The week before Christmas, I had to bury the 40th young person killed by what is still a plague in my Eastside Los Angeles community. I’ve grown weary of saying that gang-banging is the urban poor’s version of teenage suicide.
The violence that has us in its grip has always indicated larger problems: poverty, unemployment, racism, the great disparity between the haves and have-nots, dysfunctional families and above all, despair. And for our neglect in addressing these problems as we ought, it shouldn’t surprise us that their symptomatic manifestations have only worsened.
This week, I will bury a homeboy who, unable to find his way clear to imagine a future, put a gun to his temple and ended his life. This desperate act of an 18-year-old sidestepped the inner city’s more acceptable mode of suicide - the irrational battlefield of a gang war. He chose instead to make explicit the wish for death long implicit among our youth.
Within the first 100 days of the 104th Congress, House Speaker Newt Gingrich with his GOP “Contract With America” hopes to revisit the crime issue. The Republicans will call their bill the “Taking Back Our Streets Act.” It will seek to strip down much of the “ounce of prevention” included in last year’s crime bill. They will eliminate $5 billion in crime prevention authorized in that bill and dictate that block grants will go directly to law enforcement to decide how best to spend these funds. They tout their plan as a “genuine, nononsense assault on crime that will reap results.”
Yet the very principle on which this bill is based is, in large part, misguided. For those of us who live and work among the urban poor, the urgency is not to “take back our streets.” What the crime and violence among our youth signals is something more urgent than the reclaiming of our streets. We need, rather, to infuse them with hope.
In his book, “Race Matters,” Cornel West refers to “the nihilistic threat” among youth. This threat is more dangerous to our communities than the bleakest picture painted in Gingrich’s contract. Poor, unemployed youths are hard-pressed to conjure up images of themselves as productive and purposeful adults sometime in their future. The 15-year-old girl, bounding ecstatically into my office with news of her pregnancy, explains, “I just want to have a kid before I die.” She says this not because she’s been diagnosed as having a terminal illness, but because she lives in my community - a place of early death where the young lack the imagination to see something better.
Those who know crime and violence question the bankrupt, tired ideas in Gingrich’s get-tough proposal.
To assign to law enforcement the task of allocating funds for local crime “prevention” is akin to handing our AIDS budget to the mortician. We should not be startled, then, when the undertaker gobbles up more land for cemeteries and the AIDS crisis only becomes more alarming.
The measure of success in any crime bill is the reduction of crime, not the proliferation of prisons.
Jobs, education, opportunity and attentive adults give an injection of hope to youths who have ceased to care. Hope is the only antidote there is to crime - the most glaring of despair’s symptoms.
What the Gingrich team calls “pork” is but the most meager attempt at preventing crime from happening at all. No get-tough approach will ever fill with hope a young person stuck in his or her own despair. This no-nonsense assault, then, is utter nonsense to those in this community who know more about the complexity of crime and its root causes than the 104th Congress ever will.
In the meantime, we will bury our dead while others seek to wrestle back ownership of the streets. The adults in this community will seek to console their young and bravely imagine a future not planned for in Gingrich’s “Contract With America.”