Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Why They Kill

It occurs to me that the phrase "crime wave" conjures up the image of a wave that has rolled in from the ocean and had crashed on the shore. The truth in Oakland is that extremely violent waters are swirling in many of our neighborhoods all the time.

In a few days, innocent babies that were born in the hospital this morning will be sent home with their mothers. For the rest of their lives they will be subjected to intensely toxic relationships in their homes and in their neighborhoods. Many will eventually be trained and groomed for violence, and thus their lives will unfold.

Highly-stressed mothers with few resources will send their kids outside to play. Those kids will learn how to fight, and how to provoke others into fighting with them. They will learn how to resolve disputes according to rules which have been created by generations of unsupervised children who have spent hours and hours “hanging out.”

Some of the time, these kids will attend school. With other social institutions in decay, we hold schools singularly responsible for developing these children into moral and educated citizens. Highly-stressed teachers try to do their best and struggle with this endeavor.

nstilling a sense of hope about the future into these children is another monumental task expected of the school. Of course, it is impossible for the schools to do this on their own, so the classrooms are filled with kids who can’t imagine a positive future. Naturally, they become classrooms overcome by apathy. This is the real reason educational progress stalls.

From the kids’ perspective, attending school has little to do with working toward a future in higher education or employment. Instead, school is the set of
an adolescent soap opera; simply a place for engaging in romance and conflict. For a smaller set of kids, school is a place where they can practice and develop their skills as opportunists and predators.

One balmy evening on a street corner, one of these emboldened young people will get upset at something, or the other. In his mind, the easiest, most powerful and most effective way to respond is to pull out a gun and shoot.

Then the memorial collections accumulate on sidewalks. T-shirts get printed and worn. R.I.P. graffiti is scribbled on the local school’s bathroom walls.
The community tip toes quietly.

“Although the community cannot guarantee a good family to every child, it can guarantee them a good school, and a good school can go a long way in making up for a bad family.”*

Sadly, we don’t pay attention to these wise words; they are our prescription for change.

Spend time at any secondary school in Oakland and you’ll encounter kids who are on their way to hurting others, killing, or being killed. The schools provide some intervention, but it isn't near enough.

The simple truth is that we aren't smart. If we were, we would do something to prevent the pain we are going to feel when the babies born today end up hurting us so much tomorrow.

*From “Why They Kill” by Richard Rhodes, a profile of the work of sociologist Lonnie Athens.

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