from “Why Children Are Killing Children”
by Joy Bennett Kinnon
Ebony January 1999
It starts and ends with tears. Tears and sobs of children and parents. Tears as the children are led away in handcuffs and sobs as they lie still in small white caskets, clutching teddy bears.Children and violent crime, including murder, has become a public health issue. In 1998, we witnessed an unprecedented string of violent crimes in which young children, many of them Black, were killed at the hands of other children, many of them black. Six random school shootings occurred over the last 15 months, killing 16 children and adults.
African-American children were involved in one of the mass school shootings and in random shootings and stabbings from Baltimore to Bessemer Ala. Every four hours a Black child is murdered in the U.S., says Slenda Hatchett, chief presiding judge of the Fulton County Juvenile Court in Atlanta, Georgia. In Michigan, a 12-year-old boy is charged with first-degree murder in the killing of Ronnie Lee 6reen Jr., 18. The suspect, who was 11 years old at the time of the crime, is the youngest child to be tried for first-degree murder in Michigan. He is being charged as an adult and faces life in prison if convicted. In California, second-degree murder charges have been filed against a 9-year-old boy charged with murdering his 11-year-old brother. The prosecutor there says neither he nor his supervisor can recall a younger suspect charged with murder in their county. A 14-year-old boy in Richmond, Va., is accused of opening fire in a high school hallway and faces up to seventy years in prison if convicted. He is being tried as an adult.
“The magnitude of violence has become a public health problem," says Evelyn K. Moore, president and CEO of the National Black Child Development Institute.
Although juvenile violent crime arrests have declined in rite last two years, black children are still disproportionately represented in the statistics, both as perpetrators and as victims. According to FBI reports, 2,900 juveniles were arrested for murder in 1996. Sixty-one percent of those arrested for murder were not white. Although black children make up only 15 percent of America's youth population, 46 percent of juveniles in correctional facilities are black, according to a study by theU.S. Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
The new twist to this story is that murder is being committed by children whose feet can't touch the courtroom floor, who can't get into a PG-13 movie without an adult and who can’t comprehend why, in many cases, they can't go home with their mommy after murdering someone else's child.
"Young people don't fully understand what it is they are doing," says Dr. Robert Newby, professor and chair of Central Michigan University's sociology, anthropology and social work departments. "It seems to be a Hollywood script as opposed to real life, and that's one of the problems."
Another fundamental problem, Newby says, is that society itself has condemned millions of Black children to a climate of violence. "Poverty is violent," he says. "People who live in poverty and particularly urban poverty live in a violent environment. It's not just guns and knives; the very existence itself is harsh," says Newby.
The Rev. Jesse L Jackson, founder and president of Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, blames "a culture that is marketing violence for profit." Jackson says violent movies, violent video games and "violent music which says it is imitating reality when in fact it is creating reality" are part of the problem. By age 15, he says, this generation has watched 18,000 hours of television and has seen about 500 conflicts solved by murder. "So what is Chicago, or Jonesboro, Ark, or Paducah, Ky., or Springfield, Ore.? It just shows how pervasive the marketing forces that determine the shape of our culture are."
Clementine Barfield, founder and president of Save Our Sons and Daughters (SOSAD), knows firsthand the legacy of violence. Twelve years ago her two teenage sons were shot; Derick, 16, did not survive. Since then, she has been leading a crusade to reduce the level of violence. Barfield says the causes of violence have changed because children's reality has changed. "Children today have seen violence all of their lives,” she says.
"When we talked to elementary schoolchildren, we found that 80 to 85 percent of them personally know someone who has been killed. The majority, believe it or not, have had a grandparent killed. If your reality is that you could die any day, then why is killing someone so farfetched?" she asks.
"Somewhere in the middle of this problem, the adults have disappeared. There are two related problems: One, parents spend less time today with their children than they did 30 years ago, and two, the same children are growing up in very violent time.”
Dr. Diane R. Brown, president of the Association of Black Sociologists, says that young children do not inherit a tendency to commit violent acts and therefore need adults "to teach and reinforce an appreciation for the value of human life and to clarify the differences between fantasy and reality."
Conventional and common-sense wisdom says it will take more than words to stop the senseless slaughter of children by children. SOSAD offers a violence prevention program in the schools that promotes a "philosophy of peace." Barfield says, "Our children have no frame of reference for peace, so we have to help them identify the words and character traits that represent peace. We've got to make peace popular.”