U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan returns to Chicago today, where he formerly ran the Windy City’s public school district, to speak about the Obama administration’s efforts to curb youth violence. His trip is precipitated by the recent beating death of a 16-year-old, high school honor student, Derrion Albert, by a group of teenagers. Duncan will be joined by Attorney General Eric Holder and Mayor Richard Daley for a press conference, and the three officials will then visit with the family of Albert.
The show of officialdom is what Blacks have come to expect after the high profile murder of an innocent young person. The response to urban violence has become so scripted it rarely raises an eyebrow among those who struggle to survive the randomness of violent death. The “outrage” comes in almost pre-programmed stages. First, there is the angry denunciation of violent behavior and the call for “justice.” The latter is usually accompanied by the requisite march or protest, and rhetoric of local community activists and national figures. Then there is the show of force at the funeral of the deceased, the presence of elected officials and law enforcement who promise to tackle the problem with religious zeal. Soon thereafter, the story literally fades into the newsprint of the daily paper and disappears into the static of the television screen, as the voices of outrage go silent over the airwaves. Once the official mourning period has passed, the latest tragedy is reduced to yesterday’s news and is left to imprison the memories of grieving families.
What has become obvious to anyone with any degree of objectivity and truthfulness; is that the predictable responses to urban violence only produce more of the same. It is like an NFL quarterback who telegraphs a pass; the criminals simply wait for the play to unfold, intercept it, and carry on with business as usual. It leaves the public perplexed as to why police, the courts and public schools cannot deter violence and hold those responsible accountable. It is particularly vexing in some city neighborhoods where criminals roam freely, known to residents and police alike, but parading triumphantly as they infect whole communities like ravenous insects. Residents are left to ponder whether they will ever have a modicum of security and peace of mind as their quality of life is put on permanent hold.
The brutal beating of Derrion Albert, captured on a cell phone’s video camera, comes on the heels of the shooting death of 19-year-old Spelman College sophomore Jasmine Lynn. The Kansas City, Missouri native was killed in the morning hours of September 3 when she was struck by a bullet as she walked near the Clark-Atlanta University campus. In both instances, the alleged perpetrators of these crimes are peers of the victims. It is a cruel joke played on the Black community that it’s future, its best and brightest, are being mowed down by its least desirable.
Once Blacks get past the immediate shock, the question that is persistently raised: How do we stop it? It is a straightforward question but one that draws a flood of answers that never adequately resolves the question. Parental involvement is frequently cited as a way to combat youth violence, but the disintegration of Black families and the loss of Black men in households and the community betrays the legitimate call for greater adult investment in youth. The schools are often cited as fundamental to restoring civility among youth and curbing hostilities. However, teachers are often fearful themselves and rightly so. This is a problem that should not be left for school districts to resolve. Likewise, poverty is pointed to as an inspiration to criminally inclined youth to avoid a similar fate as adults, by any means necessary, however vicious and illegal.
By now, it should be recognized that an alternative, even unconventional, approach is necessary if the Black community is to stand a chance at reclaiming its youth and home security. Street level intervention must be part of the response, first as a way to give our youth shelter and safe passage, and second, as a warning to those who dare cause harm to the innocent. For that to happen, Black men must commit to playing a visible role in communities. A clear message must also be sent to youthful offenders, gang members in particular, that the safety of children and the desire for personal security far outweighs any concern over the punishment meted out for their wrongdoing. A new approach may also require interveners who are rooted in the community and not shaken by the thinly veiled threats of criminals. This is where the participation of Black men is crucial and why groups like college fraternities, faith-based auxiliaries, including the Nation of Islam, and groups such as motorcycle, martial arts and boxing clubs, must find their way back on the streets.
Similarly, law enforcement could be given the green light to take aggressive measures to apprehend the worst offenders in neighborhoods and identify youth straddling the fence, and who are still capable of changing behavior. Community based alternative sentencing panels could be created to allow first offenders the opportunity to avoid imprisonment if they meet strict conditions of atonement. The real goal is not mass imprisonment but to identify the worse elements, subject them to the harshest penalties allowable by law, and create a wall between the most violent youth and those that exhibit the potential to change. Every effort must also be made to partner young, single mothers with older mothers or fathers to mentor young parents, and help them develop parenting and mediation skills. Young people must also be fully integrated in any effort to reduce young adult violence. First, assurances must be given to youth that cooperation with police will not result in their becoming targets for retaliation. Second, some real incentives must be offered to young people as a way to help them avoid situations that puts them in harm’s way. For too long the Black community has been in a state of denial, thinking that moral persuasion alone will compel a young person to choose a lifestyle with lesser cache over one that provides street credibility. Flipping burgers, no matter how honorable, has little attraction over the fast money made from hustling.
Similar to how the nation had to come to grips with terrorism after the Oklahoma City attacks and the tragedy of September 11, 2001, so too must it recognize the need for a targeted approach to counter urban violence. Local law enforcement is not equipped to confront gang violence and street-level drug traffic. The federal government’s law enforcement machinery needs to be actively engaged in cities across the country, along with state National Guard units and local police. An agency with the standing of the Department of Homeland Security, but focused on urban violence, could be created to coordinate federal, state and local agencies. At the same time, a similar approach as the one prosecutors used, employing racketeering charges to bring down organized crime, must be applied to the nation’s gangs. Special courts could also be created to hear cases involving defendants accused of gun violence or incidents of deadly force. There must be a visible force on the ground to identify, locate and forcibly remove individuals from communities who are responsible for the epidemic of urban violence in our nation.
It is quite possible that the murder of Derrion Albert was the final, long overdue push that sent Blacks over the deep end. If so, there is little time to waste on speeches and photo ops. So long as the response to violent crime remains predictable, the less likely there will be a reduction in the bloodshed in communities across the country.