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On Richmond and Violence

I am sure there is something in here to offend almost everyone, but it needs to be said, and that’s what a public forum is all about:


It is not only convenient but also ultra politically correct to blame Richmond’s violence problems, particularly its record setting homicide rate, on something or someone else – usually a variety of societal ills, including racism, social injustice, poverty, joblessness, historical and cultural suspicion of law enforcement and lack of educational opportunities. The failure of residents to alert police to incipient incidents, including weapons, gangs, drugs and feuds is often blamed on fear, family connection and the snitching taboo. Same with crimes that have already occurred.


On the recent violent sexual assault at Richmond High, the same root causes are being discussed, even updated with  “economic stresses and foreclosures.”


To make it even more confusing, many of the spokespersons who cite societal ills as precursors and root causes of violence instead of the lack of individual responsibility also embrace selective violations of “unjust” laws, such as those requiring drivers licenses and insurance for persons operating vehicles. I’d be the first to recognize the “Catch-22” quagmire that lack of a federal immigration policy imposes on both undocumented immigrants and law enforcement, but advocating open violations is a slippery slope that allows anyone to rationalize a rule or law does not apply to them because of demographic or sociological circumstances.  


Critics are calling for fences, lights, better planning and more and better security. Nothing wrong with that, but there is a deeper problem. For example, parents are not engaged. The CC Times reported, “[Richmond High Principal] Franco said many Richmond High parents usually cannot attend evening events for their high schoolers because they have other kids at home and no one to watch them. A newsletter mailed to parents a few weeks ago outlined upcoming events, but no parents volunteered.”


The Chronicle reported, “Take the poverty-driven frustration of inner-city Richmond, a youth street culture that glorifies thugs and applauds degradation of women, and the desensitization of young men through violent video games, music and language, and you have a template for trouble.” There it is again, poverty, culture and even video games.


These may be partially true and partially real, but some are not. I have yet to see someone turned away from a free public education through at least the 12th grade. I’m not sure where “lack of educational opportunities” comes from, but I see and hear it often. To a significant extent, however, the most violence plagued communities in Richmond are significantly challenged by political, social and economic impacts totally beyond their control. They are facts, but they are not excuses.


All of these societal problems deserve our attention. No one deserves a lack of opportunity to make a life for themselves. All of us in public service should be doing everything we can to alleviate oppressive conditions that challenge people’s ability to lead productive lives. We also have to make sure our public safety organizations (Police Department and Office of Neighborhood Safety) are both responsive and sensitive. Those who are not in public service should be looking for volunteer opportunities with the same objectives.


But that is not the most important thing that has to change. The communities that bear the brunt of violence have to take RESPONSIBILITY for their fate. There, I said it, The “R” word. Only the community itself can stop this. A culture of TOLERANCE is what really drives Richmond’s perennial crime wave. 400 students at the Homecoming party and not one parent volunteered to attend? Not one! Zero!


How many times do Richmond Police arrive at a homicide scene where people are still scattering, and no one saw anything? No one knows anything? The same people who saw nothing have been known to blame the police, the City, the schools or simply “violence” without a face for what has happened. Violence does have a face, and it may be closer than anyone wants to admit. How many Richmond residents know who is carrying or selling weapons, who is dealing drugs and who is harboring a fatal grudge but won’t drop a dime on them?


When a young person becomes a homicide victim in Richmond, the grief of family and friends is understandable and even incomprehensible to those who have been fortunate enough not to have experienced it. But in the subsequent media coverage that talks about the memorials and the redeeming qualities of the deceased, I can’t recall once some friend or family member saying, “You know, he was (pick one - selling drugs, guns, running with a gang). We have to find a way to make sure not one other young person becomes involved in these illegal activities. They are simply tempting fate.” Instead, violence is talked about like something that dropped out of the sky at random like a lightning bolt. As a response, people light candles, hold vigils and pray on Sunday. These things may help, and they certainly may feel good, but what they really need to do is pick up the phone and call the cops when they see trouble or know about something that will ultimately lead to trouble.


Twenty or more people watching a sexual assault, some by all accounts with cell phones, yet no one called the police. A CNN article discussed the “bystander” effect:

Research shows us that students often know ahead of time when and where violence will flare up on campus. Strong social networks and the widespread use of cell phones and text messaging rapidly convey such information.  This dynamic can fuel violence, as officials say it did at Richmond High School. It can also prevent violence. Thousands of potential school crimes, including violent ones, have been averted on campuses across the country because students alerted school officials before the crime occurred.

 Students and families using a hot line in Colorado were credited with preventing more than 206 incidents of school violence from 2004-06. As of summer 2009, this one hot line fielded 1,687 reports that resulted in crime prevention or intervention.  Alert students have also helped prevent replays of the tragedies that occurred at Columbine and Virginia Tech by tipping off school officials. Several years ago, student reports stopped a Columbine-style massacre plot, employing bombs, napalm and automatic weapons, at a high school in Green Bay, Wisconsin. This year, tips from students and alert teachers and police disrupted a student-massacre plot, featuring pipe bombs and firearms, at Hillside High School in San Mateo, California. Since Columbine, school shootings have been averted in New Bedford, New York, and Covina, California, to name some others.

And at Richmond, it was an 18-year-old bystander, overhearing others talking about the incident, who reported the crime.  Unfortunately, the public is largely unaware of these frequently heroic acts by high school students and their teachers because they don't often get national media attention. That lack of information has helped obscure the important roles that students and their responsive teachers play in preventing school violence.

There it is – crime prevention and intervention. When every parent and every law-abiding resident of Richmond decides they are madder ‘n hell and aren’t going to take it any longer and are personally going to do whatever it takes at whatever risk to put an end to violence – they will. No one else can do it, not the City, not the School District, not the Police, not the Office of Neighborhood Safety, not the churches and not a hundred non-profit community organizations. This has to be a personal priority with every resident and every parent, just as it was for the 18-year old female who had what no one else had, both the courage and the level-headedness to do the right thing and finally call the cops at Richmond High.


There are those who will say this is “blaming the victim,” meaning blaming the communities where violence takes place. I beg to differ. What we need is a partnership, a full partnership with no holds barred. Until such a partnership is established and operates successfully, the status quo will prevail.


The North and East neighborhood may be a good model for such a partnership. With a Yahoo Group that is plugged into the Police Department and tracks would be criminals from block to block in real time and has recently mounted pro-active community patrols that leave “door-knockers” about code enforcement, report violations nightly and reinforce residents’ inclination to report crimes.  I would not recommend the North and East neighborhood as a venue for a criminal to do crime in Richmond right now.


As Pogo said, "We Have Seen the Enemy and It Is Us"