Two nights ago, my dear, usually unflappable, impeccably professional Shoes called me, quite audibly agitated, to tell me that there had been a gang homicide in the Vineyard Town (the town in which he still lives). It is, unbelievably, the first gang related homicide (the numbers of assaults and riots number much higher) in the small community of 31,000 people.
We both knew the 20 year old victim (also a gang member) and had worked with him professionally (it's public record). In fact, almost all of my closest friends from the Vineyard Town are kid workers (addictions counselors, mentors, therapists, juvenile detention officers, juvenile probation officers and, of course, my own dear Juvenile Deputy Prosecuting Attorney) and we had all worked with him professionally. In all honesty, this was a tough kid. Challenging. Defiant. Angry. And we cared about him deeply. It's a situation in which all are true.
And we mourn his loss deeply. More deeply than I know how to tell you. We work as hard as we can. We give as much as we can give (or as much as our resources allow us to). And in the end, even though it's quite obviously nobody's fault, we all ask the same question:
Could I have done something differently?
We are all asking that question. And we are all holding our breath to hear who the pd will arrest. We want to believe it's not another juvenile. We want to believe it's not somebody we've worked with. And we know it's not a realistic expectation.
These kids - these "bad kids" - you wouldn't believe the challenges they face. You wouldn't believe what's happened in their lives. You wouldn't believe the community, contextual factors that contribute to their delinquency. There are so many intersecting factors of race, class, privilege, and oppression that it is absolutely ludicrous to approach the issue from an "errant individual", middle class, Caucasian perspective and question why these kids aren't more pro-social, contributing members of society. The public doesn't understand and it is ridiculously easy to demonize. These kids did not wake up at 12 years old and make an informed decision to become gang members.
One thing I do regularly (that I should not do at all because it certainly doesn't contribute to my own mental well being) is read the public's comments on online news stories. The following was posted yesterday from the Vineyard's Town paper (copied and pasted in full, including spelling errors - no edits):
@football stud: He did make a choice, and when you play with fire, you're going to get burnt. I just can't help but think that somewhere along the lines, someone realized that he was headed down the wrong path, and decided to turn a blind eye. Not all of us would do that, but I feel like many of these young kids are failed by their parents, teachers, neighbors, anyone that knows them and could see the red flags. Ulitmately, I hold the parents responsible for making sure that they don't get wrapped up in gangs, but we all know that many people that have children don't have them for the right reasons and don't take care of them.Red flags? Dear heart, this was not an at-risk youth. This was a youth drowning in more structural inequality, racism and delinquency than I care to address in a single posting. Did we turn a blind eye to him? Ask my juvenile detention officer friends who spent multiple nights with him, working with him on calming him down and listening from a place of non-judgmental inquiry. Ask the probation officers who worked every angle they could to get him appropriate services. This isn't blind. This is doing as much as you can.
But it may have been doing as much as we can too late. As in, we need to build healthy communities sooner, because by the time the kids reach us, we're addressing some pretty deeply ingrained thoughts and beliefs.
For the first time in four years, I wish I was back in the Vineyard Town. For the first time in four years, I feel something other than contempt for the community. I'm not sure what it is, but I think it borders on tenderness and passion.
I may have been exaggerating when I said I would never return.