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Why Youth Violence Still Plagues Black Communities

'Gang killings have made a comeback'

The Loop 21, Commentary, Devona Walker Posted: Jan 29, 2009

Young urban violence is not something many want to talk about. Black folks have grown tired of having our communities pigeonholed as violent. And in America at large, violent crime continues to decline. So, as long as the police tape, the gun shots and loss of life is relegated to urban centers, we may never address the most debilitating social ailment this country faces.

But avoiding the issue won't stop the killing. According to research released last month by Northeastern University, the number of homicides involving black male youth as perpetrators increased 43 percent between 2002 and 2007. The number of black male youth involved as homicide victims, meanwhile, increased 31 percent. For gun killings, the increase was even more damning: 54 percent more young black male victims and 47 percent more young black male perpetrators. These increases are evident nationwide. (Read more about youth violence.)

"Gang killings have made a comeback," said James Alan Fox, the author of the report and a professor at Northeastern University. "The mistake that was made was thinking gang violence is something you solve. You don't solve it. You only control it. And when you shift attention elsewhere, it comes back. It always comes back."

This alarming increase in homicides comes as the FBI reports a marked decrease in violent crime for all races and all people above the age of 25. It comes at a time when Congress has made "straw" gun purchases easier to come by, according to Fox. It comes at a time when police department budgets have been drastically cut. When law enforcement takes a financial hit, the first to go are "nonessential" programs, which means training, community policing and prevention. And it comes as children whose parents may have gone through the drug wars of the 1980s and '90s become adults. This new generation of youth has higher rates of ADD and ADHD than previous generations, largely due to the high rates of drug abuse during the '80s. In other words, some of these kids are crack babies all grown up.

"The kids who are being attracted to gangs now are too young to remember the '80 and '90s," Fox said. "Back then, we got the message across that this lifestyle will only lead to prison or a death sentence. But, it's a message you have to keep pressing."

What is occurring today in urban communities falls short of the level of violence during the crack-gang wars of the late '80 and early '90s, Fox said. But he also warned that this generation of youth being seduced by gangs, bling and violence, is much larger than previous generations.

Sometimes the problem seems too big

Issues leading to youth violence are many and complicated.

Funding for agencies doing the work has been slashed drastically in recent years.

The parents of these "at risk" kids are at times negligent. At other times, they are simply folks forced to work multiple, low-wage-paying jobs. In both cases, however, the youth are often ill supervised. Fathers are often not in the home. Other relatives often have gang affiliations or have been incarcerated.

The communities where they live are often violent. Many of the youth at the greatest risk for joining a gang or perpetuating an act of violence have been victimized themselves. Sometimes the lure to the fraternity of a gang is simply too strong; it's about belonging, safety and respect.

"I went to the juvenile probation center the other day, there was a line around the block," said Sheena Dance, executive director of the Newark, N.J.-based Violence Prevention Institute. "I just wanted to get back in my car and go back home again. It's like they were all waiting in line to see a movie. It was unbelievable."

Newark is one of the toughest cities in the nation. In recent years, it has greatly reduced its homicide rates in every category with the exception of its youth. Dance has known dozens of teenagers who were shot down shy of their 18th birthday. She knows dozens more who will likely spend the rest of their lives in prison.

There are also the success stories. The kids who do get out. For instance, there is one young man they helped get out of a gang and into dental school at Rutgers University.

"People are really trying. People are really making those efforts, but it's obviously just not enough," Dance said. "People often want to simply blame the parents. And sometimes that is the case, but not always. You can be there for your child as much as you want, but as soon as they walk out the front door, their world changes."

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, homicide is the leading cause of death for the majority of black Americans between the ages of 10 and 24 years old. Homicide is the second-leading cause of death for Hispanics and the third leading cause of death for American Indians, Alaska Natives and Asian/Pacific Islanders.

Changing behaviors

All this violence costs us as a society. Prisoners cost taxpayers between $40,000 and $60,000 per inmate per year. To understand this, you have to consider that one out of three black Americans is incarcerated. One out of six Latino American is incarcerated. And one out of every 17 white Americans is incarcerated.

It gets worse. As a nation, we spend about $126 billion each year treating gunshot wounds. About 77 percent of juveniles between the ages of 13 and 19 are killed by firearms, according to VPI. The institute also says that 39 percent of the nation's teens personally know someone who has been shot, and that 59 percent of students in grades six through 12 know where to get a handgun within 24 hours.

These statistics might be shocking to some, but Shawn Richard, executive director of Brothers Against Guns Inc., said the realities are much worse in many city housing projects and low-income communities. Violence is often heavily concentrated in very specific areas where there are gangs and where there is drug trafficking.

"My younger brother was killed while I was locked up in Chino, I got caught up on a drug charge," said Richard, whose organization focuses on gun violence and gang prevention. It's located inside the Fillmore Projects in San Francisco. "Right after I got out, my other brother was killed. They were following behind me, following my footsteps."

The word spread quickly when his brother died. Richard knew who pulled the trigger. His first instinct was to exact revenge. Ultimately, the experience spawned Brothers Against Guns Inc.

"Back in the day, the violence was more about drugs. Now it's about turf. It's about payback. It's about tennis shoes. You're from down the way and your clique is beefing with cats who ain't," Richard said. "Everyone's gotta make that choice for themselves. They have to make the choice not to retaliate. That enough is enough."

The new civil rights struggle?

On the other side of the country in Pittsburgh, members of the black community have also gotten so fed up with the killing. Community elders, folks who remember the original Civil Rights movements, have at times lived in fear of the same children they used to look after.

In 2008, 102 black people were killed in Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located. Ninety one were black men, and the vast majority were killed by other blacks.

"We are supposed to be one, brothers and sisters, not enemies," said El Gray, of local violence prevention nonprofit One Vision One Life. "This violence in our communities goes against everything Dr. King stood for and taught."

One Vision One Life holds vigils in communities strapped by violence.

Living in those communities, Gray said, is like being held hostage. It stops innocent citizens from living their lives.

"People are afraid to walk down the street because there is a fear that they might be shot, robbed or fall victim to the drug wars around them," Gray said. "People cannot walk down a street without the fear that they may be killed because they are wearing the wrong color, that they are walking through a neighborhood considered to be someone else's territory, or that someone might not like the look on their face."

Devona Walker is The Loop's senior reporter/blogger. She writes the Post-Race? blog.

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