Enough! Youth victims share their stories of gun violence in search of a solution

Dec 16, 2015 at 6:46 pm
Enough! Youth victims share their stories of gun violence in search of a solution

Diontae Reed, 14, was walking home on a cool day in March after playing basketball at a park in his West Louisville neighborhood. On the way home, he saw his friend Montrell Gaines, 17. As they were talking, a group of people nearby broke out into a fight. The two friends didn’t think much of it, until they heard gunshots.

“Whoever lost the fight got mad and started shooting at someone in our direction,” said Reed. “At first I thought someone had thrown a rock at me. But I looked down and saw blood, and when I lifted up my shirt I could see the bullet sticking out of my stomach. At first it burned, but then I started going numb. I tried to walk, but I couldn’t. So I fell down.”

Reed was in critical condition, while another stray bullet grazed Gaines’ skull.

“I thought I had tripped over something because I fell to the ground. But when I got back up, I took my bandana off and realized there was a hole in it,” said Gaines. “Then I felt blood start pouring down my shoulder. I fell again, face flat, and blood started coming out of my mouth and everyone just kept telling me to keep my eyes open.”

Both of them were loaded onto the same ambulance and driven to a hospital.

“I remember waking up in the ambulance next to [Reed], and I had shockers on me because they told me I had died,” said Gaines. “And when I looked over at [Reed] he still had blood coming out of him ... It was just crazy.”

Both Gaines and Reed survived, but not all in West Louisville are so lucky.

According to the Louisville Metro Police Department Gunshot Victims Report, between Jan. 1, 2015, and Nov. 30, 2015, there were 301 shootings in Louisville, with 51 percent occurring in West Louisville.

With statistics like these in mind, local activist Christopher 2X decided to visit both Gaines and Reed while they were recovering in the hospital. After 17 years of working with the victims of gun violence, he knew healing their physical wounds was only the beginning.

“When these kids get shot, they get angry,” said 2X. “Who wouldn’t? But they decided not to take the attitude of vengeance, despite the fact that there still haven’t been any arrests for those involved in these shootings.”

2X invited them to become part of the We All We Got: Hood 2 Hood movement, and to “turn a negative into a positive, by not seeking revenge but instead working to better their community.”

The two friends accepted, and have become vocal activists for an end to gun violence in West Louisville. Speaking with them reveals just how vast the issue is, with multiple factors at play and no easy solutions.

“There is no quick fix to this issue, even Chief [Steve] Conrad said himself, ‘We are not going to arrest our way out of this problem.’” So, what can we do?

Gun Culture

“The first time I saw a gun in my neighborhood, I was probably like 10 years old,” said Norman Parker, co-founder of We All We Got: Hood 2 Hood. “It’s not hard. If you wanted to get a gun, you could get it that day.”

Parker said firearms are so common in West Louisville that even those uninvolved in criminal activity feel the need to have one.

“When you grow up in the streets, you come up with ‘gang activity’ all around you. And you just want to protect yourself, not harm others,” said Parker. “If I had lived in Hurstbourne, would I have picked up a gun? Nah, for what?”

Parker said this ease of access makes it possible for life-altering mistakes to be made in the heat of the moment. He said it’s not uncommon for teenagers to get into a fight that quickly devolves into gun play.

According to a report by the CDC in 2013, the leading cause of death among black males ages 15-34 is homicide, and 92 percent of those homicide victims were killed by firearms.

But Parker said it would be naive to place the blame solely on firearms.

“Guns are a problem, but it’s about more than that,” said Parker. “It’s about why these kids feel the need to pick up a gun. They’re living in fear of getting shot on the way home from school. They’re wondering how they’re going to feed themselves for dinner that night or how they’re going to help the family pay the bills.”

Poverty and violence

“West Louisville is really the only place in the city where you see extreme poverty, meaning that a household is not only under the poverty threshold, but has low income even compared to other poor households,” said Matt H. Ruther, Director of the Kentucky Data Center.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a four-person household making $24,000 a year or less is living in poverty. Between 70 and 80 percent of people living in West Louisville neighborhoods are below this level.

A four-person household making $12,000 a year or less is living in “extreme” poverty. About 50 percent of people living in West Louisville neighborhoods are below this level.

“There’s ample research out there that shows that crime rates, particularly violent crime rates, are higher in poorer neighborhoods, in neighborhoods that have not seen a high level of investment,” said Ruther. “I mean crime is very station-concentrated just like these social indicators. [...] And I can state that as a point of fact anywhere.”

Terry Brooke, Executive Director of Kentucky Youth Advocates (KYA), said that these disparities between neighborhoods in Louisville are “embarrassing” and “should be considered ethical affronts to every person living in Louisville.”

“We have to address this attitude of just accepting poverty in Kentucky,” said Brooke. “Many just accept it as a fact of life that those in West Louisville live in poverty. They have to realize that these things can change and we have some win-win proposals that can do it.”

Among those proposals are the implemination of a state-wide, or even city-wide earned income tax credit (ITC), expansion of micro enterpirse zones, sanctions on predatory lending to low income households and support to non-nuclear famlies.

Brooke said these proposals would put money back into the hands of Louisville’s poorest and that the city would also benefit.

“Folks who get money from something like an ITC don’t go and invest it in an offshore account,” said Brooke. “They’re spending it at the grocery store or buying school clothes for their kid. So the state, or city, will see a return on their investment too.”

While addressing poverty in West Louisville would certainly help curb gun violence, it’s also important that we give kids the education they need to lift themselves up out of poverty for good, which is why we need to close the school-to-prison pipeline.

School-to-Prison Pipeline

“I won’t lie. I got caught up in some gang activity at my last school,” said Gaines. “But now I’m at Breckenridge, and I feel like I’m in a prison. You can’t step out of line at all or they will be all over you.”

Reed, who attends another public high school, interjects, “I once had a teacher tell me, ‘That’s why your daddies leave you all, because you all are so bad.’”

Chris Kolb, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Spalding University and Vice President of Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together (CLOUT), said this kind of behavior from Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) staff could be the result of an implicit bias or unconscious racial bias.

Kolb said evidence of this unconscious racism can be found in JCPS’s very own database, which states that black students make up about 37 percent of the student body, but received 68 percent of all suspensions in 2014. JCPS’s white student population makes up about 47 percent of the student body, but recieved only 27 percent of all suspensions.

“For our leading infractions such as fighting, whether you’re black or white, the chances for suspension are the same,” said John Marshall, JCPS’s Chief Equity Officer. “But as we move down the list to infractions that are more subjective, where there are other options besides suspension, we see that suspensions are disproportionately applied to black students.”

Marshall said this disproportionate use of suspensions to discipline black students is the result of a number of different factors.

“It’s an amalgamation of things that cause it, like the subjectivity of the rules. What is ‘disruptive behavior’? What is ‘failure to follow instructions’? What is ‘harassment and intimidation’?” said Marshall. “Our individual backgrounds and cultures determine a lot about our perceptions of student behavior, and the expectations that are set.”

Kolb said this uneven suspension rate can be traced back to a failed policy known as “zero tolerance,” a policy based on the “broken windows” theory of policing where the idea was to crack down on minor offenses so that minor offenders would be stopped before they became major offenders.

“The policy was made to create safer school environments, but instead it made schools less safe,” said Kolb. “It leads to disengaged students, who have poor relationships with teachers and administrators, and often times act out because the school has created a stressful climate of mistrust.”

Kolb said these zero tolerance policies not only have negative effects on students' grades and overall attitude towards school, but they can also lead to prison.

“You have students being suspended, who are usually already struggling, so a suspension only compounds the problem, so it should come as no surprise that students who are suspended often don’t graduate. And students who don’t graduate high school are eight times more likely to be arrested and spend time in jail,” said Kolb.

This is what is referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. And Kolb said with more and more police officers in schools for security, the chances of students being directly charged with criminal offenses for incidents in schools is increasing, making the “pipeline” even more direct.

Kolb said while JCPS has removed any reference to zero tolerance in their policies, the legacy of that policy still lingers. And JCPS needs to transition to a “restorative justice” model that focuses on addressing students’ issues with alternatives like counseling instead of using punishments such as suspensions.

In Oakland, California, an area with high poverty and high gun violence, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) made the switch to restorative justice practices and the results were dramatic. According OUSD, in one year, the number of suspensions among black students decreased by 40 percent. In three years, the number of students dropping out of high schools decreased by 56 percent. And in four years, the graduation rate increased by 60 percent.

“People often say, ‘These kids have bad home lives. They weren’t raised properly. A school can’t help them,’” said Kolb. “But you see in places like Oakland that you can help these kids. The research is conclusive, and it’s time JCPS catches up with the rest of the nation on this issue.”

Marshall said that JCPS has already begun training teachers and staff in resorative practices and plans on expanding their implementation of the policy.

“The research shows that restorative practices work, and if you follow other urban school districts who have them, you see that there have been great results,” said Marshall, “which is why I am very excited to announce that we will be hiring a restorative practices director, who will be working on implementing restorative practices in our classrooms.”

Marshall said that he hoped to have a director sometime in early 2016, but cautioned that it may take three to four years to see results.

Many of these policy changes would help address preventing gun violence by giving youth from impoverised, violent neighborhoods a path to success. But the fact remains that many have already fallen victim to a broken system, and reform is also needed for those currently struggling with the consequences of incarceration.

Prisons and Prisoners

“When I left prison, I wasn’t given any advice at all, not even bus fare,” said Camron Smith, member of We All We Got: Hood 2 Hood. “They just give you the stuff you had the day you were arrested and drop you back out on the street.”

After being shot in the head four times at close range, Smith decided to pick up a gun and go looking for revenge. But before he could retaliate against the man who shot him, he was arrested for possessing a handgun without a permit.

“I picked up the Bible and read how God said, ‘Let vengeance be mine,’ so I left it at that,” said Smith. “The man who did this to me, he is still out there, but I forgave him. Not for him, but for myself, so that I could move on with my life. Because I made it, and I wanted to better myself.”

And while Smith was able to rebuild a life after incarceration, many, especially those under 21, are prone to falling back into criminal activity. According to a report by the Kentucky Department of Corrections (KDC) in 2014, offenders under the age of 21 had a recidivism rate of 52 percent.

“It gets me really fired up when people think that we should just go out and arrest every drug user, or dealer, and throw away the key,” said Councilman David James, “because they’re going to get out at some point, and when they do, what do you have? You still have a drug user, or dealer. So it makes more sense to try and rehabilitate them than just throw them in jail.”

Terry Brooke of KYA, said that it’s inevitable that kids make mistakes, but the way that we respond is vitally important. He said we need to invest in helping nonviolent criminals find jobs and get job training while they are in prison, so that when they get out they have a life option besides crime.

According to KDC, $5,912,361.87 of the state’s 2014 general fund was allocated so that inmates could “participate in college courses, complete GED testing, utilize additional academic supplies and engage in the developmental math program.”

But Brooke said you only have to look at the recidivism rate to see that more needs to be done.

Brooke said reform is also needed in the way that we treat young offenders, and he pointed to the practice of shackling youth offenders who appear before the court at the Jefferson County Youth Detention Center in belly chains.

“I’m not saying there has never been a need for it before,” said Brooke. “But if you’re talking about the implications and effects on the culture of West Louisville, the idea that every African American that goes through the courtroom is put in chains, it’s not only an ineffective practice, but it’s an unethical violation to this community.” LEO called the Youth Detention Center and asked about their policy for use of belly chains, but was told, “No one is going to answer that question.”

Brooke said processing children under the age of 10 the same way that we process adult offenders is costing the city upwards of $100,000 a year, money that could be put towards helping to address the underlying issues that put these kids in contact with law enforcement in the first place.

According to a report by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network in 2014, about 90 percent of youth involved in the justice system reported exposure to some type of traumatic event, about 70 percent meet the criteria for a mental health disorder, and about 30 percent meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“We need to ask ourselves, are we throwing these kids away by the way we respond to them making mistakes? Or do we invest in turning these kids around so they can become productive members of the community?” said Brooke. “If the point is to reform criminals while they are in prison, then that needs to be put into practice instead of rhetoric.”

Listen up and act

Members of We All We Got: Hood 2 Hood said seriously addressing gun violence in West Louisville would benefit everyone, and it needs to be happen now.

“People in the East End and all over Louisville need to care about this issue because it’s only a matter of time before all this frustration and anxiety explodes and we have another Ferguson or Baltimore right here,” said 2X.

2X said people should look to the youth of their movement and see that this issue is more than just news headlines, or statistics in the paper, but real people whose lives have been altered forever by this epidemic.

People like Jeffery Roberts, 15, whose shin was shattered by a stray bullet, but still plans on pursuing his dream of playing college football and working to better his community.

People like Ki’Anthony Tyus, who was only 9 years old when he was hit by a stray bullet, but still loves playing basketball in the same park where he was shot.

People like Diontae Reed.

People like Montrell Gaines.

Their stories number in the thousands.

The solutions are there, and it’s time for this city to show some courage and to stand in solidarity with these young people to address these ?issues.