I only recently embraced my status as an “elder.” Actually, I describe myself as an “episodic elder,” eager enough to take one of those lovely “senior” discounts when it serves my purpose, yet reluctant to turn in my party card. Elder status hit me upside the head though when a young woman told me she was “tired” of my generation preaching to hers.
I’m willing to stop preaching when young leaders step up. I applaud the Black Lives Matter movement, and am excited when those who are not of African descent join this movement. Still, I am waiting for the same young leaders to demand that their peers stop killing one another. I’m not embracing the right-wing hype about Black-on-Black crime, because they don’t address White-on-White crime. I’m not suggesting that the movement for police reform take a back seat to anything else (after all, we can have more than one movement at a time). I am suggesting, however, that young African Americans confront their peers and say “enough.” When “elders” say it, we are accused of preaching, but someone needs to say it.
What if the young people who abhor the killing of their friends and neighbors took shooters and their associates to task? What if they got up in their faces (in safe spaces, of course) and demanded to know why some of the young people who could contribute much to our community have now been massacred in the streets?
Some of those who lost their life were victims of mistaken identity, or trapped in the wrong place at the wrong time – some were little girls playing on their porches or sitting on Grandma’s lap. Some of them were simply walking home from school. Some of them were in the middle of a simple misunderstanding and lost their life because of an errant glare, a careless word. Some, like Charnice Milton, survived childhood only to go to her grave at 27.
Charnice was a talented, ambitious young reporter determined to tell the story of Southeast Washington, the part of the nation’s capital with the highest concentration of African Americans, the highest poverty rate and, more recently, the primary target of gentrification that pushes poor Black residents out of the homes in favor of young, affluent, White “urban pioneers.”
Her death was more than a faceless statistic – it was personal. Charnice was in my office fact-checking my most recent book for a few weeks, and she literally shimmered when she spoke of the stories she hoped to tell. She didn’t want to be the story, she wanted to tell the story of the least and the left out and of the people and organizations making a difference.
Charnice’s dreams of telling untold stories, along with her body, were tragically shattered when a depraved young man used her body as a human shield to protect him from a drive-by gunman.
Tears have been shed, hands have been wrung, and teddy bears and flowers have been left at the place where Charnice was slaughtered. A few days from now, someone else will be shot and the crying and handwringing will begin again. So far this year, 18 people have been killed in Ward 8 – almost one each week. The tears shed for Charnice are special tears for this amazing young woman, and yet they are the all-too-regular tears for lost life, for names that don’t quite make the news.
Some young leaders are quick to blame heartless police or and the right-wing obsession with crime – even while it is declining in some cities – but how many in Washington, D.C., in Baltimore (where 43 people were killed so far this year), in Harlem, in Third Ward or Fifth Ward Houston, in St. Louis, were killed not by cops, but people who look like us? At some point, we ought also be able to say, simply: Stop the killings!
According to the Pew Research Center, “While blacks are significantly more likely than whites to be gun homicide victims, blacks are only about half as likely as whites to have a firearm in their home (41% vs. 19%).”
Thanks to the National Rifle Association, there has been a proliferation of guns in our nation. According to federal figures, there were 310 million nonmilitary firearms in the United States as of 2009. That’s an average of nearly a gun per person in our nation of 318.9 million people, making us the most heavily armed country in the world. There are more gun sellers in the U.S. than McDonald’s or grocery stores.
Even so, the NRA opposes any legislation to reduce easy access to guns, and offer clichés such as “guns don’t kill, people do.” But guns don’t fire themselves. Meanwhile, young African Americans are mowed down like bowling pins, and except for the occasional reporting of an exceptional life, those who are killed are also ignored.
It is time for young leaders to take their peers on, to step up and demand that the violence stop. It is time for these leaders to demand that media outlets cover the cumulative loss of life and the individuals who have been killed, without tediously parroting the mindless and non-contextual conversation about Black-on-Black crime. I write this not as an episodic elder preaching, but as a seasoned warrior asking her esteemed young leaders to take this baton and run with it.