The Sole Authority?

INNER CITY VIOLENCE

June 11, 1995|By Harold Jackson | Harold Jackson,Special to The Sun

One of my clearest memories of high school is me pleading with one of my older brothers to back down from the gang banger holding a switchblade knife to his neck and demanding we pay a toll to walk our usual route home. Only we didn't call them gang bangers in 1968. That's one of today's euphemisms for teen-age thugs who brandish weapons and find other than legal means to make money.

Life in the city is as it ever was, violent. But the result of that violence now is usually more tragic.

We walked home the same way we always did that day 27 years ago. My brother Don now teaches history in high school. He still stands up to gang bangers, but not when they're holding a weapon that these days is more likely to be a gun.

In the new book, "Fist Stick Knife Gun" (Beacon Press. 192 pages. $20), New York teacher Geoffrey Canada explores his belief that the media, particularly the movie industry and some "gangsta rap," have through their graphic presentations made violence more acceptable to young people.

I believe that acceptance, combined with a disdain for police that is also one of the vestiges of America's racist past, have made violence the only real authority in many inner city neighborhoods. The chances that a young person in such neighborhoods will actually use the weapon he's holding have certainly mushroomed since Don and I grew up.

And our neighborhood was tough. It was in the projects. Up the street lived Henry James Harris, who by the time he was 19 had so many bullet and knife wounds that his body resembled a sieve. But Henry James probably wouldn't survive one gang fight today. The weapons are more lethal. So are the attitudes.

The latest FBI statistics show that while homicides committed by adults 25 and older dropped 20 percent between 1985 and 1993, murders committed by 18- to 24-year-olds increased 65 percent, and murders committed by 14- to 17-years olds increased 165 percent. The old challenge to an after-school fight involves much higher stakes these days.

Too many young men today, particularly black guys in the inner )) city, are acting out a macho "gangsta" stereotype that is supposed to accept killing and being killed.

These are the children of children of children who have all grown up being told they match the description of whatever criminal suspect is being sought that day. Falling to the level of society's expectations, they have embraced the "gangsta" stereotype.

That's easy to do when your parents and most other grown folks you know also place little or no trust in law enforcement officials who historically have been white and seemed not really interested in the welfare of black people.

In "The American Street Gang" (Oxford University Press. 304 pages. $27.50), sociologist Malcolm W. Klein correctly concludes that street gangs and their violence are an amalgam of racism, poverty, "fatalism in the face of rampant deprivation" and "gross ignorance of inner-city America on the part of most of us who don't have to survive there."

I grew up in the South. But I later learned that black parents all over America during segregation taught their children - through their actions more so than their words - to tolerate the behavior of whites. We weren't taught that white people were superior; we were taught not to expect whites to treat us fairly.

Such lessons changed little until the civil rights movement of the 1960s when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. took the fear out of going to a white man's jail. King taught black children that it's all right to stand up to the police for your God-given rights. During the same period, Black Panthers were teaching black children to disregard all white authority because it is illegitimate.

By Panther rhetoric, all legal authority in America is derivative of the white man, so any representative of that authority, such as a policeman, has no legitimacy in the black community. A police officer thus becomes an object of derision rather than respect. Incidents of police brutality during the civil rights era helped to ingrain this negative attitude toward the police among blacks. Consequently, a shared legacy of King, the Black Panthers and also police brutes such as Bull Connor is a disdain for law enforcement officials in black neighborhoods.

Angela Davis successfully hid in Birmingham, Ala., while running from the FBI because Panther ideology - which said you never turn in a black person to the police - had become pervasive among blacks in her hometown, the town where Connor had been police commissioner a decade earlier.

Ironically, this rejection of police seems strongest in the urban black communities that need law enforcement the most. Their unwillingness to cooperate with police, along with intimidation by criminals, has turned them into sanctuaries for drug dealers and other crooks. The felons rely on their brothers and sisters in the 'hood adhering to the same code of silence that kept political fugitives such as Angela Davis hidden.

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