Sunday, August 12, 2007

A Bloodbath in Newark, and Beyond

Published: August 11, 2007


Cory Booker seemed tired, beleaguered, bewildered.

The young mayor had been on the run with very little sleep for several days. Now, during a break in a private room at City Hall here, he leaned forward in his chair and said, “There is something going on in our country that people are not, for some reason, awake to.”

He then mentioned what he described as a “poignant” meeting he’d had with a top official of the F.B.I. “I asked him, ‘What is the solution to this problem?’ ” said Mr. Booker. “And he said to me, ‘It’s not law enforcement.’ ”

The mayor was talking about the violent crime that, like a dragon from some Medieval fairy tale, continues to devour the lives of young Americans, especially those in poor black and brown neighborhoods. This is a tale with no happy ending in sight.

Newark has been convulsed since last weekend when the dragons materialized late at night in the rundown playground behind a public school. A 19-year-old college student, Natasha Aeriel, was gravely wounded by a gunshot to the head. Her three companions, including her 18-year-old brother, Terrance, were then marched at gunpoint down a flight of stone steps and ordered to face a 6-foot-high concrete wall.

The youngsters were told to kneel and then were executed with shots to the back of the head in a tableau that seemed too insane to be real. Staring at the wall in daylight, under an extremely hot August sun, I found myself resisting the idea that this really happened, that three young people really died right there, like casualties in a war zone.

Forty years after the riots that wrecked this city, Newark is once again unnerved. People are calling for the resignation of a mayor who has been in office only a year. Others want the National Guard to start patrolling the streets, a stomach-turning suggestion to many who remember the riots.

The sheriff of Essex County, Armando Fontoura, lost it completely on Tuesday, loudly declaring, “I’m on the verge of telling my guys to suspend civil liberties and start frisking everybody.”

There’s a fever in the city. But the biggest mistake one could make in looking at the gratuitous slaughter of these young people (three arrests have been made and more are expected) is to view it as a problem peculiar to Newark.

A month ago, I was interviewing people in a playground outside an elementary school in Chicago, where a 13-year-old girl had been shot to death. She was just one of many. Nearly three dozen public school students in Chicago were slain over the past school year, most of them shot to death.

“It’s difficult out here,” said a woman who was watching her two young sons scamper around the playground where the 13-year-old had died. Her tone was every bit as weary and beleaguered as Cory Booker’s.

In Camden, N.J., on a Sunday morning in June, a 24-year-old nurse’s aide was killed in a burst of gunfire as she stood talking with a friend on a street corner. She was one of four young people killed in a four-day eruption of violence in Camden.

A teenager who lives in the city tried to explain to me what it was like to have a number of friends or relatives murdered: “You don’t exactly get used to it,” he said, “but you expect it.”

Philadelphia, across the Delaware River from Camden, is struggling with an even worse problem. As if signaling the start of an accelerated killing season, six people were murdered on the first day of summer. Philly’s homicide rate is on pace to break last year’s tally of 406.

As Senator Barack Obama said during a visit to a Chicago church last month, “From South-Central L.A., to Newark, New Jersey, there’s an epidemic of violence that is sickening the soul of this nation.”

More attention to this crisis of violence is needed, and more police resources, and more jobs, and better schools, and improved prison re-entry programs, and tighter gun controls. But more than anything else, a cultural change is needed.

The communities hardest hit are those in which too many parents have failed their children. The most effective anti-crime effort begins at home with parents (fathers, are you listening?) who raise their kids to know better than to point a gun at another human being and blow that person away for no good reason.

That’s the essential component. Without it, all other crime-fighting efforts are doomed, and thousands upon thousands of poor youngsters will continue to be denied their most basic civil right — the right to grow safely to adulthood.


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