Just over two weeks ago, a 16-year-old boy named Kimani Gray was shot dead by two plainclothes police officers not far from his home in Brooklyn's East Flatbush neighborhood. The circumstances of the shooting are still in dispute: police claim that the young man pointed a .38 caliber revolver at them (though concede he fired no shots), while at least one witness has claimed that Gray was not armed at all. What is known is that the officers fired 11 shots in total, three of which hit the teenager in the back and killed him.
The shooting, which the NYPD have already indicated is by their standards a "good" one (as though such a thing were possible), prompted outrage in the community, led to several days of protests and riots, dozens of arrests and a promise from Mayor Michael Bloomberg of an independent investigation. But whatever satisfaction such an investigation might bring to Gray's grieving family, unless the shooting, and all the turmoil surrounding it, leads to a serious rethink on what we could and should be doing to help at-risk youths in our most troubled neighborhoods, his young life will have been lost in vain.
As troubled inner city communities go, East Flatbush is not a particularly distinguished one. According to an analysis of citywide data by the Daily News, it is one of two of the worst precincts for shooting fatalities in New York City – even funerals are not immune from threats of gun violence. In most ways, however, it has all the usual characteristics that similar communities in high-crime cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore share. Unemployment is rampant, poverty rates are high and the gang culture that preys on vulnerable kids is thriving. Despite the extraordinary challenges young people in these kinds of neighborhoods across the country face, however, few resources are sent their way – aside from a heavy police presence and threats of prison terms.
Since Kimani Gray's shooting, there has been a lot of speculation (though no concrete evidence) that he was a member of a gang. Whether he was or wasn't, it shouldn't make his violent death any more acceptable. According to Shanduke McPhatter, a former gang member and now executive director of Gangstas Making Astronomical Community Changes Inc (GMACC), a nonprofit that tries to help at-risk youth, many kids turn to gangs because they have no place that they feel safe and they crave the sense of belonging that gang membership affords them. They are then quickly written off by society as bad kids, when in reality, they are just kids who had mostly bad choices available to them.
McPhatter is acutely aware, however, of the need to change the mindset that makes joining a gang an appealing option:
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"It's become a lifestyle. It's a form of addiction now in some communities, where people are even taught to believe that it's a badge of honor to do [prison] time."
His group's efforts are focused on breaking that addiction by educating kids on the dangers of gang membership and trying to steer them towards more sustainable career paths. But with limited resources, there is only so much they can do. Nationwide, there are better-funded groups like Cure Violence (formerly known as CeaseFire Chicago) and Baltimore Safe Streets, which employ former gang members to stop retaliatory shootings and interrupt or prevent other acts of violence. While these organizations can claim some success in reducing violence, they can do little to address the core issues of unemployment, poverty and addiction that lead people to crime and gang involvement in the first place.
And there's the rub. Nothing drives crime rates like poverty and unemployment. Kids who grow up in communities where most adults are working in at least living-wage jobs and who can envision a future that includes the possibility of a living-wage job for themselves do not tend to join gangs or get involved in gunfights on the streets. But ask the government to fund after-school programs for kids or job training programs for their parents and agencies will insist that funds cannot be found.
Meanwhile, if Kimani Gray had lived longer and had, hypothetically, been convicted of an actual crime, the same government would have had no problem forking out $200,000 a year to house him in a juvenile detention facility. Nor do you ever hear anyone quibbling about the millions of dollars spent each year sending huge numbers of police officers into neighborhoods like the one where Gray ended up being shot dead by two of them.
The point is moot for Kimani Gray now, but if there is to be any hope of preventing senseless-seeming deaths like his in the future, there has to be concerted effort to address the core problems in troubled communities like the one where he was killed, rather than spending limitless sums policing them and punishing them.