The system failed -- again

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

May 09, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Friday, this paper ran a picture on the front page of an 11-year-old, a suspected drug courier, as he was being arrested by police.

That picture made a lot of people angry.

It made me angry, too.

The youngster in the photograph wore a David Robinson sweatshirt and designer sneakers. His hands were cuffed behind his back. His feet were spread and an officer was patting him down, apparently searching for hidden weapons.

In the foreground of the picture, a second officer displayed the merchandise allegedly confiscated from the youngster: $160 in cash and several vials of cocaine wrapped in toilet paper.

He was one of 14 people, including one other juvenile, swept up last week during "Operation Clean Sweep" a general crackdown on the drug trade in East Baltimore. Police charged him with delinquency for possession of cocaine and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. He was released into the custody of his mother.

As I said, the picture made a lot of people angry.

They complained that this paper should not have run the photograph because it fed a stereotype of black youth as dangerous, hardened criminals.

They asked: Would we have been as quick to run the picture if the youth had been white?

They asked: Do the pictures we run of suspects being led away in handcuffs reflect the racial breakdown of actual arrests in the Baltimore area?

Then they answered their own questions: No, we wouldn't have run a picture of a white youth in 'cuffs and, no, the pictures we elect to run do not mirror the racial breakdown of actual arrests.

Well, the picture made me angry, too, but for different, and I think, more compelling reasons.

It made me angry because I have a son who is almost the same age and I know that 11-year-olds can be stubborn and foolish, but they are too small, too young, too malleable, and too eager to please to be hardened criminals.

An 11-year-old is an 11-year-old. Doesn't matter if they are black or white. Doesn't matter whether they live in the inner city or in the proverbial 'burbs or in some mansion way off in Hunt Valley.

So, if a such a youngster is dealing drugs it is because somewhere, lurking in the background, some older person has told him to.

And it is because the adults in his life: including his parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles, including educators and ministers and social workers and other official-type minions, including even you and me, have abdicated their responsibility to give him guidance and direction the way real adults should.

Indeed, everything I have heard or read about the accused youngster's mother indicates she is woefully overloaded as a parent. She is unemployed and looking for a place to live. She has two other children-- a 17-year-old and a 17-month-old. She allowed her son to roam the streets after dark and to wear clothes and sneakers that she had not purchased.

At the same time, however, she arranged counseling sessions for her son when he began to do poorly in school. She is trying to get him away from his present environment. She has turned to social service agencies for help for housing and employment.

How much extra support would it take, do you think, to help this woman become an effective parent? A few parenting classes, perhaps? Someone to help her run the soul-draining social service maze? A job?

And what about her son? A tutor? A mentor? Some constructive recreation? An opportunity to do some chores in exchange for a small allowance?

Both the state and the city have programs designed to provide just this kind of support to families.

But these programs are overburdened with people in need and sadly underfunded and they are handcuffed by a steel web of rules and regulations invented by hardhearted people in distant Washington who really do not want to help people learn to help themselves.

Also, East Baltimore has churches and civic groups and many, many intelligent and committed people who try to empower parents and their children.

But sometimes their righteous anger gets sidetracked by secondary, albeit important issues, such as issues of image. Image is important and they are right to call us to task.

But more important by far is the reality behind the image -- the reality of a community that sometimes fails to protect, nurture and in a word, save, its own.

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