Bus case points to sad truth about us

April 25, 2008|By JEAN MARBELLA

Many words have been spilled on the bus beating case in which a group of middle school students attacked a fellow passenger and nearly blinded her, and Circuit Judge David W. Young has heard just about all of them - in the courtroom as he presided over it, of course, but also in e-mails, on the phone and even on the street, where passers-by would accost him.

By the time the long-running case headed to conclusion with sentencing on Wednesday, it was hard to believe there was anything left to say about this ugly incident. Oh, but there was - and cutting through the verbal thicket was Young himself who, rather than simply sentencing the ringleader of the beating, addressed the rest of us as well.

"Something is wrong," Young said simply at one point during an often moving soliloquy.

He was speaking not so much from the bench but from the heart, and a sorrowful one at that. He was speaking about a city that he loves, and the pain of watching it rip itself apart in hatred.

So often, notorious crimes like the bus beating get gnawed on endlessly, but to little avail. Everyone has an opinion, few have insight. The perps get demonized, the victims get pitied - although they often come in for some demonization as well - and then it all goes away, until the next incident that draws yet more sound and fury.

The amazing thing about Young's remarks was that he tried to place the bus beating in a larger context - of kids running untethered from the usual family and community structures, of the deep chasms, be they racial, ethnic or gender, that leave us hateful, fearful or intolerant of one another, of a social fabric too tattered to serve as a safety net.

"One of my favorite movie lines is where Jack Nicholson says, `You can't handle the truth,'" he said. "And I just think in many ways, we are ignoring the truth that's as plain as the noses on our faces."

If you care about Baltimore, you should read the transcript of what Young said that we're running today. No, don't just read it, clip it out of the paper or print it on your computer and put it in your pocket. Or stick it in the frame of your mirror, forward it to someone, do something other than just let it pass unheard.

Young offered a personal take on a city he's adopted as his own, having moved to Baltimore 37 years ago from Hagerstown to attend UMBC.

"Growing up in Hagerstown, I didn't see a lot of things," he said.

But where you might expect to hear the usual litany of urban pathologies - the crime, the poverty - Young spoke glowingly of seeing doctors and lawyers who weren't white. It was a revelation to this product of a small town and segregated schools.

"I saw the city of Baltimore," Young said wistfully. "I thought I was in heaven."

I wonder if the teenagers arrayed before him, awaiting his judgment, ever saw Baltimore that way. Did they see the hope, or did the reality of their often broken neighborhoods, schools and families cloud such vision? Could they ever imagine, as Young must have at a certain point, being the judge rather than the judged?

Young didn't refer to this on Wednesday, but he is not someone who came from wealth or privilege. In an obituary of his mother, which ran in The Sun two years ago, the judge said his parents both worked multiple jobs so that their six children could get a decent education. His family was moved into public housing, he told The Sun's Frederick K. Rasmussen, because it was among the most decent housing available to blacks at the time. His mother used to clean attorneys' offices, and as a child Young sometimes accompanied her, reading law books while she tidied up.

The bus case surely troubled him - he spoke of how it reduced him to tears and sleepless nights - as it has many. It's the racial aspect - the attackers are black, the victim is white - but I think it's also the shock of so violent an act in so public a space.

To me, good public transportation is one of the things that makes a great city great. When I take the el in Chicago or the subway in New York, I feel like I'm coursing through the very arteries of a city. Public transit connects far-flung parts of town, and by extension, its residents.

It's one of the few times you're thrown together, shoulder to shoulder, and occasionally armpit to nose, with your fellow citizens - for better or worse. And most of the time, it's for the better: We're all in the same boat, or bus, together and there's this implicit agreement that it's better if we all get along, share the space and make it to our stops without hassle.

Which is one of the many reasons why a suit that two lawyers in the case are threatening to file is so boneheaded. The lawyers, who represent two of the kids whose cases were dismissed, are charging that the city schools and the MTA are endangering children by transporting them to and from school on public buses that also pick up adults.

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