In March, The Huffington Post began talking to teens and adults throughout the U.S. about their experiences with gun violence. This is one individual's story. You can read others here.
Two of the bloodiest mass shootings in American history have struck one state: the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 and the Aurora movie-theater shooting in 2012, both in Colorado. But the tragedies often overshadow the everyday gun violence of Colorado's gang activity, particularly in Denver.
"I honestly can't answer how many people I've known that have been shot or killed because I've known so many people," Terrance Roberts, a former Park Hill Blood gang member and now a leading anti-gang activist, told The Huffington Post. "It was a real war."
Beyond the tragic Aurora shooting, last year again saw a surge of gun violence, some of it gang related. The number killed in Denver in 2012 doesn't reach the heights of the gang violence in the '90s -- 41 people were killed, and of those, 23 were gun deaths. But in the first four months of 2013, gang-related violence has nearly doubled in Denver since the same period in 2012, with over 250 total gang-related incidents.
Some 200 organizations that authorities have linked to gang activity, including the better-known Bloods and Crips, have existed for years in Denver and its surrounding areas. Though Mile High City is not immediately associated with gangs, they have left a violent wake, taking the lives of hundreds and wounding countless more since gang activity began to noticeably grow in Denver in the early 1980s.
The number of gang-related homicides has decreased in Denver since the peak during 1993's "summer of violence" and the years surrounding it, but residents of the areas where gangs have historically dominated are still haunted by their experiences, and wary about fresh outbreaks of violence.
"I've witnessed people get murdered in front of me over $5 dice games, being ambushed, ran up on over gang violence -- I've been shot twice myself. I probably know easily, maybe 70 people or more who have been murdered due to gun violence, not even the stabbings, just shootings," Roberts, the activist, recounted.
"How many people do I know that have been shot?" he added. "Hundreds. Right here in Northeast Denver. Hundreds of people."
Roberts joined the Park Hill Bloods as a freshman in high school and was in jail just a few years later, at 18 years old.
Now a 36-year-old father, he's turned his life around. In 2005, he founded the Prodigal Son Initiative in Park Hill, the same area where he ran with the gang, to mentor at-risk youth. With the group, he is trying to help organize a community still plagued by gangs and gun violence, both past and present.
But he remains both physically and emotionally scarred.
"I was shot in my back during the summer of violence in 1993," Roberts said. "I was selling crack one night, probably with about $1,200 in my pocket -- I'm 16 or 17 years old -- all these crackheads were coming, I was selling all this crack and I was taking all my money out of my pockets and I turned on the light and stood up and some guys hopped out of the bushes and sprayed me."
Roberts says the shooting left him with a cracked pelvic bone, a ruptured spleen and shredded upper and lower intestines. After multiple surgeries, Roberts has a noticeable scar across his abdomen. Although he has largely healed from the shooting, the complications still cause sickness; the scar tissue around his intestines causes bowel obstructions and severe dry heaving.
Roberts suffers from what he describes as something similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, a severe form of anxiety that many members of the military experience when returning from combat.
"To this day it scares me for cars to pass me," Roberts said. "Even last night I was driving, it was dark, and this car had loud music and I could hear it. You could tell it was probably some young guys, or some gangsters. Waiting at the light, these guys pulled up almost beside me and I was sitting in my car afraid, and this is trauma, and I was hoping these guys don't shoot me in my car and kill me. But you know, the light turned, I turned left and they kept going their own way."
"When I hear loud bangs, I flinch," he said. "Those types of things -- pretty much PTSD kind of trauma."
Roberts said this trauma continues to impact a survivor for his or her entire life, snuffing out potential.
"Seeing my friends who I know who have been gunned down or been around it, seeing how they live, seeing what it did to them, how they have to function now, and that's the pain they still have in their life -- we're talking about just normal, regular people, they could have worked for The Huffington Post, they could be reporters right now," Roberts said. "They aren't stupid people, they are just traumatized people."
The shooting death of Denver Police officer Celina Hollis during a jazz concert at City Park last July -- in broad daylight and in plain view of bystanders -- brought back memories of Denver's gang violence in the '90s. Twenty-one-year-old Rollin Oliver was charged with Hollis' murder. In testimony, he revealed that he was fleeing from a group of Crips who were shooting at him during the concert.
Oliver was from the same Park Hill neighborhood where Roberts grew up -- known Blood territory surrounded by neighborhoods occupied by rival Crip gangs. Oliver's own affiliation with the Bloods was disputed by his attorney, who claimed that his client was not a member of a gang at the time of the City Park shooting.
The violence culminated most recently during April's "420" marijuana celebration at Civic Center Park in Denver, when two rival gang members shot and wounded three people.
There's still much work to be done in Denver. Troubled neighborhoods like those in Park Hill are still in the early stages of a turn-around, as Joel Warner has written about in detail in his "Up From The Ashes" work for Westword.
But groups like Prodigal Son are also struggling for other reasons. Earlier in 2013, Roberts announced that due to lack of funding, the organization may have to close its doors this year. Many fear that such losses could cause a major setback to any progress made so far.
"Any time you have African-American men going back into the community to mentor young African-American males, it makes an incredible difference," City Councilman Albus Brooks told The Denver Post of the potential end of Roberts' work. Brooks' district includes Holly Square in Park Hill.
As Brooks said, "No one can measure their impact on young people's lives in northeast Denver."
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