Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Well at least they didn't kill you

Those were my mother's words to me several years ago after she learned that I had been robbed. Although her words were far from comforting, I'm always reminded of them whenever things look really bad. No matter how bad things get, they can always be worse.

Spring is upon us and after a long hard winter, people like to get out of the confinement of their homes to seek a much needed outlet from months of sedentary existence. For some it means getting out into the garden, for others it might be baseball, tennis or soccer. Spring is the time for new beginnings, it's the time of the ritual of spring cleaning, of getting rid of the old and starting anew.

In the effort to recharge one's life, some people turn to romance.
Others turn to violent crime.

It has become a rite of spring of sorts in Chicago. Every year, it seems a new form of mayhem previously unheard of around these parts, rears its ugly head. Not that mobs of teenagers attacking, beating up and robbing unsuspecting victims is anything new. The twist is that this year, the attacks have become more brazen. We now have copycat incidents inspired by similar, but far larger events in Philadelphia that began a few years ago, centered around the most popular parts of the city.

Despite the efforts of the police and the Emanuel administration to downplay these "flash mob" attacks, the news media have had a field day with them. Given the instantaneous nature of news gathering these days, getting to the bottom of this has been difficult. It began with rumors of bicyclists on the lakefront being attacked by mobs who removed them from their bikes, then threw the hapless victims into the lake. These reports are unsubstantiated as far as I know. Then on Memorial Day weekend, North Avenue Beach was closed for mysterious reasons. The authorities say it was the severe heat, while others claim it was gang activity. On my own I have noticed much higher police presence in that area than normal. One thing is certain, within the last few weeks there have been a number of reported incidents where mobs of youths attacked people, many of them tourists, in the Streeterville neighborhood, grabbing whatever valuables they could, beating the victims along the way.

Some arrests have been made but the attacks continue.

The undercurrent to this story is something that almost everyone has difficulty addressing, at least in public. It is the race issue. The victims of these crimes have all been white or Asian. The alleged perpetrators have all been African American. It is difficult to address because so much hard work by so many to foster understanding if not exactly love between people of different colors, has been undermined by the acts of a handful of individuals.

I don't have the answer for why people commit senseless crimes. Some would say that the cause is desperate poverty and racism. Since I grew up neither poor nor black, I have no idea. Also, unlike many of these young criminals I suspect, I had two parents who were devoted to me, let me know every day that I was important, blessed me with an enthusiastic faith in education and in the future, and taught me right from wrong, They preached against prejudice, in my father's simple but powerful words that I will take with me to my grave: "people are people." My parents came down on me as hard on the little things as the big ones, teaching me that it was just as wrong to steal a newspaper, (as I once had a penchant for doing), as it was to steal a Mercedes Benz. In short, they taught me that my integrity was the most valuable thing I had. Given my parents' scrupulous sense of values and ethics, the idea of intentionally causing harm to another human being never crossed my mind. My wife and I have tried hard to pass along those same values to our children.

Yet there are countless individuals who come from less than ideal family circumstances who do not become criminals.

There are many socio--economic and psychological reasons for criminal behavior, yet I do believe that a moral-ethical compass in one's life, handed down, not by clergy, councilors, teachers, or society, but by PARENTS, has a tremendous effect upon a child's life.

So do I think that parents are to blame for their children beating up and robbing perfect strangers? Well in a word, yes. I believe that parents (two people, a biological mother AND a father) who bring a child into this world, whether by plan or accident, have the responsibility and obligation to do everything in their power to teach that child how to become a decent human being. If they cannot, it is imperative that they find parents for their children who can. Rich or poor, anything less is simply unacceptable.

In the previous paragraph I mentioned two words that are no longer in vogue in our society. It seems as though today we center our values around personal freedom and expression, on financial success, on self (and instant) gratification, and on doing whatever it takes to make ourselves feel good. So much is focused on the self that we forget there is no such thing as personal freedom without personal responsibility. And how can we possibly feel good about ourselves if we don't fulfill our obligation to be good to our bothers and sisters.

So does society share some of the blame? Again, yes.

Hillary Clinton wrote a book and based one of her campaigns on an old African adage that "it takes a village to raise a child." There is certainly credence to that statement. We live in a global village and all of us fall short when children turn to crime. But the truth is that the immediate village surrounding these children needs to step up to the plate and take charge. Kids aren't going to listen to old white men like me blather on about right and wrong. It has to come from someone they know and respect.

I tried to find commentary on the recent flash mob attacks from some familiar voices in the African American community, but they have chosen to remain uncharacteristically silent. Had the tables been turned, had mobs of white teens sought out and beat up black people on Michigan Avenue, there would have been universal indignation and outrage that would have rightfully been trumpeted around the world.

Which brings me back to my mother's words at the top of this post. Saying that there are worse things than being attacked by a mob of hoodlums of course, is setting the bar ridiculously low for our expectations of life in the city. However the truth is that as bad as getting beat up and robbed is, the real victims in this flash mob nonsense are not the people getting mugged.

I can say this with some authority because I was the target of one of these attacks about six years ago. Terrible as the experience was, I moved on with my life the next day. I was forced to deal with my faith's obligation (there's that word again) to forgive. And that's what I did. Sometimes I think about where the five young men who mugged me are today. For their sake I hope they got past the incident, went on to broaden their horizons, and are leading happy and productive lives. But the odds unfortunately are not in their favor. If they chose to continue robbing and beating up people, or worse, chances are they have or are currently doing time, which will make their prospects for the future extremely difficult at best.

In a broader sense, the city government and the Chicago Police Department will certainly do everything in their power to stop these attacks. In the near future I'm afraid, a trip downtown won't very pleasant for many young African Americans who simply want nothing more than to enjoy the city with their friends. And if these attacks do continue, they will wreak havoc with Chicago's economy as, like it or not, tourism is a huge engine that drives our city. Tourists will view Chicago as a dangerous place and decide to spend their hard earned money elsewhere. As we've seen in the past few years, when the economy takes a hit, the African American community is one of the first to feel it, and one of the last to recover.

Several years ago, Bill Cosby in an address to the NAACP, spoke very candidly about the problems facing the African American community and how many of those problems come from within. Although he was expressing views that are commonly held within the community, by "airing out the dirty laundry", so to speak, he was excoriated by many African American intellectuals. Michael Eric Dyson devoted an entire book, Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? to the subject. I have not read the book but it's interesting to note that in this one excerpt, Professor Dyson spends a great deal of time criticizing the messenger, but in the end, at least tacitly acknowledges the message.

In my search to find African American commentary about the flash mobs, I found this article by Chicago Sun Times columnist Mary Mitchell about an infinitely more troubling subject, the utter lack of hope for the future among much of African American youth. Mitchell writes about her grandson who is being raised in the virtually all white North Shore suburbs because her daughter feels that is the only place where he has a good chance for the future. Mitchell's summation at the end of the piece is heartbreaking. She says this:

When keeping a black boy away from his own community increases his chance of surviving, there is no black pride.

Of course tragedies like the ones Mitchell describes in her piece are not limited to the African American community. This article describes first hand a horrifying event that took place just yesterday.

The fact is, we are facing the prospect of a lost generation of children.

My mother's words notwithstanding, nothing could possibly be worse than that.

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