WE MUST STOP THIS VIOLENCE!
One of the great challenges of the modern American era is finding solutions to public violence, especially in regard to homicide in and among the poor, most particularly concerning black on black crime.
All violence is and ought to be disturbing. Something surely must be wrong with us if we find violence to be acceptable, even appealing, especially outside of the realm of sports. Even then we seek to contain it inside of the rules of the game. There is legal violence, also known as “force” to coerce criminals, law breakers, and enemies to cease nefarious and threatening activities, and ultimately legal sanction to kill them if they will not and cannot be controlled.
There is a difference between the “blood-thirsty” and the hero, between the sadist and the warrior; one who might be good at killing but pursues it only under law and by necessity, and never with relish. We have laws and definitions to demarcate these things, even rules about violence known as the “laws of war.” There is a difference between authorities who have the power of the state to coerce or kill lawfully, and authorities that use power illegally, using the power of force to oppress. From time to time this happens, even in democracies, whether it be from corruption or from prejudice.
We are beset with an epidemic of violence, especially in poor black communities. The rate of violence is higher than among Latinos or whites or middle class black communities. Social scientists measure how much greater violence is in poor matriarchal communities, such as in housing projects. The statistics of absent fathers, low income, low educational and literacy achievement, the risk of prison, unemployment, etc. all go together. The measurements are there and there doesn’t seem to be any sense to deny them or reinterpret them so as to equivocate between populations in regard to violence for the sake of politics or emotional sensitivity.
Having said that, what value are the statistics in changing anything? Social scientists have the task to measure but after they measure, then what? Surely we measure so we can understand, and work our way from analysis to a strategy for change. If numbers simply proclaim failure, if they disparage, if they reinforce prejudice, if they bring despair, one wonders if the measurements serve any useful purpose. One supposes they reinforce political opinions, but they also reinforce fear.
The people most in fear are the mothers and the children who live in violent communities. “Will my child be murdered today?” Or the child may ask, “If I go to school will I be shot today?” Will bullets come through the window or the wall while a family is watching television? Is it safe to sit on the front porch? “What happens if I go to the playground?”
Recently in my city a man was shot while doing yard work in his front yard. Three young men asked him for money and when he didn’t have enough they shot him. Is the NRA solution for us all to be armed while we do yard work? Is the NRA solution for all inner city residents to go armed, or is their solution only for white people?
The police are called on to stop the madness, so they start pulling cars over in certain neighborhoods for any kind of “probable cause” or they stop and frisk the citizens, but usually of only one color or in particular zip codes. This increases the chances for sudden and angry interactions or unplanned confrontations with mortal endings. Instead of solving the problem we create another one, and the focus changes to the heavy handedness of authority versus the decay of community culture and the much greater amount of death it deals out compared with either racist cops, or inept ones, or unlucky ones.
The late Harvard Law School professor William Stuntz in his book “The Collapse of American Criminal Justice” calls for the involvement of inner city young men in the democracy of their own communities. In short, many inner city young men have no stake in what happens to their neighborhoods, and no political power in regard to its policing, or in the court system that sends many like themselves to prison.
Once I was asked to speak as a veteran at a high school assembly at a predominantly African American high school. It was Veteran’s Day and as a retired Army officer the school asked me to speak because they wanted to honor veterans and hopefully inspire the students. I remember asking rhetorically if they as students held anything in their lives worth dying for, and as soon as the question came out of my mouth a male voice rang out so all could hear him, “No!” He was in fact making a public statement that he would not die for his mother, nor his family, nor his community, not even for his ethnic or racial group, not his country, and not his religion; the answer was just firmly, and tragically, No!”
This brought to mind what Martin Luther King, Jr. had said, that, “if a man hasn’t found something worth dying for then he isn’t fit to live.” That young man, from that school, in that neighborhood has a far greater chance of dying simply for being on the wrong sidewalk, or wearing the wrong colors, or looking the wrong way at someone than he had for any idealistic cause. He will not die a hero, he will die a victim. Or he will kill out of fear, or revenge, or simply some misguided sense of pride, and thus instead of being a hero he will simply be a gangster, a convict, and one more incarcerated statistic.
The avoidance of communal love, liability, and commitment for the sake of personal self-interest doesn’t make one’s life safer it actually puts one’s life more at risk; albeit for cheap and selfish reasons. Gangs tend to create a more immediate sense of solidarity, of belonging, of loyalty. The adolescent and hormonal drift toward the proving of manhood creates a drive to prove to one’s group that slights or attacks from rival groups or neighborhoods will not go unanswered. So death is risked, but not for great causes, and not for positive transformation of the community. Body bags of lives wasted, gurneys from funeral homes carting away aborted potential, personalities extinguished, leadership capital unused, swirling down this toilet of crime after crime after crime.
I remember once my wife listening to a news report about another incident of African Americans committing a violent crime. Some white person, who was being interviewed, made a comment about how black people need to take responsibility for their own communities. My wife became slightly incensed, asking if such a comment was ever made about the white community.
I so wish we could get to the place where all of our children in this country mattered to all of us. Certainly each family needs to take responsibility for itself, and there is no doubt that there is a terrible lack of parenting going on in this country. The liberal concept of existential individualism has invaded the nursery and we reap the results of it in all kinds of bad behavior from brats grown older.
But bemoaning the fact of broken homes and families, and bad parenting due to a culture that has lost its collective mind doesn’t give us a present solution to stop the killing. And as an aside, I don’t equate broken homes with bad parenting. Two parents working either against each other, or with each other in a terrible live and let live philosophy, or with a hypocritical legalistic authoritarian and emotionally abusive style can ruin children just (not) fine. Broken homes just simply begin with inadequate or incomplete parenting, though there are “super moms” and “super dads” trying to prove it a lie.
Yes, each community should take responsibility for its children. From our neighbors to our neighborhood, to our local school, local church, city, etc. all of our children should be a source of pride, or shame, to us. If we have invested in them we should care about their outcomes. If we have not invested in them we should feel guilty or embarrassed about those outcomes. It is interesting to me that when the Olympics come along children, that we knew nothing about until they arrived on the world scene, become our national possession. Every single child we bury due to violence, and every single one we send to prison, also fit that description.
How can our children know that we care about them, and that our call to them is for them to take ownership of themselves, their future, their family, their neighborhood, their city, and their country? Here are a few ideas that maybe someone wiser than me can take and develop.
1. Stop thinking that institutions are something people ought to go to and find help but rather change institutions so that they go to people in their own homes and neighborhoods and deliver immediate and responsive resources. Here I include all neighborhood actors such as churches, schools, clinics, state human services, and policing.
2. Create a softer force for community action that interacts with neighborhood youth prior to police action. Community activists or chaplains that are CQ² (cultural intelligence and community intelligence) so that they will know which families, which youth, are the ones falling apart and falling into violence.
3. Demand community policing that is actually in the community, teams of officers who patrol on foot or bike, who speak and interact with the people prior to responding to calls. Officers who know the names of the people they are called upon to serve and protect.
4. Pay police officers and public school teachers generously, and hold them to high standards, especially if they work in poor communities. We don’t need services that are simply adequate in these communities, we need great officers and great teachers. We need a lot more of them.
5. Invest in every child that invests in him or herself. Each effort a child makes to learn, develop a skill, participate in a positive experience should be met with some kind of investment in them so they can do more. If they come for training in something, pay their way for a membership, a trip, a book, an instrument, etc.
6. Provide lots of “next chances” in poor communities. There should always be vocational training opportunities, low skilled job opportunities, drug and alcohol rehab, help for young mother’s, helping young moms learn to read to their kids, job training and job placement.
7. Economic resources should be used to help young adults do public works on infrastructure and receive pay quickly, even after failing a drug test.
8. Provide policing that is more intelligence oriented, with the use of security cameras on corners or streets where shootings frequently take place, giving solid evidence on bad actors.
9. Create better “strategies of return” for those returning from incarceration. How can people be put in different communities so they don’t fall prey to the old temptations? How can they be socialized prior to reentry? How can they have a job waiting for them? If prison is part of a life-cycle than we are going to have to integrate them into communities instead of continuing to think of them as isolated and uninvolved institutions.
10. Strategize on how we can give young and poor African American individuals a political stake in their own communities. We must find ways for them to achieve power, and a sense of power, beyond that of a handgun.