Saturday, May 23, 2009

Can Johnny Make it to 8th grade? A response to violence against Chicago schoolchildren

I'm too depressed to write anything particularly witty today. Why? Because when I started writing this piece 36 children of color were dead in Chicago. Now there are 37. Mostly Black, a few Brown. All Chicago Public School students.

And there are still four weeks left in the school year. And it's getting hot out.

LaVida, you know what all of that means. We're in for a long, deadly summer.

Meanwhile, this story largely eludes mainstream media. There are no cute, missing white girls involved so, you know, there are no screaming headline, sensationalized, serialized cable-news specials from Nancy Grace or Jane Velez-Mitchell. There are no segments on the morning shows dedicated to deconstructing this "phenomenon" like there was over "sexting" -- where a fairly small number of suburban white kids have been prosecuted for sending around naked pictures of themselves via cell phone. There are no town halls, no outraged legislators holding news conferences, no protest records.

CNN aired a documentary on this issue with Anderson Cooper, but there already were more than three dozen kids dead by the time that happened. NPR's Michel Martin produced a salient two-parter on it with the bulk of interview time focused on the faith community's response. Activist priest Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Catholic parish and Rev. Marcia Dyson (Michael Eric's wife) both were interviewed because of their respective drastic responses; Pfleger has taken to running the American flag upside down outside of his parish -- historically a military distress call -- and Rev. Dyson is fasting.

They covered familiar ground, about how the lack of media attention underscores how much Black life is devalued, how there should be conflict resolution training in the schools, and really trying to get to the root of why this is happening at such an alarming rate in Chicago. Martin noted that other major cities of comparable size and urban population are not experiencing youth homicides in the same numbers as Chicago. Not only that, Chicago has already outpaced itself this year by nearly double -- there were 21 total homicides of school children during the 2007-2008 school year. That, alone, is abominable; to be at 37 before the end of this school year is unfathomable.

The explanations and the responses in the NPR piece all felt vaguely unsatisfying. Have we normalized violence against Black and Brown children?

My completely unscientific theory is that the willingness to kill in Chicago is residue from the city's storied gangster and gang history. From Al Capone and the still-in-business mafia "outfit" to the legacy of Jeff Fort and his Black P. Stones and the El Rukns, folks in Chicago -- Black, White ethnic or Latino ain't afraid to shoot! From the audaciousness of the St. Valentines Day massacre which was orchestrated by Capone and killed seven, to the insanity of a punk (who was a bad shot) opening fire on a crowded CTA bus and killing honor student Blair Holt, there is an unforgiving, historic pathos in Chicago that seems largely rooted in gang culture.

So, what, then, is a reasonable response? How do we break this cycle? And why aren't we -- Black folk, Latinos, Chicagoans, educators, legislators, organizers, parents, police -- more outraged? The Wall Street Journal weighed in today on "community activists" calling on President Obama to formulate a more vocal, effective response. Pfleger and Chicago "activist" Mark Allen were quoted saying Obama hasn't said or done enough, and I'm sure plenty of others here agree.

He probably hasn't said or done enough -- yet. But isn't it a little too convenient to lay blame at Obama's feet? And isn't it disengenuous? I think it underscores a desperation we're all feeling because nothing's working. Nothing that any of the "community organizers" referenced in the piece is doing is working. No matter how many after-school programs, Boys & Girls Clubs we open, teen mentoring programs we've funded, CAPS meetings we've attend, candlelight vigils and "anti-violence" rallies we hold over and over and over, nothing is working. Whatever sadness, outrage or desperation we feel has not prevented the murders of 37 young people who didn't live to see the end of the school year. Neither has it created any collective outrage here in Chicago or particularly innovative, collective organizing and strategizing around it -- and some of the most brilliant organizers and academics in the world live here.

I'm owning that my "solutions," too, feel unsatisfying. Pfleger was on the news at a school near his church having kids sign a contract that they will never touch or use a gun. As much as I generally respect Father Mike, that felt like more of a camera stunt than the upside down flag. What about the guns that are already in their parents' homes? What about the popular culture they're exposed to that glamorizes violence and, in many ways, legitimizes it? But I give him credit for leveraging his media relationships to draw some attention.

But how are we tackling this when the cameras are off? What is our critical response despite the lack of media attention? What about the cycle of poverty, the sorry physical and academic condition of many Chicago public schools, and the internalized oppression our children are dealing with? How many of these YBC's (young brothers cappin') feel the same way as Tupac's character Bishop in "Juice" when he tells his boy "I ain't shit and I ain't never gonna be shit"?

I'm worried, Vida. Because on this issue, the personal really is political. I'm worried about my 12-year-old nephew as he prepares to move into his teen years -- without a father who, himself, was lost to gun violence. I worry about our boy cousins -- 13, 16 and 18 -- who are his upstairs neighbors and are being raised by their great-grandparents. Who are in their 80s. Their respective fathers are not in their lives either, and their mother is unable to parent them.

They are all Chicago Public School students. They are all Black boys who not only have to concern themselves with the potential of violence from their peers but -- let's take it there -- also the potential of violence from Chicago police. I've held my breath and said a silent prayer that it's not them each time one of these incidents is on the news.

I talk to them a lot about school, about keeping up their grades, their extracurricular activities. The ones who are old enough to work I've helped find jobs. I'm glad that they all keep busy with productive things. I talk to the younger ones about high school, and to the older ones about college. I talk to them about my international travels. I talk to them about the world. Because I want them to know that their world is so much larger than their block, and that as children of God and citizens of the world, they are entitled to experience it. I talk to them about the men in our family -- hardworking men, educated men, strong men -- and hope they draw some inspiration from it.

I talk to them about the future, simply, because I want them to know that they have one. I pray fervently that the Creator keeps their cards in the deck and proves me right.

Maybe none of that is "the" solution. But I hope it's a start.

Hit me back, Vida.


1 comment:

  1. A disheartening story! One that immediately generated tears...tears of compassion and tears that so closely relate to the horror story of now and then (1978 thru 82 when I decided to leave Chicago - I would have to kill or be killed!).

    To retrospectively go back in time, jolted me with too close a proximity; it felt as though I was there once again; right there! Sighs!!!

    The cries of all of my closest friends (and enemy's even)..."if we could escape....that's all we desire"! Some did unto death, some did unto the death of drug and alcohol abuse; I did with my life and without being drug or alcohol addicted but the scars are so easily escorted to back when the truth of what was then, still remains, now!

    As I prepare to make an entrance into the non-profit sector, with this EXACT life-style (or the lack thereof) in mind, the question is very dominant: Where are the people that are able to help? We have individual's such as the author of the article, yet that one (solo)is NOT the strength! How do we go else where to assist and get fame and glorifed when our children are subject to the ills of this country; where they (the "helpmeets") live?

    In this new day of President Obama, let us take stance - look forward to a new day: this day! Let us take on for ourselves what we want others to take on! It is our children and our childrens' children that will be affected. They will lie in the back alley-way thinking of us (as they gasp for their last breath of life): their mothers, sister's, father's, grand parents, et al! Let us come together for their sakes and mine! My memory haunts me, I want to rid its hold!