For some time now, we have been alarmed over the incidence of violent crime among Black youth. Several years ago, we joined with New York City radio station WRKS 98.7 “KISS-FM” in hosting an anti-violence forum at Essex County College in Newark, New Jersey. The auditorium and an adjacent lecture hall were filled with young adults who had grown tired of living in fear and seeing their family members and friends killed by gun violence. It was a moment that revealed the depths of violence in our community and what it was doing to our young people.
It is why the brutal killing of 16 year-old Chicago honors student Derrion Albert must be, has to be, the last straw. The Christian Fenger Academy High School sophomore was walking to a bus stop from school when he innocently walked into a mob of young people fighting on the street. Several turned on Albert and viciously beat him, kicking him repeatedly while he lay on the street and hitting him with splintered railroad ties. The savage beating was captured on a cell phone video. First-degree murder charges have been brought against Eugene Bailey, 18, Silvonus Shannon, 19, Eugene Riley, 18, and Eric Carson, 16. All of the youth were identified by the cell phone video that was given to a local Fox news affiliate and turned over to police.
How did it come to this? It is time for some real soul searching to determine how our community has allowed a culture of violence to fester to the point where our children are now preyed. It is time to make a real commitment to restore order and a sense of respect among our young people. That can only happen when adults, all adults, make a determined effort to have a presence in the lives of our youth. Teachers and police cannot raise our children. They are an important support network but the real work has to take place in the home and in neighborhoods, where parents and surrogates must teach by example and restore order in our communities. All adults, whether parents or not, must become engaged to confront violent behavior and particularly Black men. The statistics on single-head households and incarceration rates make clear how some of what we are witnessing might be attributed to the absence of male figures in many households and neighborhoods. It is why Black males, who are present, must be present.
We must also come to terms with law enforcement and the criminal justice system in the role it can play to restore order in our communities. For all of the faults of police and the juvenile justice system, we must find a way to work cooperatively to remove young adults who engage in violence and are unwilling to seek alternative pathways to resolve conflicts. While we appreciate the challenges that young people face today, we should not accept excuses when they resort to violence to vent their frustrations. Sadly, it seems that many of these incidents erupt without provocation or cause, and end up spiraling out of control as the violence becomes almost contagious. There is no plausible explanation for the brutality that was evident in the killing of young Derrion Albert except an absolute disregard for human life on the part of the young people responsible for his death. The court should show no mercy on those who are ultimately found guilty of this murder.
In the face of this seeming fascination with violence, we are giving this behavior license if we do not address the imagery on television and video games and in music, that glamorizes “thug life” and disrespect, or clothes that embraces prison attire. Our youth, particularly young Black men, have become what they watch, listen, and wear. There is a balance between self-expression and self-respect, and we must now reclaim it. If not, what happened to Derrion, and Spelman sophomore Jasmine Lynn, who was killed by gunfire on the Clark-Atlanta campus, will be repeated and other families will experience unimaginable grief. We owe it to Derrion and Jasmine, and the hundreds of other young people who were taken from us, to stand up and stand down violence.
What can you do? For starters, start a neighborhood watch and contact the local police to determine how they can be helpful in monitoring activity in the community. If you are a parent, attend local school board meetings. Yes, we are all busy but none of us should be too busy to protect the lives of our children. Parents need to also engage their children, set rules, and make it clear that certain behaviors will not be tolerated. At the same time, we recognize that some parents fear their children, because of gang affiliation or just physical stature and demeanor. If that is the case, we suggest you seek professional help. No parent or guardian should live in fear of his or her children. At some point, common sense must prevail. Black men must become visible in the community again, from the corners to the parks, and in community recreation centers or any place young people gather. For too long, we have allowed young people to be on their own and we are now paying the price. Lastly, we must reconcile our differences with local police, prosecutors and judges in the juvenile courts, and agree on a strategy of prevention, identification of potential offenders and isolation of young adults who are intent on committing acts of violence.
We can fix this. We can do better. We must.