Most often in this space we discuss transit lines, streets, parks, housing, retail trends and other elements of urban design. But good design means nothing in a city consumed by violence.
To suggest that crime and other violent behavior consumes Minneapolis or St. Paul would be an exaggeration. But there are worrisome pockets, most notably a six-square-mile section of North Minneapolis, where, over the last two generations, a culture of youthful violence has become a way of life. If left unchecked — and if accepted as a permanent feature of the Twin Cities — this troubled district runs the risk of damaging the competitive success of the entire metropolitan region for years to come.
It is the main reason that Minneapolis has a violent crime rate twice that of the cities it wants to emulate, cities like Denver, Seattle and Portland. “We can’t have an economically competitive region if there’s a permanent underclass right in the middle,” Mayor R.T. Rybak said Monday after delivering to the City Council an ambitious new initiative called “Blueprint for Action: Preventing Youth Violence in Minneapolis.” (PDF)
Rybak recognizes that the 15 percent decline in juvenile crime in 2007, while impressive, was due mainly to focused and diligent law enforcement. That’s a good and necessary thing. But it doesn’t get to the root causes of youthful violent behavior. And it’s the culture of that behavior — centered largely around impoverished African-American boys — that has now risen to the top of the mayor’s agenda.
About 800 people are expected for today’s Minnesota Meeting at the Minneapolis Convention Center to discuss Rybak’s initiative and to hear noted Harvard professor Deborah Prothrow-Stith talk about attacking youth violence as a menace to public health. Prothrow-Stith has been at the forefront on the issue since her book (written with Micheale Weissman), “Deadly Consequences,” hit the stands in 1991.
I feel a personal link to Prothrow-Stith because, in 1994, while a reporter in the Star Tribune, I asked her for an inside look at her work, and she led me to a series of extraordinary therapy sessions with violent teens in inner-city Boston. The sessions were among the most riveting and heartbreaking moments of my 35-year reporting career. What strikes me in looking back at my writings is how little has changed in 14 years — except, perhaps, that by now the kids I met are fathers and mothers many times over, and that it’s likely that their children have now put on the baggy clothes, assumed the gangster pose, and now are the ones with guns in their pockets.
Puffed-up macho kids
Prothrow-Stith had told me to expect to meet teenagers who were convinced that race and class had placed them so far outside the mainstream that they could never find a place inside; kids who, at ages 14-18, were already convinced that their lives were utterly hopeless. “They are,” she had said, “perpetually irritable, like a person who wakes up on the wrong side of the bed day after day.”
She had told me that, to compensate for failures of home and school, these kids constructed puffed-up macho versions of themselves. A thin layer of respect became a commodity to be preserved at almost any cost because, as many of them believed, it is all they possessed. Defending this veneer against a constant stream of threats and insults from other fragile egos became a way of life especially for boys, but for some girls, too.
“The thing is, if you touchin’ me or if you in my face, I’m gonna take you down right now and you ain’t never gonna get up,” a girl named Paula had said in a group session.
“Yeah,” LeRon, a 15-year-old boy barely visible inside an enormous hooded sweatshirt, had chimed in. “What’s good about fighting is shooting somebody. It feels good … Some people don’t wanna solve things. They just wanna fight they wanna shoot. That’s the way it is.”
Some kids had said they were taught violence at home and saw violence as necessary as oxygen to make it through daily life. “How many fights have you had?” the counselor, Richard Puckerin, asked the kids.
“I’m 20 and 0,” one boy had said. “Every day,” added another.
“Why do you fight?” the counselor had asked.
“Exercise,” said one boy. “You gotta hone your skills, you know what I’m sayin’?” said another, although others said they had wanted popularity and respect or had wanted to impress girls.
“You gotta let people know you ain’t no joke, you ain’t no sucker,” a boy named Jason had offered. “If you be lettin’ people mess with you, you ain’t never gonna get no peace. What my mama told me is they hit you, you hit back, else you gonna have 40, 50 niggers jumpin’ on you.”
“Yeah,” a girl interrupted. “If somebody be in my face talkin’ shit, she gonna get her ass kicked right now.”
That was the kind of tough talk deemed necessary in a group. When encountered one-on-one the kids cried. I recount these old interviews to illustrate the difficulty — and importance — of Rybak’s new initiative. My 1994 story was reported on the eve of “Murderapolis,” the greatest outbreak of gun violence in the city’s history. Better police methods will probably prevent a repeat of those bad old days. But hopelessness and violence still rules an influential segment of the city’s youth. Despite a major decline in state and federal funds, Minneapolis City Hall and its private sector partners have made extraordinary strides in offering a glimpse at a brighter future — summer jobs and two years of free college for impoverished public school graduates, to name just two impressive programs. But now, as Rybak says, it’s time to reach out to the harder core and to treat youth violence as an epidemic best seen through a public health lens.
‘We can do this’
Shane Price, a member of the mayor’s steering committee on violence prevention, reminded City Council members Monday that the city’s new anti-violence initiative needs to be “competitive” with the street life embedded in problematic teens. Rybak agreed, and said later that kids must be made to see clearly the advantage of turning their mindset on its head, of seeing the acts of carrying a gun and getting a girl pregnant as signs of weakness, not strength. They also must recognize, he said, that self-destructive behavior is not an authentic part of African-American culture.
“It’s the opposite of what I grew up in,” said Karen Kelley-Ariwoola of the Minneapolis Foundation, a co-chair of the steering committee, who sees herself as part of the generation that wanted to emulate the nonviolence taught by Martin Luther King. Even with strong family and church support, she feels that her two pre-teen boys now growing up in North Minneapolis are in a “fragile” situation. “We can do this,” she said of the new initiative. “This is possible.”
The initiative will focus on four major tasks: Connecting every at-risk youth with a trusted adult; intervening at the very first sign that a kid is involved in violence; restoring youngsters headed toward a life of crime and violence, and unlearning violence as a way of life. That’s a tall order given the music, video games, movies and other influences that make violence seem “normal.” But the city has no choice given the stakes. Its viability depends on turning the current generation of teenagers into productive citizens.
The initiative is less an entirely new program than a massive refocusing of existing and disparate public and private efforts — including the schools and parks — into a single new strategy that will first target the half-dozen neighborhoods where kids are most vulnerable to violence.
The report lists 34 recommendations (door-to-door outreach, a standard protocol for gun violence, etc.), but it doesn’t pretend to be the last word. The important thing, as Rybak said, “in a state with 10,000 organizations and 10,000 strategies” is to get started.