Monday, August 07, 2006

How to Make a Criminal

Sadly, we are all so very afraid of possibility.

I lived, for a time, in an area outside of Miami-- the same area where Adam Walsh was abducted and killed. In the early eighties, it was an anomoly to be fingerprinted every year at school and have weekly safety lectures, but that was my life. There were codewords, passwords, and always, the suspicion of strangers. Overnight, I was no longer allowed to play outside, and my neighborhood became scary, my home a veritable fortress.

When I was growing up, we were taught to be afraid of adults. Now, somehow in the city, we have learned to be afraid of children.

Sure, for those of us who choose to live in the city, we acknowledge that it can be less than safe, and we submit to the law of averages which states that we are likely to be the victim of crime. Last week, on my block, after the block party no less, there was an assault. My car has been shot. Friends' cars have been stolen (one unfortunate soul had hers stolen three times in one year). A few blocks away, a friend was mugged and beaten. My house was broken into while I was home and the lights were on. Yeah, I understand that there's crime. Sure, it's a dangerous world, but is it as dangerous as we make it out to be? How at risk are we? And what do we choose to do about it? Do we give up our homes and move to the suburbs? Do we stop going out at night, stop exploring new haunts? Do we trade in the neighborhoods and lives that we have created for something that is simply safe, despite it not being what we want? Do we change our behaviour, or do we change the way we think about crime?

I've heard some people in the neighborhood comment that they don't like people walking on the sidewalks because they could be casing their homes. They have alarms on their homes and clubs on their cars. They've created veritable fortresses in every way, isolating themselves from where they live. I wonder if they are any safer than I am. I wonder if by isolating themselves from the possibility of crime, if they have also separated themselves from the place in which they have chosen to live.

Yesterday, I was in a business on S. Grand-- a chain business, it should be stated. Usually the customer service is great, the staff diverse, the building clean. As I walked down the street yesterday, I noticed a group of three or four kids--teenagers-- walking the opposite direction. One came into the building where I was, and I thought, disappeared towards the restroom. As I was leaving, the manager came out from the back and told the kid to leave. At first, I thought perhaps there had been some previous problem this kid had created-- and maybe there was, but the kid looked confused. He did not look disobedient; he looked confused. The manager raised his voice, creating a scene, and told the kid not to come back. That boy stood there, maybe 12 years old, baggy pants, long shirt, shuffling his feet, looking more at the ground than at the man looming over him. The manager grabbed him to start marching him towards the door, and the kid wriggled free, much as I might if someone issued a demand and then touched me. As I was walking out, the manager was yelling that he would call the cops.

That was it. No statement of previous wrong-doing. No statement of reason or explanation. No, "I've told you this before," or "You're bothering the customers." In fact, there were maybe six people in there, none of whoms seemed to be in the path the kid had taken.

Now, I don't know the back-story. Maybe this kid had caused trouble before. Maybe he hadn't. Maybe he's just a kid. Maybe it's incidental that he was black and on this day the whole staff was white. Maybe it had nothing to do with age or race. Maybe it was somehow about safety or the customer experience.


What I saw was a kid, probably "loitering" a bit, but on his way out the door anyway. I saw a grown man, who had easily 25 years, a foot and a half, and probably a hundred pounds on the boy, hulking down over the kid. I saw a manager--someone who runs a business-- lose control and yell at a kid, causing more of a disturbance, more of a scene. And I wondered, how can that be good for the customers' experience? How's that for being a part of a neighborhood or community?

Now, so you get where I am coming from, I also help run a business where we have to occasionally kick people out. They're drunk, or panhandling, they yell the "N" word, or we know they have caused trouble before. Never once have I had to ask twice, or raise my voice, or threaten to call the police. Not even as a woman dealing with a large drunk man. Never once have I had to assert myself in any way other than a firm request. Where I work, kids are up and down the street all the time, hanging out in the alley, loitering on the corner or down the block. Know what we do? We walk around and talk to them. We offer them jobs, see if they want something to do for a while. Are they the best workers? Not usually, but it produces a mutually beneficial result for everyone, and the neighborhood.

We don't offer kids much to do in our neighborhoods. We treat them with contempt or indifference, or as I saw yesterday, fear masked by power and anger. I teach kids about the same age as that boy I saw yesterday. When I look at my kids, I see the good they can do, not the crimes they might commit. I see their possibility as potential; others see them as potential threats. That's not how we protect ourselves. That, folks, is how we manufacture criminals.

I guarantee you that when an adult treats you that way that you don't forget it. And sadly, those negative experiences far outlive the times of praise we receive as we are growing up. Crime teaches us to fear the unknwon. What a shame that crime doesn't teach us to look more closely at ourselves. What a shame it doesn't make us want to help our communities rather than seal ourselves off from them.

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