4/24/08 Youth Violence and More

Youth violence seems to be in the air now.   At least it is all over the news.   Fifteen-year-old Nakita McDaniels was sentenced to the juvenile system for leading the attack on a woman on an MTA bus.   From accounts discussed in court and published, she seems to have a history of violently attacking people who she feels have disrespected her.    Disrespect – that is a key phrase.

When I got home late last night from my speaking engagement with Goucher students, I got on the web to look at the latest KAL cartoon videos.  When I got to You Tube I noticed videos commenting about an earlier video of eight young people who invited another teen to a friend’s home, so they could beat her up for a comment she made.  The idea was to tape it and put it online. 

It made me think of the teacher who was beaten up recently at Reginald F Lewis High School in the city.  A young person taped her beating and put it up on the web.

It seems that it has become a badge of honor to commit an act of violence, videotape it, and put it online.     

When I interviewed the students from the Algebra Project yesterday (available for podcasting on our website later today) they spoke about the hopelessness of stopping the violence in our schools.    They said it comes from the street and carries over into the schools.  It is a matter of respect they say.   You have to respond if you are disrespected.   The communities are a dangerous place they said.   They seem to be critical of the violence but accepting of the moral rightness of “defending yourself if you are disrespected.” 

What we face here is more than implementing policy to address violence in our schools and among our youth.  We are facing an issue of major ethical and moral consequence for our world.     Violence is nothing new. Mob violence and gladiators are age old, as old as humankind.  This nation was built on violence. Lynch mobs and mass beatings resound throughout our history.   

But it is different now.   When I was in elementary school and junior high school, we had fights.  I remember one big one in the 6th grade between a good, tough guy and the school bully.  It was the biggest fight I had ever seen, up to that point in my life, which is why it has stayed with me all these years.   I went to Garrison Junior High, known as little Alcatraz, I suppose, because it was where middle class/poor blacks and whites met for the first time in a school setting.  My second day there I got into a fight defending another kid who was being picked on.  I got the stuffing beaten out of me by another kid who later became my friend. 

Those were fights.  But what are happening now are mass beatings.  

There is a confluence of social events that is exacerbating violence in our world.    

First, violence is in our face all the time.   Media saturation has changed the way we live and think.   One of the reasons that the Vietnam War was ended by protests was because it was in our living rooms every night on the evening news.   Our soldiers killed, wounded, and in distress were scenes America could not get out of its collective mind.

Now with cable and the Internet and the market demanding its profit, the media is pervasive, with us 24/7.   So, the sex and violence that has always titillated us as human beings draws us in constantly through the television and our computers.  Once we had boxing and wrestling; now it is extreme fighting.  Sex was something we did or had to go to a foreign film or porno theater to watch.   Now, just click it on… any kind of sex, from joyful to perverse, is a mouse click away. 

We are like kids on sugar.   Humans love sugar, but we had to search for the fruit to get it until we packaged chocolate and candy.   Now, look at us. 

Put that access to violence with the culture of violence we breed in America and you have an explosion.  Those who live in the direst of inner city poverty in America absorb that violence like no other part of our culture.   It is reflected back out at us liking a blinding beacon.  Since the turn of the last century, America’s oppositional culture has come from or been reflected out of Black America, from blues to jazz to being cool and hip, to challenging the established order and world, and now on to hip hop.   We have kept Black America imprisoned and that prison culture has taken over the street and that street is the mirror America must face. 

We have to recognize what we have done to ourselves, so we can figure how to fix it and mend our country.  We can do it. 


Last night I spoke at Goucher College.   I left so inspired by the young people I met there.  I met students who had gone to New Orleans to rebuild the 9th Ward, who were studying Chesapeake Bay grasses to save our environment, who were working with the Latino community in East Baltimore to tell their stories and start a low power AM station, who wanted to join Teach for America when they graduated… 

An African American woman, a little older than the students, came up to me after my speech saying she read about it in the Examiner.  She was concerned about these kids being so naïve but wanting to do good.  She herself was trying to find out how to get involved in social change to lift up her community. 

These were the Obama kids full of hope.   They want to use their minds, their skills, and new technology to change their world, to make it a better place for all of us. 

I am meeting young people like this everywhere I go, in Baltimore’s public high schools and in private schools like Park and Friends.   They are at University of Maryland Law, Medicine and Social Work schools.   Undergraduates at UMBC, Coppin, and Morgan.     

Students from UM and Baltimore law schools going to New Orleans in droves to provide legal services for the poor and incarcerated of Katrina.   The Albert Schweitzer scores from UM that are more interested in humanitarian work than raking in the bucks. 

In this world, the positive and the negative dwell side by side in the dialectic dance.   These young people and the countless thousands like them in public, parochial and private high schools, in our communities, wealthy, middle class and poor, and in our colleges and universities, are our hope, are our future, are the beauty and joy in this madness we live in.

 More about them in a later blog.