Teen violence: Who’s to blame?

I returned from “Bloody Sunday” weekend in Selma, Ala., with my mind filled with images and words of men and women of superlative courage, ingenuity and commitment, and who made the ultimate sacrifice, only to be met with news of the gang violence committed upon one teenager by other teenagers. All of the teenagers involved were of African ancestry.

I then went to court for the trial of three persons who faced multiple charges of homicide. Six members had already confessed their parts in the crime. The murder of Brent Duncan, an 18-year-old, college-bound, model young man, happened in 2010. He was killed without provocation. The victim and the victimizers were all Black. What a painful crash it was, to come out of the exhilarating, inspiring cloud of Selma to the reality of violence and murder among our own people in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Wednesday, March 18, I visited Kwadir Felton at a prison in New Jersey. He was shot in the head by a police officer in Jersey City in 2010. He was 18 years old at the time. The police claimed that he was attempting to rob them, although they were undercover detectives well-known in the community. Kwadir is now permanently blind. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

Kwadir was in good spirits and still hopeful that the verdict will be overturned and he will receive justice. He mentioned to me, which I did not know at the time, that he was offered a deal of much less time plus a settlement if, of course, he pled guilty. He refused.

As I was leaving the prison, I thought of the other police killings and abuses across the years, and even more recently—Michael Brown, Eric Garner, etc. I could hear the questions I have heard a thousand times: “Have we made any progress? Are we where we have always been? Are we going backwards?”

In response, I have developed a mantra:

Be appreciative of the changes that have been made.

Be aware of the changes that need to be made.

Be active in making the changes that need to be made.

Be affirmative that the changes that need to be made will be made.

As I reflected on the teenage violence, I came to the opinion that blame should be placed on the doorsteps of four segments of our society.

(1) Society’s Responsibility. There’s the blame of society at large. I do not believe that an act is an isolated phenomenon, but instead springs from other sources. Sometimes, remotely so. James Baldwin recognized this when he said, “The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.”

It is the responsibility of the larger society to instill within its members a feeling of “I belong, and, therefore, I must protect or safeguard its values, interests and wealth.” The poet John Donne expressed the same sentiment: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main … Ask not for whom the bell tolls. The bell tolls for thee.”

The teenage attackers are our children. We all share in their behavior. As I pointed out in last week’s edition of the Amsterdam News, the young woman described as the leader of the assault has had encounters with the law six times within a year, including for attacking her grandmother and brother. yet no individual or institution recognized that she needed help. Society must bear some of the blame for her behavior.

(2) Parental Responsibility. Where were the parents of these children? How did the parents influence their behavior? Even here, the parents, even if they were irresponsible, do not remove the society’s influence on both parents and youth. If the question is one of parental irresponsibility, it should be, “Why did the society fail the parents also by not providing the assistance they needed?”

(3) The Observer’s Responsibility. Those who watched without intervening share some of the blame. I recall something Tupac Shakur, the world-renowned rap artist, said to me during his incarceration after his conviction for sexual abuse. He said, “Pastor, I didn’t do anything to that young lady, but I didn’t stop others from abusing her. I didn’t show up. So I’m paying a price for what I didn’t do.”

Tupac’s observation comes very close to the biblical teachings. Jesus sent into oblivion, as punishment, those who did not respond to human needs. It wasn’t that they committed any crime, except the crime of not responding to the desperate needs of others. In our church, we teach two kinds of sins—the sin of commission (doing what we ought not to have done) and the sin of omission (not doing what we ought to have done).

Again, the violence of our society in so many forms have desensitized countless people to the pain that a victim of violence feels.

(4) The Attackers’ Responsibility. The attackers themselves must bear responsibility. We cannot dismiss or minimize their behavior by blaming others. They are old enough to know better. However, I do not believe that incarceration is the answer. In fact, it may even be counterproductive. Their violent behavior may, in all probability, be reinforced. It is likely that incarceration will start them down a path of more criminal behavior, which will bring more heartache, tears, pain and expenditure of society’s resources, which means all of us are losers.

All of us, particularly those of us who are leaders or who enjoy positions of authority, power and influence, should go to the mirror and look at ourselves and ask, “Have I contributed to this violent act and the violence and other negative, destructive behavior that permeate our society?”

The Rev. Dr. Herbert Daughtry

National Presiding Minister

The House of the Lord Churches