The Trauma of Violence Leaves Its Mark

Long after the physical wounds have healed, many crime victims con- tinue to feel overwhelmed by the psychic pain of loss, powerlessness, low self-esteem, isolation, fear, rage-feelings that often are shared by their family and friends, as well as by the extended community.

From the ashes of criminal violence, victims and their families are struggling to rebuild their communities, as well as their own lives. Through community activism, individuals like Ralph Hubbard and Tom McDermott are transforming their pain into power, helping change society, and healing themselves in the process. Moving from the personal to the political, they work to correct causes of crime that are systemic, such as poverty, racism, sexism, the culture of violence and easy access to guns; to hold those who commit crimes account- able; and to enact victim-sensitive reforms and programs. As the crime victims' movement enters its third decade, advocates should look for ways to nurture victims' desires to help others by providing educational and organizational opportunities for community action.

Without intervention, victims can become chronically dysfunctional- afraid to venture out at night, unable to work productively, alienated from neighbors and friends, distrustful of police and courts, and overly dependent on social services. Their withdrawal from life hurts their families and weakens the fabric of the community.

Individual counseling and practical assistance help people deal with the psychological aftermath of crime and reconstruct a sense of equilibrium. When crime victims move from their personal experi- ences to a broader social analysis and to activism, they can also aid their own recovery from the trauma of victimization. Recognizing or addressing the social conditions that lead to violence and victimiza- tion is important. Helping other victims, working to change laws, or mobilizing violence prevention initiatives can help victims and survivors regain a sense of control and channel their fear and rage into efforts for reform.

The history of grass roots efforts in other movements shows that community activism can be a powerful catalyst for social change. Individual stakeholders-those whose lives were directly affected by the movement's cause-have brought about landmark reforms. The movements for civil rights, elder rights, welfare, environmental protection, and AIDS research and treatment have been spearheaded by those directly affected by the issues. Like crime victim activism, each of these movements arose from victimizing conditions of neglect, persecution, or marginalization; and the involvement of "victimized" individuals legitimized the cause.

A crucial step toward activism may be the individual's self- identification as a member of a group victimized by particular social conditions. Yet within the crime victims' and battered women's movements, the "victim" label remains controversial. Some believe it is a stigmatizing label that hinders recovery and reinforces society's perception of victims as helpless, hopeless, and dependent. Others see it as an empowering identification that promotes connection with others and spurs community involvement.

As Crenshaw points out, "[I]dentity-based politics has been a source of strength, community and intellectual development [for many individuals and groups], African-Americans, other people of color, and gays and lesbians, among others."2 The individual's self- identification as a victim-as a temporary and active condition, as opposed to an inherent or static one-may be both a step toward recovery and a source of empowerment. Mahoney's framing of the controversy with respect to battered women may be equally applicable to other crime victims: "[F]irst, the abuse of women and its consequences must be explained without defining the woman herself by the experience of abuse; second, the woman's perceptions and the context of her life must be explained-defending the reality of this woman's experience-in a way that locates her experience within patterns of systemic power and oppression."3 By acknowl- edging themselves as victims and survivors, some people achieve a more realistic understanding of blame, realize a connection with other victims, and mobilize to address the social conditions that contribute to victimization.

The impetus for community involvement and political empowerment often comes from victims themselves or from their families and friends. Victim Services' Families of Homicide Victims program initially offered individual counseling. By talking with each other, participants found they were not alone in their suffering and could give each other valuable affirmation and support. They formed a self-help group, which provided the first real sense of community since their tragedies. When members wanted to become more politically active, the group spun-off as an independent organi- zation. Those who wanted to help other survivors were trained to work with Victim Services staff as group co-facilitators. More recently, members have become involved in crime prevention. One participant who lost three sons to violence started an afterschool program for at-risk youth.

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