A personal perspective about a nation’s shock and grief over a horrific act in a place where such things “aren’t supposed to happen,” and the places where similar tragedies occur almost every day, where children grow up in a relentless tide of violence.
My heart is torn by the unspeakable violence to the people in Newtown Connecticut. The son of one of my dearest friends is a clergyman in that town and he is spending day and night ministering to the townspeople while his own children are shaken to the core. I grew up in towns like Newtown, mainly Lexington, Massachusetts and Kettering, Ohio, with beautiful homes and picturesque town centers. They were places that invested in education and their children because they had the tax base, educated parents and wealth to do so. My parents gave me a great start and by the time I started college in California in 1974, I could have tested out of freshman English but decided to take the easy As.
These towns were also so homogenous that by the time I reached California to attend the University of California at Berkeley, I think that I had only slightly known two or three African Americans, one or two Asians and no Hispanics by the time I was 18. That drastically changed by living near San Francisco and living a stint on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC after I graduated from Berkeley. I came back to Berkeley several years later for my husband to go to graduate school and chose to live in El Cerrito, California, a town that is about the size of Newtown but much less rural. We have a high school with a great football and debate team, a marching band and a homecoming float-parade down the main street every year.
El Cerrito is a hybrid town. Five miles to the south is UC Berkeley, one of the finest universities in the world with the distinction of having the most Nobel Laureates. Five miles to the northwest is Richmond, one of the most dangerous cities in California, where gun violence is so rampant that it has taken the lives of more than 900 of its citizens since 1990. My sons went to schools that were majority minority, and the main differences in the groups of students were defined more by economics than race. I had kids of all races and economic backgrounds at my house and the main differences were that one set would return to their relatively safe homes in El Cerrito and nearby upscale Kensington and the other set would return to homes stuck in very scary neighborhoods in Richmond. I had an interesting but comfortable involvement with my boys’ school experience and loved that my sons were prepared to live and work with all types of people. But my youngest son Nick Lawson’s love of football took my husband and me into a two-year journey that stumped and challenged everything I thought I knew about living in a multicultural society.
For the 2003 to 2004 seasons, Nick played football for the Richmond Steelers, a California Youth Football League team that has boys on their team from ages 6 to 14. Nick started when he was 13 and left the team at 14 to continue to play football in high school and then college. He wanted to play for the Richmond Steelers because they had won the top championship for many years and he had a friend who played there. So I took him in the summer of 2003 to the tryouts and settled down in the stands to watch. I was use to seeing a multi-ethnic group of kids in everything my sons did, but it took me a few minutes of watching the boys running on the field to realize there were no Hispanic, white or Asian kids running around the field – just Nick and a crowd of African-American kids. Before I had time to totally absorb this, the African-American head coach, Fred Harris sauntered up into the stands next to me and pointed to Nick. He asked me if that was my boy. I told him yes and he smiled and in an understated and humorous way, told me that Nick favored me in looks. I laughed and realized that Coach Fred also didn’t see white kids, and for the most part, any other ethnic kids trying out for his team. The Steelers were mostly kids from the part of Richmond that I tried to avoid.
I also met the two assistant coaches, brothers named Khalid and Waleed Elahi, both of whom had grown up in Richmond. Nick (number 50) made the team and my husband and I went to all the games (no team buses for this team from the poor area). We sat as the only white couple on the Steeler side and were accepted into the stands with grace and humor by the parents who had a running joke that number 50 looked like us. I felt twinges about this because I realized that some my all-white junior high school football parents probably would not have made a lone black family feel the same. Because the Steeler’s colors were black and gold and Nick wore black Under Armor under his uniform that covered his arms and legs, you really could not tell his color until, as the center, he would stick out his Day-Glo white hand to hike the ball.
We would spend time with coaches Fred, Khalid and Waleed and began to hear how they were saving these kids, starting from age 6 to age 14 from the violent streets, teaching them with very strict discipline and insisting that they were tutored. But they only had them for part of the year and in the early to mid-2000s, the cuts in money for opportunity, the loosening of gun restrictions and the rise of drugs were taking their toll. Khalid and Waleed had played for the Steelers during the 1980s where the same poverty and lack of opportunity due to cuts in state and federal budgets drove both of them into drugs and prison sentences; but they turned themselves around and decided to coach to keep another generation from making their same mistakes.
But while Nick was playing for the Steelers in 2004, these coaches were losing the battle. One of their stars, Terrance Kelly had made it through high school and had been recruited by the University of Oregon for a full scholarship to play football. Coach Fred, who had been coaching the Steelers for three decades, was so excited for him and for the example it set for the younger kids, even the 6-year-olds. Several days before Kelly left for college, he was waiting for a friend in the car in Richmond when another kid came up and shot him dead. Although it was just one of the gun murders in Richmond that week, it made the news for a few days. But it devastated the Steelers from Coach Fred down to the 6-year-olds since Kelly had been seen as a role model. All three of the coaches seemed to have physically shrunk from the shock. Unknown to me at the time, several other players a few years earlier had been killed during the off season and two teammates, while playing well together during the season, had one of them shoot the other when they went back to their separate neighborhoods. The coaches felt they were losing the war in bringing these kids out of the escalating and endless violence.
At the end-of-the-season awards ceremony that year, we were the only white couple and enjoyed watching each group of kids getting awards and advancing up to the next team. Since the Steelers won almost all their games and were champions year after year, the mayor of Richmond and many of the clergy of Richmond were in the packed auditorium of parents. The room grew somber as the father of Terrance Kelly spoke and encouraged the kids to stay in school and study.
As my son Nick went up with his teammates to receive his awards, they had a special ceremony for the 14-year-olds who were graduating out of the Steelers to their high school teams. But then they lined up the boys and one of the clergy and the coaches went and put their hands on the shoulders of each boy to pray that he would live to adulthood. My husband and I were stunned. The fact that at age 14 these boys had to get blessings to make it to manhood shook us to the core. I felt extremely guilty when they did the same blessing for my son because I knew that as a white boy in El Cerrito, he statistically had an excellent chance to make it to adulthood. This was a paradigm that was almost beyond my comprehension and I realized that I really didn’t and perhaps never could understand what these parents went through, and also how it must have affected the younger kids.
The next year my son was eligible to play for the Steelers in a special football tournament at the end of the football season. I was looking forward to seeing the coaches and the parents again. I will never forget, at the beginning of the season, my son’s ashen face when he came into my bedroom to tell me that Coach Waleed had been shot and killed in a parking lot at the El Cerrito/Richmond border. The Steelers, including his brother, decided to go on with the season and they won the championship but the life seemed to ebb out of Coach Fred’s face. He was battling cancer and it had been under control, but he died at 62 two years later. More than 600 people, including my family, attended his funeral to honor a man who spent decades trying to pull these kids out of a culture of violence and death, and who lost the battle way too many times.
My son went on to high school and college football and is now getting his MBA. I never forgot my experience with the Steelers and it profoundly changed me. But life and work move on and it was painful to know that this slow-rolling massacre of children and their role models was going on a few miles away.
But it hit me like a knife this week. As I, like so many other Americans, sat in disbelief watching the tragedy of Newtown, several townspeople in their shock and grief said, to the effect, that this type of massacre was not suppose to happen here. Something deep in me clicked and I actually yelled at the television and said, “So where is it supposed to happen!” The Richmond carnage came flooding back and I was profoundly disturbed that, we, as Americans are suppose to tolerate it year after year in Richmond, where it is usually just a blip on the local news, but if it happened in the “nice” towns like I grew up in, it was a national tragedy. I started researching the statistics and came up with some that showed that it was happening less and less for white children in America despite the Newtown slaughter, but has been increasing for African-American children. According to the Children’s Defense Fund:
Between 1979 and 2009, gun deaths among white children and teens have decreased by 44 percent, compared to an overall 30 percent increase among black children and teens over the same period.
It was also extremely frustrating to me to know that Adam Lanza, who may have been suffering from mental illness, had parents who had the money to get him the best of care, as well as a school district that assigned a psychologist and several helpers to keep track of almost every move he made in high school.
I thoroughly believe that many of the kids that I saw in the Richmond Steelers also had a form of mental illness from the circumstances of their birth, including the violence they had seen since they were toddlers. Some of it may or may not have been biologically based, as has been the case in other mass shootings, where the perpetrators had a history of mental illness. But for the Richmond kids, it may also have been brought on by what they saw happening day by day in their lives. I am sure that the district where these kids went to school, did not have the resources to have a school psychologist assist them; budget cuts have killed off any psychologists, or even school counselors who would know their name. If they acted out, they were thrown out of school and often were arrested.
Take, for example, this traumatized teen’s testimony on seeing shootings happen on her street from a Sports Illustrated story:
One 18-year-old girl, testifying in ’05 before a grand jury in a murder case, described what goes on in Richmond this way: “You hear the gunshots, you come outside, you see who is on the ground, see if you know them, and if you don’t, you just go back on about your normal life.
Any teen that would have talked like that where I went to high school would have been considered mentally ill and there would be an intervention of parents, teachers and social services to help. But it is just another day in Richmond.
After having a long talk with my son, I decided to seek out Coach Khalid and had a mind-blowing talk with him about what children face where he grew up. Khalid gave up coaching soon after his brother was murdered and decided to do whatever he had to save some of these kids. He has a nonprofit to try to get some of these kids to college but it doesn’t have any money, it is really is just him working jobs to make enough money to get by so he can spend time pulling kids out of this climate and give kids hope that he never had.
When he came from Richmond to go to an El Cerrito elementary school, he told me that he thinks that he had never really interacted with anyone white. He met Indian and Asian kids also, and their families blew his mind because the kids all planned to go to college and knew what they wanted to do by sixth grade. He went through the El Cerrito schools (which are in the same school district as Richmond), but was transferred back to a high school in the middle of Richmond when he was a junior. His father never believed that they could afford college and encouraged Khalid and Waleed to get a job at the Chevron refinery in Richmond. Khalid never went, or was even required to go, to a school counselor – he didn’t even realize that they were supposed to help you pick out classes to make it into college; he thought they were there to hand out punishment. Unlike me, who didn’t realize until after elementary school that college was not mandatory, he had no way out of his neighborhood and turned to easy drugs and guns to make a living.
But he now knows to his core that the main way to save these kids, as many as he can afford, is education. He told me that he has, since 2005, pulled out ten kids to go on to get their bachelor’s degree. He also went to community college himself, got a two-year degree and now he is going on to get his own bachelor’s degree to become a teacher, all while still pulling kids out of this quagmire.
When I asked him how the culture works to keep failing these kids, he told me it was like young men who signed up for the military after 9/11 to go fight to protect their country. When these young men see someone kill a family member or a friend in their neighborhood, which is the country they identify with, they sign up to be like soldiers to go out and kill who is killing them. It isn’t just the easy explanation of it being gang violence that is written off by much of the rest of the country, and he just this week put this explanation on his Facebook page:
The Hood [Neighborhood] Virus is a mental illness that is highly infectious. The disease targets individuals who feel bad about being good, people who can’t think for themselves, unintelligent followers and individuals who choose [street school] over a real educational institution. In the streets you learn how to Die fast, Be Fearful, Be heartless, Be a Slave, be Unworthy, a Taker, be in the way and a Problem. When we were slaves the Master didn’t want the slaves to have a relationship with education. In fact the slave was killed if he learned how to read & write or do math. I see why we were kept back because they knew that when we are in our right frame of mind we are virtually Unstoppable. Free your minds from street incarceration. And for those that are keeping good distance from Dummies, Keep up the good work because the Hood Virus is a mental illness that is Highly Infectious.
As you can see, Khalid is not accepting it and not making any excuses. He is tough. When I saw President Obama’s speech at the Newtown memorial service, it jumped out at me that he said that we have to save all our children. Obama knows about this because despite his middle-class upbringing, he searched out the poorest part of the Chicago projects to become a community organizer after college and gave up a cushy job at a New York financial firm. He saw it in the young children as he eloquently explained in his first book, Dreams of My Father. He was visiting an elementary school in the Chicago projects where he had this conversation with its principal:
She laughed cheerfully and walked me into the hallway, where a wobbly line of five-and six-year-olds was preparing to enter a classroom. A few of them waved and smiled at us; a pair of boys toward the rear spun around and around, their arms tight against their sides; a tiny little girl struggled to yank a sweater over her head and got tangled up in the sleeves. As the teacher tried to direct them up the stairs, I thought how happy and trusting they all seemed, that despite the rocky arrivals many of them had gone through – delivered prematurely, or delivered into addiction, most of them already smudged with the ragged air of poverty – the joy they seemed to find in simple locomotion, the curiosity they displayed toward every new face, seemed the equal of children anywhere….
“Beautiful, aren’t they?” Dr. Collier said.
“They really are.”
“The change comes later. In about five years, although it seems like it’s coming sooner all the time.”
“What change is that?”
“When their eyes stop laughing. Their throats can still make the sound, but if you look at their eyes, you see they’ve shut off something inside.”
I wonder if he was thinking of these kids too when he said that we have to protect all our children. I suspect so. I am well aware that the problems with the crushing poverty in Richmond, and the violence, are complex and have gone on for generations. It won’t be easy to change.
We all desperately want to do something to change things after the horrendous slaughter of Sandy Hook Elementary School. The Washington Post lists the outpouring of help that is flooding into the town from members of a shaken nation who want to do something, anything to not feel so helpless to the violence.
This place of grief has become a place of pilgrimage, with people coming from all over New England and beyond to say a prayer, light a candle, lay a wreath or a teddy bear, or just stand quietly in solidarity with this heartbroken town….
Grief counselors and caregivers of all varieties – from religious evangelists to a group of massage therapists from Rhode Island who came to offer free rub-downs to the Newtown Volunteer Ambulance Corps – have arrived in town to provide comfort.
Newtown is getting the help they need. Khalid is not. So I am going to put my grief to work where I have seen how the gun violence has traumatized Richmond’s youth and the people who have tried to help them. I am going to meet this week with Khalid and help him put his Way Out Foundation on good footing, help him get some resources, tutor the kids and help them prepare for college. If you are heart broken about this recent massacre, also think about the slow-rolling massacre that has gone on for decades without the same outpouring of help.
There is a Richmond near you with a Khalid desperately trying to pull damaged kids out of their trauma through education. Find them and get out of your comfort zone to help them as a way to help all the kids in the nation reach adulthood without fear of this terrible violence. Your work there will go a long way. Just think what would happen if we could get 10 percent of us from the safe towns to do this, and how many lives we could save.