Mackenzie, my youngest son wrote the following and requested that I read and respond. Mackenzie is currently studying at Yale University. In so many ways Mackenzie is the most mature – wise – of my six children. He has demonstrated the humility and depth of grace that it took me until my late 50’s to understand – no less exhibit.
In the next post I will write my a fuller response, but in short, his confession to complex reasons for combating violence by recalling his experience is understandable, noble and smart. He seems to have gotten caught in the “justification trap” – that any act that gives him an edge over others is purely tactic and somehow demonstrates a flaw in his character.
It’s another version of “if a program such as affirmative action” is a benefit to me, then I am less than others because it was used to justify my inclusion. The fallacy in this formulation I will describe in my next post!
When I was a freshman at Northside Preparatory High school, I was beat and robbed by fifteen or so members of the Almighty Vice Lord Nation (AVLN). The group, one of whom I cordially met, in a business setting let’s say, found me outside of a party in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago.
A year after the event, I chaired the Youth Advisory Board of the Illinois for the Violence Prevention Authority. I led a group of motivated youth around the State, promoting peaceful alternatives such as after school programs to supplant gang activity. At every violence convention I would deliver my speech. I evoked my pain and suffering to suggest the evil within the actions of the Vice Lords.
I described sitting in the emergency room, waiting! There, I contemplate the pain and humiliation I felt because of the cowardly actions of those fifteen hooded teens. There in that waiting room, through prayer and contemplation, I resolved that I must do my part to inspire peace in our mostly middle class community, to deter young children from ignoring the morals they were taught in school to become a AVLN, a Gangster Disciple or a King. From Champaign, IL to Streeterville, from the North side of Chicago to the South, I told to all that would listen, that gang members banged because they lacked the basic respect needed for civility in a community. I told social workers and Law enforcement officers alike that their job was to instill in “high risk” youth, preferably at the youngest possible age, the faculties of respect that would forever lead them away from violence. It wasn’t that they were bad people; they just hadn’t been taught how to be good yet.
Years after the event, I replicated that speech as one of my college essays, again describing that summer night as a transformative experience that permanently changed my outlook on gang and youth violence. However, this was not entirely true. For, in the emergency room, as I fingered the numb, inch-wide gap splitting the back of my head, I knew I had lost time, dignity, jewelry, and around a quart of blood, but I also knew what I had gained: a ticket to success via sympathy express.
We spent the day shopping, charting mall after mall like valley girls. I picked up a fitted, a striped blue and black button-up, and a fresh silver (plated) chain. Saif copped new white Airs, and Obi bought the cleanest Rocafella polo outside of Jay-z’s closet. We weren’t G’s, and we definitely weren’t styling; but it was our first high school party and we wanted to dress for the occasion.
After we equipped – straight laced our adidas, cocked our caps to rapper angles – we took the 147 bus to McDonalds to game plan. Obi called up Zanib – our ghetto connection – to get the where and when. She didn’t pick up. The day could have ended there in unbearable disappointment, but a few Mcchickens later she texted the precious details: 10 O’clock, 7236 Bell, second floor. We were a little scared of the 296 at that time of night, so we got my brother to drive us.
I remember the two flat surrounded by circles of blacks and Latinos smoking cigarettes and holding bottle-shaped paper bags. Obi rang the doorbell. It seemed like a year passed, before a thick Chicana woman dressed in sweat pants and a tang top that might have fit her daughter, came down the stairs. “Who do you know here?” she asked, sniffing the preppiness that permeated from underneath our clothes. She rolled her eyes, as we answered in unison, “Z”.
The party had two rooms: a packed dance floor blasting juking music, and a smoky den with coaches lined against the walls. We waded through the first room to find a good wall space to post-up on. As we soon discovered, the girls weren’t actually there to dance. No, most were in a constant search for their friend located somewhere on the other side of the room. Our droughts ended when a pair of girls, no older than fifteen, approached. They wore jeans and double x white t’s. They had been around the room, comforting every lonely wall fellow with a small gesture of sympathy. The one would hold the others hands up as she grinded her waist against one of us lonely few. She juked like this with each of us for about two minutes without a word or a glance, before moving on.
We left the room after an hour, each of our tallies stalled at one. We plopped down on a coach in the den. Before we said a word to one another, a black boy in a number 5 Jalen Rose Bulls jersey accosted us. “Looking to buy weed?” he asked to no particular one of us. Not as much because we were looking to get high, as we were petrified to reject the offer, we agreed to buy a dub sack. “Wait here, lemme get my guy”. A half hour or so later, a tall black man approached us, his palm clenched at his side. I remember watching his gold chains jostle for position on top of his wife beater as he walked towards us. He stopped at the foot of the coach, towering over us, starring blankly. I extended my twenty. (We had spent the half an hour, discussing this precise transaction). He swiped it, replacing it with three small nuggets of some sort of shriveled flora. I say flora because I still wonder what plant it might have been; as a clueless freshman I knew it didn’t resemble marijuana. As much as we knew we were duped, we knew we were powerless in the situation.
Tired and angry we stormed out of the den, out of the house. We navigated through twenty or so partygoers, and were half way down the block before we were called back. “Hey Joe!” shouted the leader of a growing throng of blacks and Latinos. “Why your hat cocked right man?” He was a tiny Hispanic teen, wearing a Yankee cap that slid around on his head as he walked. The tall dealer flanked him on his right.
“Whatchu GD or something?”
”Nah man. Sorry, stupid mistake,” Obi responded, readjusting his cap. The statement had barely left his lips when it collided with angry knuckles. The punch knocked him back, but not off his feet. He recovered, then darted down the street; about five chased after, lead by whom else but our dealer. Saif and I shouted to him, “Go to Touhy!” “Go to Touhy!” – as if a hundred eyes would provide the safety fifty couldn’t.
“What an idiot” I said turning to Saif, “now they’re gonna get’em for sure”. I thought at the time that, like grizzlies, gang-bangers only pounced when you tried to flee. I started back down the street, looking back to see Saif, motionless, with his head in hands, and about ten paces behind me. I kept walking.
But as I swiveled my head around, five stood in front of me. “I’m not…anything,” I negotiated in vain. One of them grabbed my chain. It snapped off my neck as another punched me back. “I’m really not anything…” I said again. At that moment I was punched from behind, this time knocked to the grass beside the sidewalk. Amid the thuds, the stomps, and the ruffling of my pockets, I could hear the chant “Ve-El, Ve-El …” A car pulled up along the sidewalk, and I saw the footsteps of another assailant coming my way. He cleared the group to the side and took out his aluminum bat. Over and over again he bashed my head, and I could only protect myself with my hands and prayers.
One was answered; a resident witnessing the incident ran into the street and blasted a shot into the air. Lords scampered away. I got up and panned around the block. I saw the man that saved me, a chubby black man in his mid forties, and I saw Saif arising bloody. The man took us into his home a few houses down, washed us off, and called for an ambulance to come and get us.
Honestly, I wish I could speak my rhetoric still. I wish I could tell you that this experience sparked my metamorphosis from and apathetic observer to righteous defender of peace and harmony. I wish I could tell you that every kick and every swing broke my shell of ignorance, until like my skull it was pierced and I could see the virulence of gang violence and the hopelessness of those involved.
But, on the real. I been known gang violence was wrong. I knew it when my Dad told me I couldn’t ride my Mongoose north of Pratt after eight. I didn’t need the embrace of a Louvillse slugger to know that there are packs of black and brown youth that have no better thing to do or place to be, then mugging kids outside of high school parties. I didn’t needed fifteen staples sealing the gash in the back of my head to know that all of it was useless and sad.
Unmoved, I sapped it for everything that it was worth. I took my tear-jerking story, and got myself into a lofty executive role on a fancy sounding advisory board. Then I took both of those labels, victim and advocate, and I got myself into college. I knew that my labels combined into my desired application persona, a ghetto black kid that’s knows how it is.
I don’t regret working the system. I do regret not speaking to the matter at hand. I regret every word I wrote, every speech I gave, every plaudit I received. I regret them because I know, and worse I knew, that I was only telling them what they wanted to hear: shit’s rough in the streets. I knew, as chair, my job wasn’t to promote policies or encourage conversation about who these gang bangers were; my job was to reassure, to tell social workers and enforcement officers that they fought a righteous battle against a monstrous enemy. I helped demonize Vice Lords rather than help understand workings of the Almighty Vice Lord Nation. By evoking my “innocent” suffering, I justified every dollar put in police pockets. No contest, by not speaking up, I stamped my approval on all their practices.
I should have told them all the truth. I should have told the policeman I met in Carbondale, as well as the neighborhood watchman I met in Uptown, that it’s not about how many eyes see a crime, it’s about what those behind those eyes do after they witness.
I should have told the teacher I sat down with in Springfield that her 8th grader wears his oversized cap not out of any allegiances, but because triple X New Era hats are the last sold, and the first on sale. The reason I had a cap that fit and Joe didn’t is the same reason, my brother sold me fake weed. The same reason I got jumped. Not because they’re punks, ignorant to human decency. No, its cause they’re poor, and I’m, well, less so.
 Gangsta Disciples. A rival gang to the Vice Lord Nation.