IN WASHINGTON, D.C., site of the nation's most treasured shrines, where the federal political realm pays daily homage to civility and justice, where science, culture and the arts dominate the downtown scene, where belief in the equality of human life reigns supreme, the strong are taking it to the weak with impunity. Seven weeks into the new year, 49 individuals have been murdered in the District of Columbia. That's about one per day.
Until the shooting of Wilson High School seniors Natasha Marsh and Andre Wallace, the carnage wasn't even on the screen of this city's leadership.
This week, Ballou High School's senior-class president, Tre Aunda Stover, laid it on the line at a "Save Our Students" town hall meeting at the University of the District of Columbia sponsored by WOL-AM radio host Joe Madison and the public schools. She demanded to know why five students from her school died in anonymity during the past five months. Where was the publicity? Where was the outcry? Where was the sympathy, the compassion for Ballou families? "That's unfair. Death is death," she declared. The assembled public officials didn't have- much of a response.
I'll answer for them. Better to leave such matters where they belong—buried in the back pages of the daily papers.
Better for political leaders to focus instead on the wonderfulness of the downtown building boom, or to wrestle with such weighty matters as how to spend the city's budget surplus, or to ponder new ways of making themselves look good in public.
When it comes to street violence, it's better to play "let's pretend."
Better for the muckety-mucks to make out as though the daily gunfire and stabbings that are killing people at a pace ahead of last year's are caused by factors beyond their reach (and, thus, their ability to solve).
Better for the rest of us to blame the bloody streets on the lingering remnants of slave culture—on omnipresent racism, on the oppressor's unseen hand.
Better for some of us deep thinkers to resort to psychobabble—to feign that the young gunmen blowing people away, the dudes who are inflicting all the abuse, pain, and fear, are motivated by deep inner hurts induced by an uncaring larger white society. Better to make believe that the street hustling, the "getting over" attitudes adopted by so many of our young men—drawing them from the education and skills they need to make it in this increasingly technological region—represent just some kind of adolescent phase that they're going through.
To cope with the nightly destruction in our city, better for parents, families, and friends to chalk up the mayhem to the failure of others—knock an indifferent business community, point fingers at the power elites, blame trickle-down economics and the unfairness of income inequality.
Do something, anything, but don't face the other unpleasant truths.
Don't face up to the possibility that some of what ails us we help bring on ourselves.
Better to ignore the embarrassing probability that when we parents don't supervise our children's time, and rob them of our own; that when we don't think twice about their becoming truants and ultimately dropouts; that when we shrug off their becoming unmarried teenage mothers and fathers; that when we are so busy indulging ourselves and doing our own thing that we don't know their whereabouts, their friends, or their habits—then just maybe we're helping to bring on the terrible realities that we now so tearfully deplore.
Consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, we are lying to ourselves when we pretend that the breakdown of our families doesn't matter. That we are engaging in a monstrous self-deception when we make believe there are no serious consequences to children's witnessing their mothers and fathers engaging in hand-to-hand combat or when they realize that their parents want nothing to do with each other.
Entertain the thought that maybe, just maybe, when fathers abandon their sons and daughters; when they send no money home to feed or clothe them; when supervision, love, and discipline are missing in the lives of children; that when kids are allowed to live out their lives on the streets; that maybe what we have done, or more important, what we have failed to do, might have just a tiny bit of bearing on the violence that keeps whole sections of this city cowering behind closed doors.
Ah, but here I go again, parents, messing around with our happy family image, punching holes in our elaborate rationalizations and cozy group pretense that nothing's wrong on our side.
Sorry, but the charade is over.
Arlene Payne, the mother of Melissa Payne, who was killed with her friend Natasha Adams last December, told the town-hall meeting: "It is appalling that fifteen of our children had to die for us to get to this point."
Children can't raise themselves. Nor should they be expected to. If they are to become the kind of wholesome and productive adults this city needs, then we—not they alone—must make that happen. And there is no shortcut.
It must be done, one on one, child by child, family by family. It means sending men into fatherless homes, it means adults on the outside taking love inside to children who don't know love, it means replacing rejection with acceptance. Saving children must be a single-minded pursuit by both caring individuals and community groups.
It fell to Ballou senior Tre Stover to bring it into the open. "It's imperative that city leaders and parents get involved," she said. And well said too.
© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company