The Odds that Lafayette Rivers Will Get to Grow Up


April 01, 1991|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Chicago. -- Teaching kids has been a lot easier since the bullets stopped flying through his school playground, says Don Moran, principal of the Ulysses S. Grant School, opposite a public-housing development on Chicago's West Side. But the Chicago Housing Authority's success in ousting pistol-happy gangs by security ''sweeps'' in several public-housing high-rises an isolated victory in the battle against inner-city violence.

A survey of 53 fifth- and sixth-graders in a Southeast Washington neighborhood revealed 31 percent had witnessed shootings. The National Institute of Mental Health survey also showed 17 percent of the children had witnessed stabbings, 43 percent muggings, 67 percent drug sales. Fifty-eight percent had seen people using weapons. Twenty-three percent had seen dead bodies.

Who are the perpetrators of these grisly crimes? They are not hardened, ''adult'' criminals. Increasingly, they are juveniles -- teen-agers 13 and up, boys without family discipline, carrying weapons for ''protection'' or ''style,'' firing them with the same abandon that the movie and television industry unleashes in such ballistic horrors as Arnold Schwarzenegger films or ''New Jack City.''

They may end up bestial kids, produced by conditions in inner-city public-housing complexes. But they start life like all children: curious, full of energy, hoping. Alex Kotlowitz makes that point compellingly in his new book, ''There Are No Children Here'' (TaleseDoubleday).

Mr. Kotlowitz spent years getting close to two young boys, Lafayette and Pharoah Rivers, living at Chicago's squalid Henry Horner Homes. Desperately, Lafayette and Pharoah nurture and protect each other, try to maintain the innocence and fun of childhood, to keep clear of drugs and the gangs. They hunt for snakes along a commuter rail line, try to excel in a school spelling bee, learn to swim. One day Pharoah bounds down a street hoping to find the end of a rainbow. But Lafayette and Pharoah get to attend a lot of their friends' funerals.

In many cities, says Jim Mercy of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, youths are dying of violence ''at epidemic rates.'' Homicide is the leading cause of death for black males age 15 to 34. Each killing ends two lives -- the dead kid, and the one who'll be incarcerated for a good part of his life. Since 1986, reports the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, gunshot wounds to children age 16 and under have increased 300 percent in major urban areas.

Is there a single way to reverse the butchery? Tougher courts? More jails? Counseling for troubled families? Ask some of the nation's top mental-health physicians who focus on inner-city problems and they reply that for fast results the country has only one realistic option: Pass the Brady bill for a seven-day waiting period on handgun sales. As a follow-up, they suggest, we should look for every other constitutional means to choke off the sale of guns to juveniles. And we should tell parents to get guns out of their homes.

''Both suicide and homicide are a teen-ager's expression of rage. Teen-agers express rage more than adults,'' said Ralph Gemelli of Children's Hospital in Washington.

If alcohol is involved, said the experts, the danger of irrational action mounts exponentially. But the most lethal ingredient of all is a firearm. And when guns don't extinguish life, they may disable their victims with head or spinal-cord injuries.

The statistics are striking. Teen-age deaths by firearm -- homicides and suicides alike -- soared through the '80s. The rise in firearm homicides by black youths was especially ominous: It rose to 68 per 100,000 -- 11 times the rate among white teen-agers.

But take away guns, and things hardly changed at all. Among white and black teen-agers, the rate of non-firearm deaths -- whether from knives or strangling or jumping off bridges -- remained essentially static.

The answer is beguilingly simple: Go after gun use, gun availability, gun sales first. Then look to root causes: broken families, drugs and alcohol, physical, verbal and sexual abuse of children.

A national campaign to persuade film makers and television producers to cut back the violence and the guns is also in order. A survey of 21 developed countries shows our youth homicide rate -- mostly from guns -- is 6 times Israel's, 10 times Canada's, 44 times Japan's.

Lafayette Rivers told Alex Kotlowitz: ''If I grow up, I'd like to be a bus driver.'' Not when, but if.

Any civilized country owes its youth more. President Bush and Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, and congressmen who still harbor doubts about the Brady bill, ought to visit a little T-shirt shop in Washington, near Children's Hospital, where many wounded juveniles die.

One T-shirt reads: ''We'll Never Forget ----.'' Youthful customers get their friends' names stenciled in the blank.

The store's name? ''The Madness Connection.''

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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