When I tell people that I’m from the United States Virgin Islands, the unequivocal response is, “Wow! That’s so cool! Um, where is that exactly?” usually followed by a statement about how awesome it must have been to grow up in paradise. For many, anywhere in the Caribbean is synonymous with paradise. The irony is that the “United States” tacked on to the beginning of my “Virgin Islands” means that I am a US citizen; I carry a US passport. Yet many US citizens have either never heard of my home. Or if they have heard of the USVI, they have no idea where the islands are located. Still others just link the Caribbean with Jamaica, although there are literally thousands of islands in the Caribbean chain.
The Virgin Islands had flown under the radar for a very long time, but upon entering World War I the United States realized their strategic value. So, my island, St. Croix, became a part of the USVI on March 31st, 1917 when the United States government bought us from Denmark for twenty-five million dollars in gold bars. However, residents of the island, my great-grandmother included, were not granted citizenship until a decade later. Since that time we have remained a US ‘territory’, and our governance is outlined in the “Revised Organic Act of 1954”. Although we are United States citizens, we may not vote for President of the United States and we do not have any representation in Congress. We did not have our own governor until 1970. Corruption runs rampant in every level of the government, and to many institutions beyond. But to many, we are simply a vacation destination. A place you can visit without a passport. A place to relax on white-sand beaches with blue waters. We go unnoticed until the winter when your family wants to escape to an island getaway.
Last weekend, on the afternoon of Friday, September 4th, a local man on the island of St. Croix was shot and killed in the parking lot of his son’s day care. While waiting in his parked car for his wife to return with their young son, another car drove up and unleashed several gun fire shots, killing the man. Later that afternoon, on another part of the island, masked men drove through the Red Brick Apartments housing community, indiscriminately firing machine guns in the public space. Hundred of shots were fired before law enforcement responded. Personnel who collected hundreds of shell casings described the shooting as “gangster style.” While officers responded to the shooting on the west side of the island, calls came in of a shooting at a bus stop on the east end of the island. Reports stated that a car drove up to the bus stop and unleashed gunfire on the patrons waiting there. It was thought to be in response to the shooting earlier in the day at the daycare. But it didn’t end there.
That evening, five separate, additional shootings, occurred across the island. On the west side of the island, the attempted robbery of a pizza shop turned violent as the owner and assailants exchanged gunshots over the stolen cash. While police were responding to that particular incident, another shooting took place further down the west side in the neighborhood of Camp Rico. Then there was a shooting at the shopping area of Bassin Triangle. Then there was a shooting at the La Rein stoplight. The evening ended with a slew of gunfire in the neighborhood I grew up in, Mon Bijou. I realize that these names, these neighborhoods mean nothing to my readers. But these names mean everything to me, and everything to the fifty-five thousand residents on my island. This is our home. Friday, September 4th ended with one man dead and four people injured from bullets.
The following morning, the Lieutenant Governor, Osbert Potter, held a press conference to discuss the onslaught of gun violence of the previous day. Before the conference was over, reports came in of a bloody shooting occurring in the central part of the island, across the street from a high school. A man waiting in a red honda civic at a stop light suffered multiple gunshot wounds when a car drove up next to him and used machine guns in an attempted murder. The victim was later airlifted to a hospital in the contiguous United States. Following the aforementioned shooting, Lt.Governor Potter put St. Croix under a “state of emergency” and ordered police checkpoints throughout the entire island. The state of emergency was not lifted until September 9th, three days later. Two days later, on the morning of September 11th, a man was found shot to death in his car in the neighborhood of Campo Rico, where one of the shootings had occurred the previous weekend.
The United States Virgin Islands is no stranger to violence. With just over 100,000 residents, we are ranked as one of the top five deadliest places in the world. Our murder rate per capita is among the world’s top five. The violence experienced in the past week is just one example of this. And you know what? I’m angry. Growing up, I placed my right hand over my chest every day and I recited the Pledge of Allegiance while facing the American Flag. Every single day. I am a US citizen, and I hold a US passport. But the United States does not care about its Virgin Islands. Despite this unprecedented explosion of violence on United States soil, not a single word of it was mentioned on a single mainstream media outlet. I spent the weekend in mourning, crying about the path my island is headed down. I walked as a ghost among my peers, most of whom have never even heard of my home, much less heard about the trauma and terror that plagues it. If these incidents had taken place anywhere in the mainland United States, there would have been relentless, extensive coverage of the story. Every outlet would have picked it up. The story would have been repeated so many different times, from so many different angles, that even someone who doesn’t watch the news would have heard about it.
But instead, I walked alone in my grief and sorrow. My island exploded. United States citizens were targeted and murdered. But no one really cares, as long as they can get cheap flights and stay in beachside resorts.