President Obama has launched a new national initiative against youth violence in the wake of the brutal killing of Derrion Albert, a 16-year-old sophomore at Chicago’s Fenger Academy High. Derrion’s fatal beating by several other teens, captured on video from an onlooker’s cell phone, has inundated the nightly news and the blogosphere —prompting U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the former chief of the Chicago public schools, to visit Chicago this past Wednesday to address the issue of youth violence.
But to many parents, students and teachers in Chicago, Duncan’s visit to Chicago represented the perpetrator returning to scene of the crime.
That’s because Duncan’s “Renaissance 2010” initiative that he helped launch beginning in 2005, ordered dozens of Chicago's public schools closed and thousands of students reassigned to campuses outside their neighborhoods —and often across gang lines.
The closure of these public schools was a move by Duncan to bring in privatized charter schools that take public funds and place them in schools outside of public oversight. In numerous school board meetings and protests, community members have warned Duncan that the reckless closing of schools would have dire consequences—from the loss of cherished education programs and neighborhood schools, to the increase in gang violence.
Before the 2006 school year, an average of 10-15 public school students were fatally shot each year. But as schools were shut down and public education was eroded, deadly shootings soared; 24 in the 2006-07 school year, 23 in the 2007-08 school year, and last year ended with a record 34 deaths and 290 shootings.
"You have a trail of blood and tears ever since they launched (Renaissance 2010)," said Tio Hardiman, director of the anti-violence organization CeaseFire Illinois, in story by MSNBC. "There's a history of violence associated with moving kids from one area to another."
Investing in our public schools and after-school programs (rather than siphoning off money from them in the form of charter schools), and investing in job programs and universal healthcare before investing in failed banks, could go a long way towards alleviating the conditions of hopelessness that breed violence.
But even reprioritizing spending on social services and education isn’t enough to save America’s youth from violence.
Inauspiciously, the Obama administration chose October 7th to issue its press release calling for a “National conversation on values to address youth violence.” October 7th marked the 8th anniversary of the War in Afghanistan—a war that has enlisted tens of thousands of America’s youth to carry automatic weapons to a foreign land to participate in the unhinged brutality of an occupation. As Obama considers whether to bow to the generals and send an addition 40,000 troops to Afghanistan—a war widely becoming known as “Obama’s Vietnam”—already some 800 Americans and thousands more Afghans have been killed in this conflict.
If Obama wants his national conversation on youth violence to be more than platitudes and media hype, he would do well to revisit these words delivered by fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech:
We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago…
…I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.