It had been a morning of running errands, and I was driving home to make lunch. I live on a major thoroughfare in the heart of Pittsburgh, adjoining the neighborhood of Garfield, a predominantly Black working-class neighborhood. As I turned the corner, I found the street blocked by police motorcycles and patrol cars. I was ordered to turn around. I parked nearby and then returned on foot to my street, again to be stopped by a patrol officer, who demanded to know where I was going. When I pointed to my house, he asked for my ID and then told me to go ahead to my house but “No farther; we are in the midst of an active shooter situation.” The neighborhood was in lockdown.
I waited inside, but I could see the police presence steadily building in the street. The shooting was three blocks away. My son, who also lives in the neighborhood, called and asked if I was safe. “Are you okay, Pop? I got out of the shower to go to work, and I heard hundreds of gunshots. What the fuck is going on?! Police are everywhere. They let me through to go to work. Don’t leave the house until this is over.”
Some of our neighbors ventured outside, and word came from one that a heavily armed man had barricaded himself inside a house and was firing at the police. He had been squatting in this house he did not own, and the sheriff had come to serve an eviction notice. He started firing, and all hell broke loose. Nearby residents were being evacuated, and the police cordoned off several blocks. A heavily armed SWAT team was now in front of our house.
Slowly, as we gathered apprehensively in the street, a story unfolded from bits and pieces of what neighbors had known or had been gossiped about. The man, Bill, barricaded inside, had a few years earlier declared himself “a sovereign nation,” accountable to no one. His life had been collapsing for several years. His younger brother, Big Joey, who had owned the house and was much loved in the neighborhood, had died. Bill had expected the house would be given to him. But Joey had no will, so the court gave the house to Joey’s eighty-year-old father, who lived in another state and had no interest in the house. Apparently, due to family troubles, the father sold it to a developer rather than give it to his son. The developer paid $25,000 for the house, intending to renovate it and flip it. Bill moved in anyway, fervently believing it was rightfully his.
Bill’s world as a sovereign nation was declared on the front door’s handwritten messages: Not for sale. No trespassing. WH lives here. Private property. His brother Joey had been a welcomed member of this community. Bill was known to many in the neighborhood but quite feared by those living closest to him. Some of the neighbors knew he was heavily armed.
As I heard the stories of his proclamations of being a sovereign nation (he drove a car without a license and, in spite of numerous arrests, declared himself accountable to no law and continued to drive), I thought of a sovereign nation and an abandoned son and brother in a spiral of final despair and collapse.
In spite of an extensive record of arrests and clear mental health problems, Bill had been able to arm himself extensively. When I heard he was Black, my immediate thought was that he was truly fucked, that he’d be dead in an hour. But that was not to be the case. The standoff, accompanied by periodic bursts of hundreds of rounds of gunfire, went on for hours. The police realized that he was a man in trouble and that he did not intend to kill anyone. He was defending his nation. They were using drones to see if he had hostages (he was alone) or bombs and to discover the extent of his weapons. Bill skillfully shot each drone out of the air, but he never fired at a person. He refused to talk on the phone with his son. The police broadcast messages on a bullhorn to him from family and friends, begging him to talk or come out. But by then he had sealed the world out and himself in. And he had sealed his fate. After six hours of the standoff, the house riddled with holes from police fire, the windows blown out, he was dead, killed by
As I was writing this essay, I wrote to Paul Williams, with whom I consult. He replied, “The shooting sounds horrendous and tragic. The fact that this man was allowed to get so profoundly alienated is terrible in itself, so his death is not surprising…This makes me think of my own definition of psychic homelessness. Our home exists essentially within ourselves, I think, and if we have had no internal experience of being welcomed into the home of the mind and heart of another person, we have no home and are doomed if we do not get help with this.” Without a home, Bill had created a nation.
I have worked for many years with psychotic clients and have witnessed so very often the tragedies of the vicious, complex web of profound loss, abandonment, and shame warded off by nearly impenetrable psychotic walls that create some version of a sovereign, psychic nation, alone and bereft. A month earlier, the neighbors had requested a “wellness check” on Bill through the city. Bill turned them away. No Trespassing.
Garfield is a predominantly Black neighborhood that had been long abandoned by the city. Thirty years ago, 80 percent of the storefronts sat empty and abandoned on the street we live on, as did 60 percent of the housing in the neighborhood. The community organized to save itself. Wedged between two heavily gentrified neighborhoods that over the past decade have displaced thousands of long-term residents, Garfield has fought to protect and retain its people. With an engaged community board (on which I’ve served for more than twenty years), dedicated paid staff, and the support of local foundations and churches, the community has built subsidized housing and maintains after-school services, college readiness programs, a job placement center, a community newspaper, and—as best we can—close working relationships with the city government and police. Garfield is now a viable place to live—it is a community.
In addition to the emotional impact of the standoff and the hurried evacuations of the surrounding homes, there was extensive property damage from the barrages of bullets and the hurried setups of the SWAT teams in the backyards of the nearby homes. The three families most affected by property damage lived directly across the street from Bill in subsidized homes built by our community group. These women were skeptical that the city (not very well regarded in our community) would be of any real assistance.
As is typical of our community group, the next day we held a meeting with a trauma team for the nearby residents. The next couple of hours proved to be moving and—initially—heartening. Down the street from where we were meeting, neighbors from all around came to talk, offer support, and see what was happening. The atmosphere was one of grief, relief, compassion, and care. The block was swarming with city officials, police, evidence teams, and—of course—local news cameras. Our newly elected mayor, the first Black mayor for Pittsburgh, was there talking with residents and reviewing the damage. At that moment, I was impressed and hopeful. But sadly, the skepticism of the women whose homes were damaged proved to be all too true. The mayor’s visit now seems mostly a photo op. The city is being very slow in responding to the needs of the residents. Three weeks after the tragedy, our community center held a meeting for a discussion of the aftermath of the tragedy, which was attended by more than one hundred residents. The room was filled with fear and frustration. But the meeting did not end in frustration. We were able to make concrete plans to see to the repair of the homes without waiting for the city. People turned toward one another. Once again, the community is filling in the gap, a community to which Bill had tragically been left an outlier.
- William F. Cornell, MA, TSTA, maintains an independent practice of psychotherapy and consultation in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the author of numerous papers and books, including Somatic Experience in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy and Self-Examination in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy both published by Routledge. Bill has been the editor of a wide range of books and is currently the editor of the Routledge series Innovations in Transactional Analysis. His writing centers on bridging models of psychoanalysis, transactional analysis, and body-centered psychotherapy.
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