Today was supposed to be an off-day; a break from the keyboard and a moment to spend some quality time reading and relaxing. That was my intent until I scanned the website of the Star-Ledger newspaper (Newark, NJ) and read about the 8th murder in that city in the last 7 days. As if to mock Labor Day the most recent victim of mayhem in that city was a pizza delivery guy. Yes, a low-wage worker simply trying to put money in his pocket and most likely to support his family. He is the latest name added to the role of those whose lives were terminally interrupted by a violence that hangs over the city like a tropical storm.
No, violence is not unique to Newark or particular to the city’s culture. Don’t believe that for a moment. In New Jersey our state capital, Trenton, is also unraveling as gun violence is taking lives. And the carnage in Chicago is widely reported. Still, cities alone are not feeling the impact of gun violence or the upending of the human spirit. I live in a mostly white, suburban, middle class community that is just 20 minutes from the heart of downtown Newark and we recently experienced a shooting in a park just a stone’s throw from my house. Luckily, no one was hurt in that incident.
But back to Newark.
The violence in New Jersey’s largest city is particularly disturbing due to its persistence and the manner in which it has made residents there hostages. Do we really expect children to experience healthy and normal patterns of development when their childhood is marked by these violent episodes? The sound of gunfire and the remnants of police tape and chalk outlines are not the aural or visual memories normally associated with the early years of life. My greatest concern is that many children in Newark will exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress most often associated with soldiers in combat. Worse for them is that they will ultimately be blamed when their later development is not what society expects or demands. Violence is killing the spirit and souls of our children.
Yes, those that commit these heinous acts deserve our disdain. And we always express our anger at the criminals. But then, we start to paint the people in such a way that suggests they are deficient or tolerant of criminality. Suddenly, the conversation shifts to demeaning characterizations of residents of Newark and how they somehow can stop this madness on their own. The people cannot magically hope this violence away; they can’t talk or march it out of existence; nor should we expect residents to be independently capable of proffering solutions to a plethora of problems that “experts” are supposedly trained to address. Isn’t that why we elect political leaders? Should we not expect those that have been put in positions of power to put forth responsible and impactful interventions to help people navigate their daily existence in the city?
What angers me most is the absolute failure of political leadership in the city and Trenton to offer an alternative reality for the people of Newark. The city’s celebrity mayor, Cory Booker, has expended more energy on creating a self-serving narrative of success than investing his energies in constructing a new governing paradigm that truly empowers the people of his city. Crime fighting is much more than unleashing law enforcement. The roots of violence are deeper than criminality, more often embedded in the soil of hopelessness. It is easier to be angry at the perpetrators of violence than it is to take exception to the exceptionally deficient leadership that offers nothing more than imaginary characters to validate their “concern,” manufactured acts of heroism to display “empathy,” and empty rhetoric to feign “toughness” when nothing could be farther from the truth. The absence of family and child centered policies and a life-affirming program in Newark is symptomatic of a conscious choice.
Sadly, we have become so cynical that the very thought of challenging political leadership is heretical. If you critique a mayor or governor, or President for that matter, you are branded a traitor or criticized for having some ulterior motive. No doubt, some criticism is driven by hate, but not all. Some of us are deeply concerned for the welfare of people, do all we can to lend our voices and physical labor to support children no matter where they reside, and extend ourselves in ways that the public does not see or can understand. And there are thousands of good people in Newark, who daily do the right thing, support children and work to uplift their community; and activists who have been tireless in the fight to end violence and create a positive environment in their city. Why then are we willing to give the very people who make bodacious claims of leadership vision a pass when they fail?
It seems we have entered an era in which the public has either abandoned any notion of holding elected leadership accountable because we simply lack faith in leaders’ abilities or we are so fixated on celebrity that we forget they are public servants. Death and dismay have become growth industries in Newark and many other places across this country. We are not just watching the horrific murders of individuals; we are watching the killing of a city.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.