Thursday, April 8, 2010

In which young people talk about violence.

A girl in the sociology class I was in today told me she had just done a project on youth violence. "So tell me about youth violence," I said. The teacher hadn't left lesson plans, and I figured this was a good place to kick off a discussion.

"These people are all trying to say kids get in fights because they're abused, or because their parents are divorced, and all this other stuff, but I think some kids are just bad." I hear this one a lot.

"So the thing you have to realize is that not all neighborhoods are like this. Fights happen way less in Wilmette than they do in Englewood. You think those kids are just better people than you guys?"

"I don't know."

"So let me ask you this. You've all been in fights, right?" Everyone in the class -- it was still early in first period at Robeson, so there were only about five of them -- nodded. "Are you bad people?"

"No," said another girl. "But I only get in fights to protect myself."

A few other kids agreed. "But," I said, "different people have different definitions of what it means to protect themselves, what you have to do." I asked if they would punch me if I pushed them -- most said yes, and one girl said, "Why would you be pushing me if you weren't trying to start a fight?"

"What if you were just in my personal space?" I asked. "I wanted you out, so I pushed you back."

She told me how my response should have been exactly what a nonviolence educator would hope it would be: ask her to move away, explain that it's making me upset, etc.

"Of course," I said. "Those are all things I should have done, and that's what I'd hope my reaction would be. But can you honestly tell me that if I was up in your face like this" -- I stepped about a foot away from her -- "talking to you, that would be your response?"

She laughed. "I probably would push you. But you shouldn't have been that close to me anyway!"

"But look at what's happened -- using only your reactions, we've gotten from someone standing too close to you to a punch getting thrown. This is how fights get started. It's always OK to do just a little bit more than what's done to you, and before you know it knives are getting pulled."

The conversation drifted a little bit. I let it go.

A little while later, a girl was talking about an elementary-school pastime of hers. "We had these police tasers, and sometimes there'd be these white kids sitting on the bus, and we'd start tasing them, and we'd chase them off the bus with tasers."

Another girl -- the same one who'd said fights were caused by bad people -- added, "We used to -- I'm talking about when I was in elementary school -- we'd be riding deep, like, twelve or fifteen deep, and one of us would just point to somebody, anybody, at a bus stop, and we'd just jump 'em. And there was so many of us, they couldn't do nothing, and we'd just beat on 'em and then leave."

"We used to do that too, over on Jackson."

At this point, I had to bring in the rest of the class. "How many of you used to do that?"

"Do what?"

"You and your friends, in elementary school, beat up random strangers at bus stops."

"Well, you don't go into other hoods and start fights at their bus stops, because you don't know what's going to happen. But in my hood, at my bus stop? Yeah, you're going to get got."

"How about the rest of you?"

One boy piped up and said he never had. A girl stayed silent. Everyone else nodded. We were up to eight in the room by this point.

"So let me tell you guys. Growing up in my neighborhood, I never got into a fight with a random stranger in a bus stop. Do you think that's because I'm a better person than you were? Because let me tell you, I wasn't a good person in seventh, eighth grade."

"You never got in a fight?"

"That's not what I'm saying, but no, I didn't. But the point is, as a kid, it never occurred to me to beat up a stranger in a bus stop. There wasn't a pack of fifteen twelve-year-olds running around beating up strangers that I could've joined. It just didn't happen. Why do you think in my neighborhood in Evanston, that never happened, but on the South and West Sides, where you grew up, it happens all the time?"

They were a little shocked by this. "You know, some of those people did have some problems, like, anger problems, violence problems."


  1. Really nice dialogue here. This organization operates out of the same building that Shimer does: I'm sure you've heard of restorative justice?

  2. Yeah, I have -- but I hadn't heard of that organization. I'd been looking for people doing it in Chicago, and hadn't been able to find any -- thanks for the heads up.



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