Teen mobs are full of kids whose dreams have died

Posted: August 10, 2011

CRIMINAL violence on any level shouldn't be tolerated regardless of who's committing it. Having been raised in South Philadelphia, I've seen how the cycle of violence has plagued members of my family, classmates and the community as a whole.

Understanding this firsthand, however, doesn't lead me to conclude that I fully understand the youth who participate in violent teen mobs. But I do believe that our city's children shouldn't be considered monstrous, aggressive or "terroristic." They aren't savages or morally or spiritually bankrupt. This thinking is an easy out for those who don't want to consider the factors that would lead the children of our city to act in a violent manner.

My attempt to understand the behavior of these children shouldn't be construed as an effort to excuse the brutality that we've witnessed over the last several months. But it should remind us that what we've seen is a symptom of a larger issue and that efforts to label the actions of these young people as meritless thuggery could do some harm.

As executive director of Philadelphia's Youth Commission, I've ventured out to all corners of the city to engage young Philadelphians in a dialogue that could shed some light on the pressing question we all have when we see these senseless acts of aggression splashed across our TV screens and newspaper pages - why?

Why would you attack someone who's done nothing to provoke you? Why are they acting like this? Initially, the young people we spoke with couldn't help us answer these questions. They were just as perplexed as we were.

They desperately wanted to sit in class without fear of assault. Or be able to play in the street. They craved order in their communities. These young Philadelphians were not likely members of any violent mob. They were dropped off at a church for this session by their parents. They articulated the problem and voiced their frustration. They discussed their plans for a brighter future. They were going to go to college, get married and leave the city.

Not finding the answer, I reached out to Family Court and asked to meet with some of the young people under their supervision. I thought these young Philadelphians might be able to give me a different perspective. I just didn't know how different their perspective would be.

They weren't so quick to speak because the room was littered with probation officers in bulletproof vests and men in jackets that read "Warrant Enforcement"! The young people appeared to be merely waiting for this "lecture" to be over, but as I started to ask what they thought about their community, their options in life, their goals and dreams for the future, they spoke bluntly. One young man with tattoos across his neck stated that he was 19, with a 10th-grade education and a felony conviction.

He said, "I have no dreams. There is nothing that can be done for me!" Another young man with a very playful demeanor said to me, very seriously, "I'm in the streets. That's just how it is."

We spoke about the issues that affected them: teen parents, addiction, homicides, incarceration and the justice system. They spoke of being unable to provide for their children, of selling drugs to get by, of the chance that they'd be murdered and of friends who have been and of the charges they face in court. They spoke of pressures alien to most who will read this op-ed. I'm not sure I could handle those pressures now - as a 27-year-old, with a master's, a loving family and good coping skills. Certainly I wouldn't be able to handle them at 18.

These young people, our children, are suffering. They're told that the schools they attend are failing them. They live in communities ravaged by poverty and unemployment. They know death intimately. They are desperate, and they've had their dreams stolen from them before they were able to articulate the dreams they had.

As I continue to ask why, knowing what I now know, I have a question. What will happen next if interventions aren't provided?

You see, I believe we've all played a pivotal part in the demise of these young Philadelphians. We want them locked up, but forget that one day they'll be free. We're not ensuring that they're properly educated, yet we demand that they not burden the system.

I think we're seeing the peasants refuse to eat the cake, seeing people who can't articulate their demand for a fair shot at life, and as such, seeing people display their frustration at broken dreams. I ask, "What's next?" because these young Philadelphians won't be young forever.

They'll get bigger, stronger, faster and angrier if their unspoken demands aren't met. After all, what happens to a dream deferred?

Jordan A. Harris is executive director of the Philadelphia Youth Commission.

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