I recently came across an article in The Washington Post about a vigil for 14-year-old Antoine Manning in southeast DC, where his teammates gathered to say goodbye. Antoine was the 14th juvenile killed by gun violence in DC last year. Another 82 youths had been injured at that point. Meanwhile, more than 200 kids were arrested for committing violent crimes themselves.
DC is not the only city/state struggling with youth violence. Nationwide, more than 5,800 individuals under the age of 18 were wounded or killed by gunfire in 2022. And most of their assailants were juveniles as well.
Local officials continue to grapple with how to respond to and manage this trend. DC Police Chief Robert Contee III is calling for more accountability for perpetrators, commanding judges to stop “being soft on juvenile offenders.” But former DC Attorney General Karl Racine cautioned that “it’s important for people to know that accountability doesn’t necessarily have to mean punishment.” He reminded those calling for harsher sentencing that violence stems from a “confluence of issues,” including the effects of the pandemic, the growing number of firearms, and a “great deal of poverty and hopelessness.”
You won’t be surprised about which side of the debate I take.
In his book, “The Body Keeps the Score,” Bessel van der Kolk, MD, explains how trauma affects a person: “Imagination is absolutely critical to the quality of our lives. Our imagination enables us to leave our routine, everyday existence by fantasizing about treats, food, sex, falling in love—all things that make life interesting. Imagination gives us hope and the opportunity to envision new possibilities. It’s an essential launchpad for making our hopes come true. It fires our creativity, relieves boredom, alleviates pain, enhances our pleasure and enriches our most intimate relationships. When people are compulsively and constantly pulled back into the past (retraumatized), they suffer a failure of imagination and a loss of mental flexibility. Without imagination, there is no hope, no chance to envision a better future, no place to go, no goal to reach.”
This is what the kids in my neighborhood deal with: trauma. Just for a second, try to imagine what life is like for these kids. Imagine being emotionally, physically and/or sexually abused by a parent or other family member—the very people who are supposed to support and protect them. Imagine having a crackhead mother who spends every dime she gets on drugs and trying to figure out where your next meal is coming from (or worse, how you are going to feed your younger siblings). Imagine walking out of your house and seeing someone get shot, then dumped in an alley. Imagine several of your friends getting killed and feeling like it is very possible you will be next. Do you think you’d be hypervigilant as a result? Angry? Scared, but unable to show it? Do you think you’d start to feel like your life doesn’t matter?
When I was 8 or 9 years old, I was caught in crossfire; I watched a guy get his head blown open while I called to my mother to open the front door to our apartment building so I could escape inside. Later, when I was 15, my best friend Rafiq was killed. A couple of weeks later, my friend Tony was killed as well. So, I know what it feels like to be scared and have to cover it up with false bravado. Toughness is all this environment understands, teaches and values. I remember clutching my pocketknife in my hand as I walked home from the bus stop in our new neighborhood, after my mom moved us to try to find a safe haven. I had been beaten up by the neighborhood kids, and I knew I couldn’t be a victim again. I remember how I felt: angry…nervous…scared…traumatized.
I have seen my friends lose their innocence. I have watched the gleam leave their eyes as they absorb the despair that permeates the lives of their parents and conclude that their own lives are worthless as well. And when they end up in prison? That’s the main lesson taught here: “You’re worthless.” The result is a lack of belief in a better future.
At Antoine’s vigil, 15-year-old Malachi Barr, one of his teammates, recounted the “line-up” of tragedies he had witnessed: PJ Evans, his 8-year-old “little brother,” fatally shot by a stray bullet in 2021 as he was eating tacos at his cousin’s house. Davon McNeil, a fellow youth football player killed at the age of 11 near a Fourth of July anti-violence cookout. And now Antoine. “It makes me angry,” he said. “Why does this keep happening? Why can’t this gun violence just stop?” He is hurting.
But what is even more important is what he said next: “I notice people I know on Instagram flashing guns and I wish they would stop. But what I want adults to know is that my friends need help – not to be yelled at locked up. Just love on the people who got guns. The people who are hurting people are hurt already. They need love in return, instead of more violence.” Thank you, Malachi. He’s a child calling out for help for himself and his friends, but he’s also older than his years in his wisdom.
Zip code vs. genetic code
In his book, Bessel said, “In today’s world, your zip code, even more than your genetic code, determines whether you will lead a safe and healthy life. People’s income, family structure, housing, employment and educational opportunities affect not only your risk of developing traumatic stress, but also your access to effective help to address it. Poverty, unemployment, inferior schools, social isolation, the widespread availability of guns and substandard housing all create breeding grounds for trauma. And trauma breeds further trauma; hurt people hurt people.”
That’s what Bob Brown, a local youth sports coach, is missing, when he said at the vigil that “these kids don’t have hearts; they’re heartless.”
Kids like me and my friends see and experience things that no child should ever be exposed to, from a very young age. So have our parents, and on and on. It’s intergenerational. We’re basically stuck in our trauma.
And what exacerbates it all is that instead of getting help, we most often are punished. No one is asking us what is wrong and trying to confront and address our underlying problems. In fact, kids like these are typically ignored until one of them blows up in school; another hurt kid lashing out in the only way he or she knows to get attention.
The best response
Yet society’s knee-jerk response is to demonize them by classifying them as thugs/criminals and locking them up—an experience that only entrenches the effects of their root problems: trauma…poverty…dysfunctional homes… poor schools… poor parenting…lack of resources…lack of opportunity. What I wrote describes me and my friends—and why we ended up in prison, and are still here, decades later. We were hurt kids who hurt someone else.
As Michelle Alexander wrote in “The New Jim Crow,” “The easy answer (to criminal acts) is to wag a finger at those who behave badly…But the more difficult answer — the more courageous one — is to say yes, yes we should be concerned about the behavior of men trapped in ghetto communities. But the deep failure of morality is our own. Are we willing to demonize a population, declare a war against them, and then stand back and heap shame and contempt upon them for failing to behave like model citizens while under attack?”
It took me a while to decide to write this post, because it’s a very touchy subject, and also very personal. I know some people will misunderstand and think I’m saying that people who have been hurt should get a pass when they in turn hurt someone else. But I say to that a resounding no! There does indeed need to be accountability and consequences. What I’m asking for is balance. As Lindsey Appiah, DC’s new deputy director for public safety, said, “It’s hard to be a child in these neighborhoods. We need accountability, but we also need to give them an opportunity to reset, because we want them to thrive. It’s my responsibility, and all of ours, to figure out how to ‘touch’ these kids before we are talking about them at 3 a.m. in the street.”
And if that happens anyway, then let’s build into the consequences a pathway to change, instead of making these kids even worse with the neglect and abuse that characterize our prisons. Or worse yet, throwing away the key.