Friday, February 26, 2010


In the aftermath of the tragic shooting of 71-year-old Geraldo Serrano, Boston Police have done an amazing job tracking down the killers and reaching out to local store owners to prevent future robberies from turning fatal. Mayor Menino and Commissioner Davis deserve credit for taking swift and decisive action on this.

The problem is that a convenience store safety initiative, while laudable and much-needed, is just like hiring more police, instituting a gun buyback program or installing a gunshot detection system: while it will help prevent future robberies from turning fatal, standing alone it will not address the root cause of the bigger problem: isolated young men so desperate for cash that they arm themselves, hold up their neighbors and shoot them when they resist.

The police and community presence at the arraignment of Onyx White and Martin Freels, the alleged suspects in the shooting, was breathtaking. It showed Boston Police and the broader community putting a best foot forward in solidarity with Mr. Serrano's family. It rightly demonstrated that the city is taking this incident seriously and joining the victim's family in support of the prosecution of the teens, who are 16 and 17.

But what was glaring at the arraignment, was this: where was everyone while these two young men were very clearly heading down a path destined to destroy at best their own lives and at worst destroy others' lives in the process?

A neighbor of 16-year-old Onyx White nailed the real issue, telling reporters, "I saw him headed for trouble, because he was left alone. I feel bad for Onyx because he didn't have the support he needed. He needed the support of the system but he fell through the cracks."

She saw it coming. Many others in the neighborhood did too -- they always do. Yet despite so many seeing this coming from a mile away, the entire force of the community, media and police department did not show up until the life of a beloved 71-year-old pillar in the community had been taken and the lives of two misguided teenagers had been ruined. If we truly want to honor the life of Geraldo Serrano, shouldn't we be doing more to reach 16- and 17-year olds that we know are heading for trouble before it is too late?

In my last post, I wrote about young men like the two teens in this case, who, after getting frustrated at getting left behind by the mainstream economy, and being unable to find jobs -- and living in segregated, economically depressed neighborhoods where many other men just like them cannot find work -- follow suit and resort to underground employment to survive. And to succeed at underground employment, because there are no laws to protect you, you must have a crew for organization and protection, turf to do business and perhaps most importantly a bad ass reputation that deters others from attacking you or trying to steal your turf and jack your stash.

Tragically, once enrolled in this game, or in trying to gain enough respect to get into it, young men like the two boys have it in their minds that they have no choice but to pull the trigger when their reputations (i.e. their means of survival) are on the line. This may sound crazy, but in the survival-is-the-name-of-the-game mind of a young man trying to make a living in a lawless, high-stakes environment, it's not crazy at all: it is everyday reality.

When you are hustling to make a living, your reputation is paramount. This sounds utterly ridiculous to those of us that work in the mainstream economy, because we have laws that protect our means to survive, but for young men fully engaged in underground employment, T.I. says it best in his song ASAP, "I don't know what you do for your respect but I'm a die for mine."

Had the boys let a 71-year-old man make them look foolish by refusing to cooperate and hitting them with a cane, as was alleged at the arraignment, their reputations would have been ruined forever in the hustle game where they live. They would have been dismissed as feckless and bumbling wannabes, unable to get the job done. Hence T.I.'s point for those involved in the hustle game: if a bad reputation = good success in underground employment, and good success in underground employment = money, at the end of the day reputation is everything because you need one if you want to get paid.

The mainstream may scoff at this notion, but if we are honest, and we acknowledge this connection for what it is, we must admit that throughout history the mainstream has gone just as far in defense of its own assets, lifestyles, and means of making a living: Jim Crow, Ku Klux Clan, Charles Stewart, and the list goes on.

Thus, in order to address the root causes of gun violence, it is imperative that we recognize the nexus between reputation, money and survival, crazy as it may seem to those of us protected by laws. In the end, the violence we dismiss as "senseless" -- ironically, to make sense of it ourselves -- has much more to do with money and survival than callous or "mindless" blood lust. If we want to work with young men before it is too late, and reach those that have made mistakes and want to get out of the game, it would be a mistake to continue to treat the idea of "respect" as "mindless," however ridiculous it may seem to us. To a man trying to make a living on the streets, reputation is survival, and that is no laughing matter.

If we really want to keep small business owners like Geraldo Serrano safe, we should begin to work with residents to identify young people that are heading towards underground employment, and use the bulk of our resources to welcome them into a mainstream economy that they have been excluded from since the beginning. This is the real issue, and if we want to honor the life of Geraldo Serrano (and Surendra Dangol, Trina Persad, Jermaine Goffigan, Stephen Odom, Soheil Turner, Liquarry Jefferson and countless others I have written about over and over again throughout the years) and prevent this kind of tragedy from occurring in the first place, we have to get serious about what really causes crime and begin to address it now.


Just Sayin' said...

That boy didn't need "the system." He needed a father. If he father shows up in court, I'll eat my hat and yours.

Jim Crow didn't make his father - or any of the other absent fathers - walk away. Neither did Charles Stewart.

Survival said...

This was a well written article. You have nailed the point about survival and respect. I have seen far too many young youths cut down because they live the life of the ghetto! Sometimes they have no choice because they aren't given a chance so their narrow mind thinks they must be rough to gain respect and trust. Though their thought process is all too distort! But remember they are still young and they are still learning. We need to come together as a community and help each other, instead of blaming and fighting each other.

Bryan said...

You touched on a HUGE and important issue. The lack of attention, love, and parenting in these youths life is sure to lead to devastation for themselves and others. In the long run, we as a society are all paying for mistakes that WE made by leaving the youth alone to their own devices. We pay with our tax dollars when these youths go to jail or juvenile hall, we pay for the extraordinary amount of individuals that are on welfare, and teenage mothers. Why not just make it easier on ourselves and these youth by giving them the education and care they so desperately need?

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