Article published February 19, 2006
City crime: In order to stop the violence, communities need to change their mind-setTONY FISHER, For the Herald-Journal
I recently was reminded of an encounter that happened eight years ago during an investigation on Sunny Street. While standing outside, a young child appearing to be about 4 years old began running toward me with an innocent, majestic smile. I began to smile as I walked toward him.
As I got closer, his mother reached and grabbed him and said, "You don't talk to the police." At that point, the young child stopped smiling, stood still for a moment and began to back away. His expression of trust and admiration immediately disappeared, and I feared maybe forever.
It was a very painful experience for me, understanding this neighborhood particularly, where the police generally respond to provide safety and security for those in most need of help.
For some time, we have been confronted with acute violence that is peculiar to the African-American community. Maybe that mother's statement then to her 4-year-old son was a reflection of her prior tribulations, and/or famed musical icons with lyrics that suggest, "Don't be a snitch."
Not only are young people exposed to violence depicted in song lyrics, but violence-based video games are readily available with children as the intended audience. On one of the latest video games, "25-to-Life," manufactured by Eidos, participants role-play shooting fellow gang members and police officers while using civilians as human shields.
The attitudes that support a violent nature have clearly prospered in many African-American neighborhoods and largely go unchecked by those who live in and around the activity. National statistics are dependable documentation. The latest data collected by the Department of Justice reports that African-Americans are six times more likely than white people to be murdered and seven times more likely to be a homicide offender. In Spartanburg, the ratios are 9-1.
Seemingly, more national and local leaders are beginning to hypothesize as to what causes these trends of violence. As leaders seek to identify the causes of aggression and violent tendencies, inappropriate behavior is often attributed to institutional failures. Schools, government, racism or some other entity often is presumed to be the catalyst.
Attempting to explain this inappropriate behavior often becomes enabling and reinforces the tendency to absolve offenders from responsibility for their actions. We must recognize and accept that our children are growing up without consequences for their actions. This lack of accountability gives a sense of empowerment to those who demonstrate violently aggressive behavior, and as a result a large section of the community is victimized.
To commit a violent act is a conscious decision made by an assailant. When offenders are identified and adjudicated, it is important that they sustain the consequences of their actions.
The system does not have the ability to instill benevolence, character and compassion in an individual's life. My experience illustrates that these childhood traits are developed from a loving environment -- family and other youth activities offered by churches, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and other community programs.
It is also my experience that when these opportunities are voided in a developing child's life, the only alternative he or she has is to be trained in "the streets," which customarily results in a lifelong mind-set. An ugly, self-perpetuating cycle develops where assailants often become future victims of violence.
Violence and crime in our community is related to gang and drug activity. Residents refuse to take action and rid their neighborhood of the activity because oftentimes it is a relative or friend, and they will not provide information to local authorities. These crimes generally occur in blighted neighborhoods -- boarded up houses, namely rental property, and homes in poor condition.
Although I am not able to answer this capricious behavior, we must move beyond political correctness and deal with the reality of it -- call it what it is.
Historically, nothing has mobilized the African-American community like an act of victimization perpetrated against an African-American by someone of another race. We have seen and heard the African-American response to accounts of senseless acts of brutality that occurred simply because of racial differences. We have seen the responses from African-American communities when the police killed black people, rightfully so. Following these incidents, we have seen the local and national outcry. People become incensed and are motivated to march, rally and give compelling speeches denouncing these senseless and horrific acts of violence. We all acknowledge that the lives of families are forever changed and people are compelled to deal with hurt and devastation that for some will never subside.
Yet national statistics show that, in comparison, significantly fewer incidents of violent crimes in this country were perpetrated against African-Americans by persons of a different race than by other African-Americans.
In this country, unspeakable numbers of African-Americans are killed by other African-Americans. Are we to accept that the families of these victims and the communities from which they came are less impacted because the victims were killed by persons of their own race? Does the heart of a mother of the African-American male that was killed by a white man grieve more than the mother who lost her son prematurely because a black man murdered him? Is the African-American child who suddenly becomes fatherless less orphaned because a black man is the responsible party for the state of fatherless that was thrust upon him?
The loss of a life to violence is senseless, and it hurts. It does not matter who the assailant is because the hurt and anguish are the same.
Many African-American communities are facing crime epidemics with the disparaging number of black people killing black people. Pushing silence and apathy aside, we must develop the same sense of urgency, outrage and mobilization that is demonstrated when an African-American suffers death at the hands of a person of another race or at the hands of the police.
Communities must understand the urgency of working with local authorities and work to change people's mind-set. Unless we accomplish this, we will continue to experience a level of violence among African-Americans unparallel to any other race.
Researchers and theorists suggest that one's social economic status contributes to violent tendencies. But, I argue, poverty is not mostly associated with crime, because there are many poor people who are law-abiding citizens. I know this from personal experience.
Violent behavior creates untold statistics of victims who suffer lasting changes: lifestyle, living in fear, recovery and healing from a spontaneous death. This is the reality of crime, and often the victims are the least mentioned, helped or considered when the issue is crime.
Our role and responsibility in society is to protect those who are victims and serve law-abiding citizens regardless of race. Internal values of decency and respect tend to motivate most to abide by the rules of a lawful society.
I believe we should continue to improve schools, provide opportunities to improve parenting skills, provide resources to recreational facilities such as Boys & Girls Clubs and other nonprofit organizations that serve children. But for those who refuse to take advantage of the opportunities that are available to them and choose to engage in the brutal victimization of others, let's build more jails and incarcerate them.
Tony Fisher is director of the Spartanburg Public Safety Department.