Armed and hopeless

Geoffrey Canada, author of "Fist Stick Knife Gun," talks about the ominous mood of the inner city as summer approaches

Published May 3, 1996 6:15PM (EDT)

Happy days are here again, according to the latest reports on unemployment, which has fallen to its lowest in a year, and the economy, which leaped forward at an annual 2.8 percent in the first quarter. The news was surely greeted with high-fives at the White House. But young people in the inner cities, where the job prospects are as bleak as ever, may be forgiven if they don't join in the celebration. As another long, hot summer approaches, we talked to Geoffrey Canada, president of the award-winning Rheedlen Center for Children and Families in Harlem, and the author of "Fist Stick Knife Gun," (Beacon Press), his partly autobiographical account of teen violence in the South Bronx. Canada hosts the PBS special, "Jobs: A Way Out," scheduled to air this month.

You write in your book, "The summer is the worst time for the children I know." How is this summer shaping up for inner-city kids?

What I'm hearing suggests we ought to be alarmed.
The level of alienation has not been reduced at all. Kids are feeling more hopeless than ever. And a lot of them are armed. I think we could see a real increase in youth homicides and suicides this summer.

In your book, you come back again and again to the critical role of jobs as a solution to youth violence.

We know that young people who are employed feel a lot more optimistic, and a lot more connected to the community. In the work I did with PBS, we found communities across the country that are hooking up gang members with jobs and the positive impact it is having on their lives. The problem is in too many communities not enough young people get the opportunity to play by the rules, and to get rewarded for working hard.

Will the federal summer jobs program help?

It survived House Republican attempts to eliminate the program altogether, although it came in at a lower level than last year -- and it's already much too little. Unfortunately, the more popular thing to worry about is whether we have enough police out there, instead of enough jobs or enough community centers for young people.

In the inner city, you write, the weapon of choice has evolved from the fist to the handgun, but that your real fear is the gun is now being succeeded by the Uzi.

We're at a delicate balancing point on that issue right now. These assault weapons have come under increasing scrutiny, and I'm hoping -- though I'm not convinced -- that the supply will begin to dry up. But I know that a lot of these youngsters, given their druthers, would rather have an Uzi or one of the other assault weapons instead of a handgun. Newer handguns that hold clips of up to 15 bullets are the secondary weapon of choice.

We've seen high-profile events like the Million Man March, and then there are less celebrated efforts by people like yourself to give African-American youth a positive direction. Is any of this beginning to produce results?

We have a long way to go. The 40-oz. cans of malt liquor is still one of the favorite drinks in our communities. "Blunts," huge marijuana cigarettes rolled up in tobacco, are now the drug of choice. The more violent and repugnant the rap song, the more it sells. It's really going to take a concerted effort over time -- five to ten years. But if we can't persuade kids that they have a good chance of reaching the age of 18, then it's difficult to tell them to stop drinking and smoking and having babies -- and shooting other kids.

You've been working in this area for over 20 years. Don't you get tired and disillusioned, to the point that you say, "Who needs this?"

Whenever I get that way, I think about what it took for me to get to where I have gotten to, and how tired and weary others have gotten in the fight against slavery, the Jim Crow laws, and the whites and blacks who put their bodies on the line in this country to see that people like me can go around and speak and travel and try to make a difference. I'm also a devout Christian, I believe what I am working for is the right and good thing. And I still see the same longing and fear in an 8-year-old's eyes that I felt when I was that age. I can't pretend that my life is just like theirs now, but I'm frightened at how vulnerable they are -- and that their lives can be shattered by gunfire at a moment's notice.

Basic survival skills

"Before Robert left we went over the drill for what you should do when someone might be trying to kill you. The drill was a collection of do's and don'ts learned over the years from the mistakes others had made, often costing them their lives. Don't leave your apartment at the same time every day. Don't walk the same way to school. Always survey your block looking for strangers and occupied parked cars before leaving your stoop. Always check behind you. And never, never hang out in the same place day after day. I've gone over this drill too many times with too many kids."
-- From "Fist Stick Knife Gun"

Keyboard cops

Nashville PD's Web site wants to know whether you've been bad or good


"Are you going to be raped, robbed, stabbed, shot or beaten?"

"Are you going to be murdered?"

"Is someone going to break in and burglarize your home?"

These and other fun questions come to you courtesy of the Metro Nashville Police Department's Web site. It also features virtual high-speed chases, mugshots and Most Wanted lists, plus sparkling graphics and often witty commentary. Apart from receiving various "cool site" accolades from the cyberspace cognoscenti, it goes to prove that not all cops spend their off moments scarfing doughnuts.

The site, which has been up for about a year, was developed by Lt. Ken Pence a 23-year veteran of the Nashville PD. He became interested in the Internet after receiving a federal grant to produce a violence-reduction multimedia game called "Danger High," which can now be downloaded from the site. The game, distributed to every public junior high and high school classroom in Nashville, aims to make kids more safety -conscious by placing them in virtual crime situations like robberies, stabbings and drug dealings.

Flush with his initial foray into the world of multimedia, Pence decided to build a Web site for the police department. There are dozens of police-related sites on the Net -- they seem to be especially popular in Canada -- but most are limited to text-based elements like "statement of mission," phone numbers and statistics. Pence's site goes much further, with animated demonstrations of a police officer taking down a resisting perp and a blue and white squad car speeding across the top of the screen. "We want the site to educate the public and be fun," Pence says.

One of the highlights is the "Rate Your Risk" tests, which Pence suggests
taking behind closed doors -- especially the "raped, robbery, shot, beaten" test. Indeed. One section called "Sundry habits," asks questions like "How many acts of adultery have you committed in the last few years?" and "You are unmarried and steadily cohabit with one person but you have dated on the sly in the last year. Indicate your total number of partners." Aren't these, ah, somewhat intrusive? Pence insists he based such "risk factors" on talking to dozens of detectives and crime specialists over a three-year period.

Since the site went up, 125,000 people have taken at least one of his tests, The site also provides pages of information on domestic abuse, includes advice on preventative measures, lists of the symptoms and signs of abuse and a personalized safety plan for women who want to get out of abusive relationships. Pence says he is currently developing a crime prevention quiz (that will be posted in different languages) for foreigners who will be visiting the United States and a quiz about stalking.

Pence, who works in the confrontation management section at the Nashville Police Academy, maintains the site in the wee hours of the night from his home. He also has a personal home page, which includes information about the Waco conflagration and has some adults-only quizzes ("Rate your ability to be sexy, loving and desired"). In addition to his computer talents, Pence is a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and a graduate of the FBI academy.

Pence says that with police Web sites sprouting up all over, departments from all over the world have the opportunity to share information (he often exchanges tips with a police force in Britain). He hopes to soon add a feature to the site that will enable citizens to search police databases for stolen items. "We really want it to be a useful," he says. "We are committed to providing content. "

Quotes of the day
Raising the drawbridge

"Congress no longer treats immigration as just a divisive 'wedge issue'; it is a new form of blood sport. Those responsible for this development ought to be ashamed of themselves."

-- Raoul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, commenting on Senate passage of a bill that among other things, would build a triple fence along a 14-mile stretch of the California-Mexico border and sharply restrict legal immigrants' access to housing benefits, subsidized health care, food stamps and college grants.

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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