In the wee hours of the morning on Sunday, I was resting peacefully in bed, as were my family members. 14 blocks away about 30 people were having a post-wedding party in front of a house. They were taking it easy, listening to music, socializing, and drinking beer when a car drove up. Suddenly shots rang out as occupants of the vehicle fired a number of .22 caliber rounds into the crowd.
A few hours later, some of my family members got up, folded newspapers, and delivered them throughout our neighborhood and some adjoining neighborhoods. We got cleaned up, went to church, and returned home; unaware that 14 blocks away two people had been shot dead and two others had gone to the hospital with gunshot wounds.
The police say that the crime is gang related. They are still looking for the assailants (see here). Residents of the neighborhood where the crime occurred are understandably freaked out. Parents are not letting their kids out to play in the yards. But this is not the first time gang violence has erupted in the neighborhood.
My parents moved into a home another couple of miles away from where I now live when I was a toddler. That neighborhood is still a respectable middle class setting. Many of the homes in the violence riddled neighborhood a few short miles away were built in the same era as was my parents’ home; some in the decade before that. They are all single-family units rather than apartment complexes.
Yet even when I was a child, the area was not considered a good place. The homes were built deliberately small with lower-cost materials. As long as I have been alive, the area has been a haven for lower income residents. Even when I was a kid, the neighborhood had a reputation for being a very rough place. We avoided it like the plague. Everyone in my high school knew that it was unwise to drive through the area after dark.
Residents reeling from Sunday morning’s violence say that there was a significant amount of gang violence in the neighborhood about a decade ago (see here). Some say that activists got a neighborhood watch group going, and that this significantly improved the situation. But as people have moved away, the watch group has become inactive. Perhaps the group’s leaders were able to improve their lots in life and have moved to nicer neighborhoods. It’s time to get residents involved in neighborhood watch once again.
I have frankly been very blessed in life. I grew up in a decent middle class neighborhood. Most of the homes there still have single carports instead of double or triple garages. It was a great place to live. There were lots of other kids in my age range. There were hoards of busy adults (with jobs and young families) that sacrificed their time to provide constructive activities for the kids in the neighborhood. We felt safe. We spent the summer months in the saddles of our bicycles riding around the neighborhoods and even in the nearby foothills (which are covered with subdivisions today). People cared for and watched out for each other.
I’ve lived in my current home for about 19 years. Our subdivision is a decent middle class neighborhood where all houses have two-car garages. Most homes have lots of aluminum siding. There are still plenty of younger kids, but there aren’t nearly as many as there were in the early years of our residency in the area. We only hand out about half of the amount of Halloween treats as we used to. We are far more restrictive of our kids’ activities than were my parents and the parents of my friends. But kids wander quite freely and safely through the neighborhood. People care about and watch out for each other.
Less than three miles away, families live in fear that a stray gang banger bullet might fly through the windows of their homes. And it’s pretty much been that way to one degree or another for decades.
We sit in our relatively safe enclaves and read about or hear about the gang violence not far away. The pictures we see and the associated names often denote cultural backgrounds that differ from ours. We figure that as long as the bad guys are injuring and killing each other, there’s not much we can do about it. As long as the violence doesn’t impact us, we’re pretty apathetic about it.
But this is an issue that we cannot afford to ignore or treat with aloofness. In our democratic republic, improper infringements on the liberties of any citizen harm the entire republic and diminish the overall freedom of our society. A crime against a single citizen is a crime against all. Gang violence and other nefarious gang activity needs to be dealt with decisively. It seems that police agencies increasingly throw up their hands at the futility of attacking the expanding problem. What is required is citizen involvement.
It may seem unfair, but the residents of crime ridden communities must necessarily bear the lion’s share of this burden. Not only are they the ones most impacted by the problem, but they are also the ones most capable of attacking the problem. Neighborhood watch programs have proven to effectively deter gang problems in neighborhoods. Police agencies feel that their resources are better and more effectively used when area citizens are engaged in working to remedy the problem.
Does that mean that those that live in relatively safe communities have no responsibilities? Police agencies can only do so much. They can lock up those they catch that have committed crimes, but they cannot keep kids from joining gangs. Many areas with serious gang problems have found that simply having and strictly enforcing a curfew on teenagers suppresses a surprising amount of gang activity.
But it needs to go beyond this. Kids at risk — potential gang members — need viable alternatives to gang membership. Scout groups, church youth groups, and sports programs can appeal to and help some. These don’t often offer the level of excitement and appearance of ease that gang membership offers, but they can satisfy the need to belong. Kids often become at risk for joining gangs when their family situation is failing. Helping dysfunctional families, helping single mothers, and helping parents strengthen their marriages can improve home environments so that kids find less need to seek rebellious outlets for solidifying their identity.
My church calls empty nester couples to spend time in these rough neighborhoods to help people in just this way. The church provides resources and training for at-risk families. This is admittedly insufficient to help the broad array of families in these areas with problems, but every little bit helps.
A side effect of this, however, is that those that improve their lots in life tend to move out of the crime riddled areas and into better environments. There seems to be an unending supply of people with problems to backfill behind those that move out of these neighborhoods. Thus, efforts must be ongoing.
We cannot force people to choose a good path in life. But by a coordinated effort, we can make bad paths seem less appealing and less viable by helping people see the viability and desirability of choosing a good path. It takes caring enough to spend your own time and resources helping people at risk.