Tuesday, June 1, 2010

PICTURES OF YOU



I was on my way to Dorchester Court yesterday when I drove by where 14-year-old Nicholas Fomby-Davis was killed on Sunday. I started thinking about another 14-year-old, Jaewon Martin, who was also killed May 9. I was going over the sensational story line in my head about how neither boy was "gang-involved," or "known to police," or an "impact player," when it sort of dawned on me: do these things really matter when we are talking about 14-year-olds? If 14-year-olds are gang-involved, known to police, or killing each other or getting killed, is that really something we should be holding against them?

Each time something like this happens, the community is devastated, then outraged. We hold multiple press conferences and we promise that we are going to find the people responsible and lock them up forever. Then, when the hubbub dies down, and the young person is buried, things go back to exactly how they were. I reflected on a piece I wrote last year around the same time, under the same exact circumstances, telling anyone that would listen that if we don't channel this outrage and begin to use it to address what is really causing crime, then it is only a matter of time before we will be standing "at a press conference with the parents of the next dead 15-year-old." Well, here we are. Again.

To be honest, I was pretty hard on the mayor in that piece. It is, of course, not all his fault. I know he cares more than most people about this issue, and that he has been trying out new ideas so far in his last term. This is a good thing. And we can at least know for sure that he cares more than the press that were at the arraignment yesterday.

When I arrived at court, there were hordes of press from the local stations, with vans humming, microphones, cables, all freaking out like mad and running around to make sure they spoke to every one of the dead child's relatives to get all the gushy footage of them sobbing and grieving. I wanted to grab their microphones and throw them into the street: where the hell were you people when this tragedy was unfolding from a mile away? Do you realize you only come here after kids die or cab drivers and shopkeepers are murdered? Year after year this happens, year after year you come here to cover these stories, and yet to you it's not a story that this keeps happening?

It's not news that 16-year-old boys like Justin Fernandez, the alleged shooter, are being found in cars with guns and gang members, as happened in a separate incident some months ago? It's not news that this is happening with 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds all over the city of Boston? Somehow it's news when it happens in DR Congo, when rebels there give kids guns and turn them into child soldiers, but it's not news when it happens in Boston?

There are big structural forces driving young people towards gangs year after year. Our multi-billion dollar criminal justice system is not only failing to address these structural realities, but may even be making them worse. This is not news?

I met my client and his mother and father inside the courthouse. They live in Dorchester. He is 16, the same age as the alleged shooter. He had bruises on his face from getting jumped over the weekend. I asked him about it. His mother interrupted, without giving him a chance to explain, her voice overcome with motherly anguish, "I keep telling him not to go outside. Not to hang out with anyone. To just stay in the house. But he won't listen. He just won't listen."

Imagine this for a second: a parent begging a 16-year-old to stay inside, alone, in Boston, in June. And this is not news?

Our children, just like my 16-year-old client, are growing up in neighborhoods where if they do not have a group of friends around them at all times, they are in constant danger of getting their pockets run through, and, if they resist, beaten up, shot or stabbed. This is not hyperbole. It is a fact of daily life for young people that live in Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury.

In the pages below, and at meetings and in columns and to everyone I have ever spoken to in Boston, I and so many of my peers that do this work have discussed hundreds of ideas, promising practices that are working in other jurisdictions, programs that have had incredible success at lowering violent crime and recidivism, etc. Based on this evidence, a group of us even started a non-profit in Roxbury that helps young men work off their court fees by getting their resume together, filling out job applications, going on interviews and leaving the streets behind. I also know many other people have been doing and saying the same things that we are doing and saying for years. Yet for some reason, time after time, year after year in Boston, the overwhelming majority of our resources go towards law enforcement, prisons and prosecutions, which every shred of available data shows are unconscionably expensive and do little or nothing to prevent violent crime and recidivism. How is this not news?

Recently, the police released pictures of kids in the gang that Justin Fernandez was in, with the intention of shaming them publicly. What's interesting is that if you look at the flyer, most of the pictures of the alleged gang members are pictures of kids who appear to be no older than 15 or 16. These are the kids we are shaming? Seriously?

For the last two years I have been working with young men just like these. They are kids who are growing up in single-parent homes, often with caregivers absent because they are addicted to drugs and off chasing the grind somewhere. They are surrounded by violence, have attended multiple funerals of classmates and relatives, know dozens of others that have been shot and/or sent to prison, and they are bombarded day in and day out with toxic stress that is frying their ability to ever function as healthy adults.

They are saddled with the overwhelming responsibility of raising themselves from an early age, which turns quite dangerous when they become teenagers in a jungle where those with the craziest, baddest reputations rule, and so they wind up doing what so many male role models before them have done: they give the finger to society for doing so little to help them wind through this meat grinding mess alone, they hustle for money to survive and they team up with their friends -- the only people they can trust -- for safety. And at the end of long days worrying about whether they or any of their friends will get jumped, robbed, or worse when they go outside, there is little mental bandwidth remaining to focus on the big picture, to worry about MCAS, school, a career, or to buy a damn umbrella when it rains.

We in the mainstream often stand by and watch as "these kids" go through this protracted hell by themselves, and then we turn around and blame them for not making it out unscathed and in a chipper mood, ready to play by our rules. We act surprised when they drop out of school, assume oppositional identities and give mainstream society the finger.

In response, we blame the parents for not raising their children properly, overpolice the neighborhoods where they live, stop, frisk, arrest, prosecute, incarcerate, and now the latest, release pictures of them to shame them, all despite the fact that it costs hundreds of millions of dollars more to do all of this than to intervene when they are young and prevent them from going down this wretched, life destroying path in the first place. Such is the fate of children becoming teenagers in Boston. And this is not news.

The only pictures we should be releasing are pictures of ourselves.

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