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At 16, she took a bullet to the head. Now Tacoma teen wants to help young people heal

News Tribune - 5/25/2023

May 25—When 16-year-old Amyrical Tucker was shot last May she was riding shotgun on an Eastside Tacoma street, cruising toward the city's waterfront while melodic hip-hop blared. She had hours of daylight ahead and ice cream on the agenda.

Gunfire tore through the afternoon. In the instant that Tucker realized what was happening, she remembers calling out her brother's name, turning toward the backseat and catching a bullet to the skull. The shooting came from another car, and when it was over, she said she could hardly see through her own blood.

Rushing to a hospital, Tucker recalls her cousin yelling her name and telling her to keep her eyes open. She could hear her mother on the phone with her brother. Her mom was an hour north in Bellevue, and Tucker said she was screaming like she'd never heard before.

More than a year later, Tucker — who says gang affiliation has been pervasive in her family for generations — wants to eliminate gang violence in Tacoma. To do that, she started Black is Almighty, a project she wants to turn into a nonprofit business focused on helping young Black people, particularly boys, learn to take control of their emotions through mental health support.

"A lot of things that I hear, it's like, it's either them or me," Tucker said. "A lot of these kids are not thinking. They're thinking off strategy and survival."

Black is Almighty would lift up the idea that Black kids can be "anything else but a gang member," Tucker said. She wants to empower youth to be fully aware of the professional heights they're capable of reaching.

With the help of several partners, Tucker is hosting her first panel event, "Come Politic With Black Youth of Tacoma," 5-7 p.m. Friday at Summit Olympus high school, 409 Puyallup Ave.

Tucker's brush with gun violence is reflective of a larger crisis of violence among young people in Tacoma that has taken hold in the last few years. According to local health data, 64 people under the age of 30 died from gun violence in Pierce County from 2016 to 2020. More than half of those deaths occurred in Tacoma. This year, shootings have claimed the lives of five teenage boys in the county. Police and court records show at least two were gang-related.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, it was plain to see that locally crime was fueled by drive-by shootings, drugs and gang violence. Gangs spread north from California, and they clashed over turf with deadly effect. Today their influence is less clear-cut. In 2019, when Tacoma's homicide count cracked 20 for the first time in over a decade, police cautioned that gangs weren't to blame for the increase in violence. At the time only 6.9 percent of killings committed in the last four years were believed to be gang-related, according to previous reporting from The News Tribune.

Data collected from Tacoma Police Department showed then that gang members' ranks had thinned from 651 to 225 people between 2011 and 2018, but a Gang Violence Assessment the data was published in warned that police weren't collecting enough information on gangs and that gaps in data were hindering the city's ability to analyze the level and extent of local gang activity. In 2021, citing staffing shortages, the Police Department disbanded its violent crime reduction team, which included a focus on gangs.

Ask Tucker, and she'll say she believes gangs aren't a small issue for the city. She agrees that gun violence is a crisis, and she said she doesn't think the problem is the kids, it's the lack of mental health care they receive.

"There's a gang war in Tacoma," Tucker said. "It was definitely in the 1990s, but now it's definitely coming back up with the next generation. And it's gonna keep going if there's not a change."

Genesis of 'Black is Almighty'

In an operating room at a Tacoma hospital, doctors gave Tucker numbing shots before removing the bullet from her head, which was lodged just above her right eyebrow. Tucker said she was awake the whole time. Her mother made it there in the middle of the procedure.

Once it was out, Tucker was discharged the same day. Doctors told her how lucky she was to be alive. The thickness of her skull stopped the bullet, Tucker was told — millimeters from disaster. Her forehead still has a tiny crater-like scar. The coincidence that a girl named Amyrical had been granted one wasn't lost on anyone.

Asked about her recovery, Tucker said she went right back to school against the wishes of her mother.

"I know I wasn't repeating another year," she said.

It took her some time to get over the shock of being a shooting victim, but she said she didn't want to just sit and be sad.

"I was like, is this all? Am I going to stop here? You know, I felt like there was a purpose of me living to like, help other kids and other people not be in the position that I was."

Tucker was born in Tacoma and until about age 15 was raised in Salishan, a diverse, mixed-income Eastside neighborhood. Now a high school junior, she grew up in a large family that she said has been in Tacoma for three generations. Relatives fell into gangs as a means to survive in the 1990s, Tucker said, and by her account, some still are. She described her father and uncle as retired gang members.

Tucker said she started to question gangs around the time she was in eighth grade. She was close with her male cousins, who she said were involved with "some of the wrong things." Tucker would question them about what they were doing, and she said once she understood her cousins were in danger, she knew something needed to change.

The idea for Black is Almighty began there, but it was seeing the documentary film "Since I Been Down," that inspired Tucker to start her own venture in gang-violence prevention. The film, which premiered in 2020, examines the gangs of 1990s Tacoma and how institutional racism, red lining and poverty play into crime and the justice system. Tucker brought pen and paper to a showing on Hilltop just months before she was shot, and she said it gave her a whole new perspective.

"Gang members aren't bad people," Tucker said. "Everybody has a story, and you don't know anybody's story."

With her curiosity piqued, Tucker said, she started asking every former and current gang member she knew questions. She wanted to know what sparked disputes between them, why wearing a particular color or throwing hand signs could get someone shot and why the people in gangs were doing it. A lot of what she heard, she said, is that many would rather not be in gangs, but they either don't see an alternative or don't know how to get out.

Through Black is Almighty, Tucker wants to bring "emotional guidance" and positive relationships to young people. In an interview at her high school, she brought up a childhood friend as an example. She said the young man's mother had raised him to be a gang member.

"Literally breeded it into him," Tucker said. "He's never had someone be like you know, that's not OK. I know that's your mom, but that's not OK. You need to take a different approach."

Healing is a big part of what people have to do, Tucker said, particularly from emotionally unavailable parents. She said people like her friend need someone to sit down with who can talk through their trauma and how they're feeling. Tucker said her business would connect young Black people with mentors to forge positive relationships of brotherhood and sisterhood.

Tucker said the first person she brought her idea to was Thrett Brown, executive director of the nonprofit Young Businessmen of Washington. He taught a business workshop through her school, Summit Olympus, a public charter school located in Tacoma'sDome District. It was a multi-week program focused on entrepreneurship where Tucker could take her ideas and work on business plans, programming and branding.

Brown said it's rare to have a young adult he's working with be ready to go all-in on their idea the way Tucker did, and he commended Tucker's school and its director, Anthony Clarke, for creating the space where it could happen. Brown and Tucker describe themselves as business partners, and he's one person helping with the upcoming panel event at her school.

"I'm honored to be a part of it because this is what community needs," Brown said. "This out of controlness, it can only be guided by people that are directly in it. In the beginning it started with 15-, 16-, 17 year-old kids that created this gang epidemic that we got today, it was the teenagers that created it. So I realize now that it's only teenagers and young adults that can curb the narrative."

'Everybody' had a gun

Before Tucker was shot, she didn't fully comprehend the weight of gang life. She has said she wants to help young people avoid dangerous situations, and to her, that means speaking on the seriousness of gang violence. Tucker said she was numb to its regularity, and she didn't think she would be a victim.

Growing up in Salishan, Tucker said, it was common to hear gunshots, particularly on summer nights — "everybody" had a gun or a BB gun. A more pleasant sound was children playing outside. She often joined and has some fond memories, but Tucker said the fact that they were unsupervised made it easy for older teens to negatively influence kids. At age 12 or 13, she said, she was already hanging out with older boys who were stealing cars. Tucker said she thinks a lot of kids are misled, and it's family support that's missing.

"They're creating like a whole bunch of friends outside and creating that family bond with them because that's not the bond they get at home," Tucker said.

When she was shot, Tucker wasn't the only one hurt. She said one friend with her was struck in three different places. A bullet grazed another's head. Tucker said it was a big wake-up call, and she doesn't want others to be put in danger the way she was.

Tucker said telling her story and those of some family members is how she'll show young people the seriousness of gang violence. She's lost friends to it. In January, a friend she remembered spending hours playing with in Salishan as a kid, Xaviar Siess, was killed in a gang-related shooting at a bus stop.

"I get really sad seeing boys, young Black men that have so much potential, pass away," Tucker said. "I feel genuinely so sorry because I know how it feels to get shot, but I made it, you know, and I didn't pass away, but I know how it feels to feel like you're going to pass away. And that was scary enough for me."

Tucker is lucky to be alive, but being shot has left her with trauma she's still working through. Five or six months after it happened, she said, she began having nightmares. She'd be back in the car with the same groups of people, and everyone around her was dying. Now, Tucker avoids Eastside Tacoma. She said she thinks Salishan down to 56th Street is getting dangerous.

The nightmares have since eased, she said, but she gets daytime flashbacks. People driving fast and loud music can bring her back to the night of the shooting, and the sounds of downtown traffic coming in through a classroom window once induced a panic attack. Sometimes she feels scared just looking at the car next to her when she's stopped at a red light.

Tucker believes she's making progress healing. She said a model for Black is Almighty is turning pain into power, and that's exactly what she's doing.

"Being strong is actually showing your emotions and being comfortable with being yourself," Tucker said. "Know how to regulate your emotions to the point when something traumatic happens to you, you're not acting in anger."

This story was originally published May 25, 2023, 5:00 AM.


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