For the first year that this happened I was afraid when I’d hear the helicopters. I’d tell my younger sister not to look outside the windows, because if there was someone out there, I didn’t want them to see her. The lights were really close so whoever the police were looking for must have been pretty close as well. I was afraid that someone with a weapon could come into the house and kill us. I was afraid that the helicopter would run out of gas because of all the flying it did and it would crash down into my room. I was afraid to even be at home.

Eventually, I got used to it, and it didn’t scare me anymore. It was mostly frustrating because it was so loud.

The way I saw things, the police couldn’t really help anyway. There would always be streets to avoid because of drug dealers and gangs. If the police arrest 100 gang members in Compton, there would still probably be hundreds more out there. Violence can’t be erased.

By the time I got to eighth grade my family and I wanted to move far away. I had a dream of my family moving to the small town of Walla Walla, Washington, where my mom’s sister lives. She would always tell us that it’s  quiet and everybody knows each other. And she never told stories involving gunshots. I was jealous that she lived in such a peaceful place.

One night while my family was watching TV in the living room we heard shots. Suddenly, something burst through our living room window. We threw ourselves on the floor and heard the tires squealing as the shooters sped away. While we were on the floor we noticed that it was just a BB and not a bullet. It might have only been a BB but it still put a hole in the window. We stayed on the floor for about 10 minutes.

We couldn’t afford to move

My mom was furious and said that moving was our only option. I was relieved; we were no longer going to live in fear in our own house. But as my mom and dad talked more that night they realized that we couldn’t move because we had a loan on the house and if we sold it we wouldn’t get enough money back to buy a new house somewhere else. I was so angry. I wished we weren’t trapped in the house.

Also in eighth grade, my parents told me that I wasn’t allowed to go out with my friends at night, even on weekends. They thought it was too dangerous. I was angry, but didn’t really protest because I knew Compton wasn’t safe. I wasn’t the only one either. There were a few of my friends whose parents also wouldn’t allow them to go out at night.

When my school friends would tell me about all the fun they had going to movies or hanging out at each other’s houses, I would ask my mom to let me out for just one night. But she never did. Usually I ended up watching television and playing with my 5-year-old sister. It felt unfair, but in our neighborhood we expected the worst things to happen. My friends who could go out said that I should try to sneak out. They also offered to call my mom to try to convince her to let me out for one night. I told them no, because she would have said no anyway.

I started wondering where the cops were. If they were visibly guarding the streets then maybe I would be able to go out with my friends because it would be safer. I felt like they were ignoring Compton, which made me like them even less. Most people I knew, including me, felt like the cops harassed us. If they had time to pull people over for no reason then they should at least have time to help the community. The cops saw that Compton was tagged and filled with gangs and drug dealers. Why weren’t they on every corner trying to capture people behind the violence?

I hated the gangs—who were to blame for the shootings, tagging and drug dealing—because they were the reason my family lived in fear. And in school there would be constant fights between rival gangs, often black gangs versus Mexican gangs. My brother, who is now 20, was a freshman when the biggest racial fight broke out. He told me that most of the students in the school fought. It was even on the TV news. My brother came home early because he didn’t want to be part of the fight.

Gunshots woke us up

One night in November 2007, around three in the morning we were all asleep when gunshots just outside my brother’s window woke us up. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. A three-second pause. And then an eighth, which seemed to have came from a shotgun because the sound from that shot was louder. Right after the shots were fired we heard a man crying out for help. Most of my neighbors woke up to the sounds. We saw someone lying on the ground in a pool of his blood with his bicycle a couple of inches away. It was terrifying.

The police came in less than 10 minutes. There were about five patrol cars and an ambulance. Curious neighbors were coming out of their houses to observe. We watched as the paramedics put the guy in the ambulance. Later, as I tried to fall asleep I couldn’t help but think about the guy. “Would he be all right? Does his family know? Does he have a family?” So many questions ran through my head that night.

The next morning my family talked about the shooting. My mom said she was still scared. My brother said that he remembered the victim crying for help and how that haunted him all night. My mom said that she really wanted to move but that moving would have to wait until we could afford it. It was frustrating to be talking about this again when we knew we couldn’t move.

At school that day I learned that a sophomore boy had been killed near the intersection of Compton Boulevard and Wilmington Avenue. It turns out that he was the one who got shot in front of our house. I was shocked and sad. I was ashamed to live in a place where a teen could get killed in the streets.

But about a year ago things changed. One afternoon on the way home from school I saw cops near the intersection of Compton and Wilmington and I thought, “What are they doing here? Something awful must have happened for them to be here.” As I noticed that they were just driving around on patrol I was shocked. I felt like I’d only seen cops responding to crimes, so seeing them patrolling was weird. I thought this was good, though, because this area was dangerous. This was the place where even walking home from school every day, I’d get nervous whenever a car slowed down as it drove by. When that happened I knew to look straight ahead and walk faster. People who stare could get shot, too, because the shooters think they could become witnesses.

Within a few weeks the gas station where the drug dealers were became an ordinary gas station. The guys wearing baggy pants sagging below their waists, who smoked and yelled out street names that represent the gangs they’re in, were gone. And I saw more people out at night. I felt great that the cops were finally doing something. But I still wondered what took them so long. They should have been there years ago.

My new neighborhood feels so much safer

Even with the increased police presence, my family still wanted to move. Last November, when we finally could afford it we moved to Carson. Although our new house is just 15 minutes away from our old one, it feels like a whole different place. The gangbangers and helicopters are nowhere to be seen or heard. I can walk at night without any trouble. Instead of the smell of weed as I walk down the street, I feel the fresh air blowing through my hair. It’s a lot quieter, even compared to the new and improved Compton. At times I feel as if the birds are too loud. In our old neighborhood I would pump up the volume on my radio to 48 but now I turn the volume down to 12.

I used to think that my younger sister would have a bad childhood because she would be stuck in Compton like I was, unable to go out, unable to hang out with friends, unable to have fun at night. But now it’s different. I feel like she will have more freedom in Carson, the freedom I wish I had. Growing up in a violent community changed me. I’ve learned to appreciate things, like time with my family and friends, but I shouldn’t have had to learn that by watching someone get shot.