WBEZ kicked off a week-long series about “youth violence” yesterday.
I would like to be clear at the outset. I think that shootings are horrible and tragic. I support all efforts to stop any shootings, anywhere, at any time. 66 young people losing their lives to gun violence last year is one too many. Having said this, I want to register my strong and persistent criticism of the framing of “youth violence” in Chicago.
For over two decades now, I along with many others have been working to reframe the conversation about the nature and impact of violence in the U.S. It’s been one step forward and three steps back. It is difficult not to feel discouraged in the face of a persistent insistence to define violence in America as homicide or as PHYSICAL assault.
It is certainly true that some young people in Chicago are being wounded and killed by guns. It is valuable and important to address this lethal form of violence. But what is always missed in the countless “national conversations” and recriminations that take place after shootings are perspective and honesty. The root cause of violence in the U.S. and across the world is oppression. Frederick Douglass famously wrote that:
Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where one class is made to feel that society is organized in a conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.
There it is. In one sentence. Clearly articulated. Eloquent. Easy to understand. And yet we ignore the truth and the wisdom of these words every day. We do so because it is easier to focus on quick fixes and band-aid solutions that will not disrupt the status quo and will not challenge the powerful. It is a sick game of willful ignorance.
The Frederick Douglass quote cited above speaks to the reality that violence is the glue that holds oppressions in place. It is impossible to understand violence without deeply probing and analyzing oppression and how it works. Violence is a real problem for many young people, though not always or even usually in the form of the sensational incidents that tend to dominate the headlines and create pressure for solutions. Youth encounter violence in every arena of their daily lives — at home, at school, through the media, or on the streets of their neighborhoods. Preventing violence before it happens means ensuring that young people have, at minimum, sound education, job opportunities, outlets for recreation, safe neighborhoods, supportive adults in their lives, protection from guns, good nutrition, access to affordable healthcare and stable housing.
If 60 youth under the age of 18 years old are killed by gun violence a year in Chicago, what about the 30% of youth under 18 who are living under the poverty line this year. That number amounts to tens of thousands of young Chicagoans. Is poverty not violence?
What about the over 2200 youth in Illinois who are incarcerated in our juvenile prisons each year. Is youth incarceration not violence?
What about the thousands of youth in Chicago who drop out of school every year. Is educational malpractice not violence?
Young people themselves seem to understand that the definition of violence is much broader than interpersonal violence. The girls from the Young Women's Empowerment Project have this figured out. They are currently working on a project called the Bad Encounter Line that documents and exposes the forms of systemic violence that youth are exposed to each and every day. The young people at Gender Just get this. They penned a statement about media attention to youth suicides that is a MUST READ for anyone who purports to be seriously concerned about the issues of violence in young people’s lives.
A colleague of mine uttered the following words to me over a year ago while we were collaborating on an anti-violence curriculum project… “The natural state of this society is violence,” he said. His words take on real significance when we are clear in our definition of what constitutes violence.
And yet, no one wants to hear this. It is too overwhelming and too dangerous to view the world through this lens. James Baldwin has written that: “To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.” Too few of us are acting on the knowledge that we have. We KNOW that only a radical reallocation of resources will help us to end violence in our societies. We know that this is true and yet we tinker around the edges. Everyone wants me to talk about violence but no one actually wants to hear what I have to say.