By Todd Allen Wilson, Communications Specialist, JHSPH Center for Adolescent Health
The youth coordinator of the JHSPH Center for Adolescent Health’s Baltimore Youth Diaries project, Jada Johnson, recently challenged me.
“Mr. Todd, you know they say our lives don’t matter because we’re in gangs and we kill each other. You know something about that, you should write about it.”
She’s not wrong, I saw someone make that exact, tired racist argument in the comments section of a news story the day before.
The thought of writing a personal essay was uncomfortable, but I can’t challenge Jada and her peers to share their truths without being willing to share my own.
The personal essay is not my forte. For a brilliant essay by a master of the form written from the perspective of a black Baltimore native please take the time to read D. Watkins’ Huffington Post piece “Only A Mile And A Big World Separated Us: An All American Story Of Two Boys From The East Side of Baltimore,” with photos by Devin Allen.
If you’d stopped by my office, attended a meeting with me or seen me walking the halls of the School of Public Health building you would never guess that 30 years ago on a hot Sacramento summer night I held one of my closest friends as he died after we had been ambushed by a rival gang.
I met Paul on the first day of middle school. Almost eight years to the day later he had been gutted and I watched as his intestines spilled out of his body.
It broke me, leaving a scar on my soul through post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s a scar that still often feels like an open wound.
PTSD has been a struggle that delayed me fulfilling my potential, I have worked hard with lots of help and plenty of chances to redeem myself. A privilege most often denied black youth, who are often officially and legally categorized as gang members by gang task forces across the country just for walking down the street together.
But let me be clear, I was a gang member.
While our gang – which was not a white supremacist nor Nazi skinhead gang -- didn’t have a business component like dealing to it, as a gang member I attacked people violently and was violently attacked; I damaged property and tagged walls; I have stolen things; I have been shot at; I had illegal guns in my possession – though I never shot at anyone; and even dropped off drugs for dealers who were friends because I was going that way.
All of these are crimes we associate with gangs and then use that as an excuse to lock-up black and brown young men and women and if not kill them outright essentially throw away the key.
I have never been arrested, nor spent anytime inside a jail or prison cell.
BECAUSE I AM WHITE!
I knew that then; I know that now.
In 1990, my black friends and peers doing the same thing at much the same level that I was were called “super-predators.” They HAD to be stopped!
Straight from a cop’s mouth, myself and my white friends and peers were “dumb-ass kids that need to get [their] shit together.”
That contradiction didn’t sit well as I had friends and acquittances that would fall under the “super-predator” tag. Either we’re all “super-predators” or we’re all “dumb-ass kids.”
Hint: We were all just adolescents that lacked the supports and social structures needed for us to seize the opportunity of youth.
I grew up in a rough, diverse working-class neighborhood on the edge of the city’s major, black-majority slum. Our community, which included a public-housing complex, had a small park with a public pool, where we spent a lot of our summers. Most people, like my dad and other relatives, worked in the trades.
Little League coaches included a white California Highway Patrol motorcycle cop and a black pimp – I had good relationships with both them and their sons. (The cop’s son has done prison time; the pimp’s son is dead.)
The cop had the best Fourth of July barbeques with piles of illegal fireworks that he had “confiscated” from others. We’d heard older kids talk about people being shaken down by cops.
At the same time, I would be at my black friends houses when their parents had given them the “yes sir, no sir, how can I get this over with as quickly as possible, sir” lectures before we headed out the door.
And I saw on the streets that play worked like a charm for me every single time, while it was totally hit-or-miss for my friends and peers of color. With my blond hair, blue eyes and “Ritchie Cunningham” demeanor I soon became “the police-whisper” for whatever group I was hanging out with.
My parents came of age in that same neighborhood in the late-1960s, early-1970s and I found books on our shelves that helped me make sense of the contradictions I saw all around my world.
I was grounded a lot and a voracious reader. In middle school I read James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice,” and Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton’s “Black Power.” They answered a lot of questions, and “Black Power” laid out a path to being an ally.
By the time I was in a gang, I knew that the cops weren’t looking at me when I was in public and I knew why.
In the gang I found a structure, a support system, order and deep bonds that made a confusing, dog-eat-dog world a lot less scary. It gave me a sense of control, power, cache and voice that I couldn’t find anywhere else.
There was a comfort in our communal shout of “kiss my ass” to a society that seemed to give us the finger every single day.
I’ve always thought the most basic motivations at work in joining a gang are the same that lead well-off kids to join white frats and sororities, which I view as socially and legally sanctioned gangs. Before you quibble – I have been in multiple fights with frat boys, instigated by them while they call out their frat name. In my world, that’s a gang – especially when you factor in other criminality we often see in the news.
Our dominant society definitely does not consider them super-predators. And as opposed to being “dumb-ass kids who need to get [their] shit together,” these young people are seen as kids who have their shit together but are just being kids, who will have great networks in the professional world.
The common denominator being adolescence.
I’m not saying, however, that adolescence is a dangerous time and we just need to hope and pray each kid finds their way through it.
Not at all. Adolescence is an opportunity for young people to express themselves and find their place in the world on their terms.
Instead, I see it as an indictment of a systemically racist society that does not offer equitable supports, security and resources to all our young people.
Life experience has shown me that the dominant white society hasn’t just failed our young people of color, but for the most part hostilely written off and devalued the lives of black youth.
No one has ever begrudged me becoming a public-school teacher or riding in a presidential motorcade as part of the press corps because I was a gang member – but had I ever done time, I would never have passed the required background checks.
Again, I have struggled to build an incredibly privileged life, with a lot of help from the current system. Sympathetic people made sure I had the supports I needed. I know white privilege gave me an advantage.
Over the 30-year span from the night my friend died until now, from my view it seems that the conditions and expectations for black youth by the dominant society, legal and justice systems have gotten harsher from what was already brutal.
And they still get tagged as gang members just because they are standing in a group with two other black or brown kids.
As an ally it is my responsibility to help build an equitable system that doesn’t treat black youth as de facto second-class citizens, whose lives must be controlled lest they get out of control.
The are a plethora of promising policy paths informed by strong science on adolescent development including community schools, trauma-informed services and teaching, diversion rather than arrest and authentic youth engagement that show small-scale success across the country and point us in the right direction.
Many of them cost far less than police departments, jails and prisons.
And they have been and will be attacked as “radical.”
Really, they are just part of a major humane, equitable realignment and overhaul our civic structures and institutions need to finally eradicate the racism baked into the system.
If that’s radical, then in addition to being an ex-gang member and ally, in the words of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton, who was assassinated by Chicago police in 1969, “I am a revolutionary.”