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The Fear Factor

I don't know all of the details behind the dispute that led to the murder of 16-year-old Detroit high school student Chris Walker and, consequently, to the conviction of two of the three young men accused of killing him. And I certainly don't claim to know everything about what drives some young people to take others' lives.

But I think I have some idea about at least one reason why boys like those who killed Walker, boys in so many American cities like Detroit, turn to blue steel and chrome to deal with their problems. And no, it's not simply because they're gang-banging bad asses.

I mean, they grab these guns to scare and hurt one another, sure. But they're also grabbing these guns because they are scared and hurt themselves. And I don't mean a little concerned or a bit anxious. In certain quarters of Detroit, our children are living in terror.

Yes, I know most of them won't admit it. I see the young boys with their droopy white tees and thousand-yard glares and tough-guy postures, elbowing past you in line at the corner store and scowling at me from the passenger seat of a passing car. I see the gangsta grimaces and the swagger barely held in check by the sagging jeans. I hear the curses shouted in basso profundo from street corners and in school classrooms. And I know some of you wonder how the hell anyone could suggest that these kids are more frightened than they are frightening.

But that's precisely what they are: Scared kids coming up in a town where even an insignificant slight can leave you on your back with a sucking chest wound. Scared kids being reared by equally terrified parents whose only solution to the bloodshed outside their doors is more window bars, more door locks and less trust for the other teenagers up the block. Scared kids who've come to believe that nobody will -- or can -- protect them from the monsters the shadows.

As a result, too many of them give themselves over to the monsters we all harbor within. They decide that survival means scaring you before you can scare them, proving to anyone within eyesight or earshot that they'll do anything to anyone perceived as a threat -- or as a foil to better burnish their knucklehead image. Even the ones from "good" homes feel the fear and embrace the foolishness. (One of the young men convicted of killing Walker is the son of a Wayne County court clerk, the acquitted teen the son of a Detroit homicide detective.) They are too-scared children with too-easy access to the power over life and death. And we are losing them to crime and punishment alike.

I've heard it before, the sound of the sort of fear that sends bullets flying in a blink. I hear it in the boasts of rap stars. I hear it in basements and on front porches from young dudes who, apropos of nothing, suddenly decide to start mouthing off about their new pistol or last night's petty-ass confrontation with peers. You haven't asked for the war stories. You don't really care to know. But they've got to make sure you hear, make sure you understand that they are not to be trifled with. Never mind that you mean them no harm. They are children. They are scared. And they don't want to be scared alone.

I know this fear intimately, too. I was 14 years old the first time I watched another kid die from violence, and it would certainly not be the last. I know how hollow adults' words of reassurance can ring when the schoolmate you laughed with on Tuesday afternoon turns up dead on Friday night. And I know how that gnawing sense of vulnerability can harden your resolve to never go out that way, even if it means getting the other motherf***** first.

I also know that some of us try like hell to stem that fear. We tell our boys (and, increasingly, our girls) to put down the guns, to figure out less hazardous ways to work out disagreements. We see our children's potential, know they are our future and urge them to not let often-fleeting disputes lead to such permanent tragedies. We tell them that we'll help, that we'll guide, that we'll protect.

But then we export their parents' jobs, cut school funding, slash social programs, jack up college tuition, underfund and mis-deploy our cops, build more prisons and fight like hell to deny the worst off among us essentials such as affordable health care. We say we will protect the children. But we don't. And deep down, we wonder if we are truly able.

We didn't protect the seven teens, most of them summer school students, shot at a Detroit bus stop in June. We didn't protect the girl shot and wounded at Denby High just 12 days before. We didn't protect young Chris Walker. Truth is, we've been watching teenagers die in droves in metro Detroit since even before I was in high school in the mid-1980s — and with each successive generation, we waste chances to prove there is a better way. We weren't protecting kids very well when I came up. We're not protecting them very well now.

So why should our children believe we ever will?

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  • 1

    Great stuff, but it should be noted this is an urban trait not unique to Detroit. Did you know a lot of the kids who grew up in Chicago's now gone Cabrini-Green project were found to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? That's a stress related problem the military screens troops for in the field. The troops at least have the benefit of intervention and care support.

    Also, don't forget those who can't find it in themselves to swagger and so turn to drugs or alcohol instead to take the edge off.

  • 2

    This is definitely not unique to Detroit (although this blog is Detroit centric) and the problem is not urban, it has nothing to do with locale. These kids are emulating the world they live in. We have to all step up and be better examples. I don't mean try to show them perfection in a imperfect world. I mean we need to show these kids how to have tough conversations and interactions without harmful conflict. What's the difference between a war between countries and a war on the streets. One could say war on the larger scale is a necessary evil. I say war is always a result of two parties who have gave up on talking.

    Tactless examples are rampant in our society from broken homes to our broken governments. Reaction to tough conversations such as Councilwoman Monica Conyers infatuation with Shrek and Rep. Joe Wilson movie esque blurt are what these kids are left with. The little kids are not the problem, they are just emulating the big kids (adults). We have gotten lazy in in our conversation. I love Twitter, but I am sorry, I need more 140 characters most of the time.

  • 3

    I think you're on to something Darrell. I grew up on the northwest side in the 70's and my old neighborhood couldn't be more different today than if it has just burned to the ground. I drove down W 7-Mile from the Lodge to Livernois recently and I was moved to tears. The ratio of vacant crumbling business to the those which are struggling to survive is maybe 50-50. Blocks that were boastfully middle class are downright scary.

    What you wrote about the young people is spot on.and when you add to it the horrific surroundings they live in there's no wonder these kids are scared and hopeless. All they see on a daily basis is the result of middle-class flight to the 'burbs. For sure they know they've been left behind and forgotten.

  • 4

    I usually don't comment on these blogs, but as a native Detroiter who has grown up here during its "darkest days", I feel the need to speak up. While it does sadden me to see my city fall on such hard times (like MANY other urban areas of the country), what makes me more upset is the overlook of my story, and the stories of the majority of my friends and neighbors that grew up with me. I am DPS educated, a Detroit born and bred young lady, and I am proud to say that I made it without the bumps and bruises that so often in journalism stories, would be portrayed as not plausible. My family lives in a middle class neighborhood on the Northwest side of the city between 6 and 7 mile, and there is no where in the world that I feel safer than those streets of my neighborhood. I was fortunate to be able to pursue my dreams of journalism out of state, but it was not because of fear of my hometown; moreover, it was to experience something different and to have time to miss that place that sits so dearly in my heart. All of my friends from my DPS high school of Renaissance went on to college, and most of us are finishing our senior years of college now. I am not writing this to brag on myself or my circumstances, but I would love both as a journalist (I go to the University of Missouri) and a Detroiter to see a story about the "unusual" as I guess YOU would call it. The story about the family that is working hard, yes, has had some difficulties, but isn't on the brink of dying each day because they're living in a crippled city. I know that down-and-out-famiy-living-in-the-harsh-streets-of-Detroit is a story seller, and I'm not saying that it's not true because I've witnessed some of the struggles that my fellow Detroiters have gone through. But it's not the ONLY story folks, it really isn't. Please don't forget that just as you would think of any other place as a community with diverse people and stories, that we don't defy those rules either. My parents chose to raise me in that city for a reason, and the farther I get from home, the more gracious I feel towards them for their decision. I'm proud to be from the city with a different story than the ones I read constantly on websites, papers, and blogs like this one. I really like what this blog is about and what its aims are, but I would ask that you look outside your box and quit writing the same old story that's been reported for the past decade. There are success stories, and I'm one of them!

    • 4.1

      I'm so glad that you have enjoyed a stable, middle-class upbringing in our city. However, as a journalism student, you know that every story has an arc - a character who has a conflict that must be resolved. Here, Detroit is the character and the issues that must be resolved include figuring out how to move forward despite the shrinking auto industry. This discussion has nothing to do with - or should have nothing to do with - creating any good, bad or other perceptions about Detroit. This is no PR project. So, though your experience is legitimate, it's beside the point. Most people are not naive enough to think a city the size of Detroit has absolutely no middle class. The fact that the middle class exists is not a story. But more importantly, this "Time" discussion should, I think, be dedicated to presenting the issues and the solutions so that Detroit -and thereby similar American cities - can thrive. Good luck to you and keep the faith.

  • 5

    I only lived in Detroit for 6 years, but I miss it and the people like you that I met there.

    I was there in a when the news announced that Dallas took the "murder capital of the world" title from Detroit. There were guys there who took it like the Red Wings lost the Stanley Cup. I asked a guy why, he told me that as long as the world thought of Detroit as a terrible place, we might as well be the toughest place.

    I wish the reporters would do a story about someone like you, or about the Art museum, or the Falcons on the Fischer building, or about the music in the city, or about Eastern Market, or the Fox Theater, or the DFT (which is a gem that I haven't found anywhere else), but the story is about the terrible city.

    So maybe as a journalism student, you can take up the challenge...

  • 6

    Fear and poverty is an explosive mix.

  • 7

    When I tell you that is one of the top reasons I entered journalism, I mean it sincerely. I logically know that I am only one individual, but even one person can make a difference. I am working hard even now as a student to get recognized in a market like Detroit so that someday I can go back to work on some of those problems that I see in the city.

    I really appreciate the positive things you have to say, and I will never be one not to recognize the problems in the city because there ARE problems. That's sad that some people associate a sense of pride with something as terrible as "murder capital of the world" because at the end of the day, we all pay for it in our higher insurace rates, decline of public school education, and a plethora of other problems that come with that title.

    Thanks for your feedback.

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