There are no quiet nights on the front porch. There are no quaint strolls in the summertime or leisurely bike rides through the neighborhood.
It’s just not possible: He’s a black teenager living in the hood.
He’s had friends shot at and killed. He’s heard the street gangs, their loud music, the gun shots, the robberies. He smells and sees the drug use and the muggings used to feed those habits.
He’s an Akron kid, a 16-year-old literally always looking over his shoulder.
“The constant fear keeps you on your toes,” he said.
The teen was among six black Akron residents who spoke in a focus group as part of the America Today project. The six who agreed to share their personal stories were granted anonymity so they could talk openly. The discussion, one of more than 20 this year conducted by Alice Rodgers for the Beacon Journal, wandered from issues of crime to guns to race relations.
Each told similar stories of fear, anger and frustration. They all spoke of black-on-black crime and the code of silence that permeates the community.
One woman’s son was killed and she felt police ignored her. Another spoke of police stopping him for no reason, perhaps only for DWB: “driving while black.”
Another woman was a professional working in banking, a man retired as a human resources manager. The group also included a man from Elizabeth Park and a transplanted Medina woman who came to Akron 40 years ago, “which was a culture shock” to her.
But it was the Akron teenager and his story of fear and caution growing up in the city that was most captivating during the three-hour discussion.
He’s a West Sider who loves the piano, violin, skating and riding his bike. He has his eye on college and is already making progress toward a college degree while still in high school.
“I’ve been raised with like hard-core family values,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’m a bad kid, I’m a really good kid and I love to help people out.”
He knew Willie Brewer, a Buchtel High kid gunned down in the middle of the day last spring. The slaying remains unsolved. To this teen, he realizes what happened to Willie can happen to anyone. It is life in the city in which he lives.
“We live in a particularly pretty bad neighborhood,” he said. “It was around Christmastime. They broke into my mom’s car, took the Christmas gifts and all that.
“We had robberies at our house. Like our dog, we have a dog who barks really loud. We got an alarm system. My grandparents’ house was almost broken into, so I had to spend the night over there a few times just in case because they’re old.
“I haven’t been affected, like myself, nothing has happened to me yet. I hope nothing will.”
But even though he’s been raised to follow the law, stay in school and work toward a future, the thought of being a victim, he said, is always there.
“Yeah, I’m definitely worried, definitely worried.”
Others in the group recounted similar tales and similar fears.
Community fails her
One mother’s pain was especially fresh. Her son was killed last December, shot down in cold blood. The killer remains free. Police, she said, treated her with coldness, keeping her away from her son’s dead body as he lay on the ground, barely speaking to her as the investigation churned.
She knows that people know who killed her son. She knows they will remain silent out of fear.
“The black community has failed me and others,” said the murder victim’s mother. “If it doesn’t happen to you, nobody cares. The community needs to come together because you never know when it’s going to hit your door. You never know when it’s going to be you.”
Blacks, one panelist said, should not try to hide from the fact that the majority of crimes are happening against blacks by blacks.
“It is what it is. It is black-on-black crime. It’s a very serious issue. When nobody is saying anything, long as it ain’t happening to you, you can pull your covers up and go to sleep and you’re fine. But live this life of people not supporting you. People don’t care. We need to come together.”
“It is a very serious issue and we don’t want to really ’fess up to it, but it’s the truth. And they’re gunning you down in the middle of the day, it doesn’t matter,” one woman said.
“We have responsibility for what’s happening in our community,” one man said. “Once again, I will say America is very good at blaming victims because the problem that these kids have in our community, the reason why it’s easy for them to just take a life, is because they don’t have an understanding of what they are.
“They don’t actually know who they are and what they are and what you’re actually taking when you kill someone.”
The only teen in the group said he can’t see an immediate change.
“I don’t know for sure what’s causing the violence. I see kids, like my friend being shot and I was just like that could have been me because I walked out on Copley [Road]. I like to ride my bike. I don’t know what’s going on because me and my best friend Bill live on the west side, we don’t know what’s happening. It’s like we’re afraid for our lives.”
One adult male, who lives in Elizabeth Park, one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods, said society needs to address the growing youth violence. Prison is not the answer, he said. Too many blacks are being locked up or tagged as felons to ever accomplish anything worthwhile, he said.
Lack of identity
“If you don’t have social programs that are worthwhile, if you don’t have an education system that is going to educate people about who they are and where they are and why they’re there, and whoever reads this article, who knows what I’m talking about, you know what I’m talking about.
“We’re not teaching them who they are. We’re telling these kids that they started as slaves. Like we’re not telling people who they really are, so they don’t have a value about the life that they take in. It’s what America values the black life as.
“But the problem, even when someone comes home from a nonviolent offense, they do some time, when they get home they can’t get no job. … And he’s been in jail, so he’s hopeless. This is a hopeless individual ... without education or access to opportunity, that’s why we’ve got problems, that’s why we got violence. You got a bunch of people out here who are hopeless.”
One woman said the cyclical problem will only continue until education and opportunities increase.
“City organizers already know, metropolitan cities of these sizes, when you mess up the educational system and you have that high level of unemployment and you have what you call generational unemployment, you create a group of frustrated individuals who are going to have a higher propensity to commit crime,” she said. “And it’s not even connected to race.”
The group insists that the majority of blacks only want what every American wants: opportunity. In the meantime, they live in fear, they struggle. They’re frustrated with their neighbors and with police.
“Our pastor got pulled over once,” a man said. “And it’s happened to another pastor. And until it really happens to you, you can hear it, but when it really happens and it goes down, it’s completely different.”
The solution, they said, starts at home. And with that, greater personal responsibility.
“There is no love and no love of God,” a woman said. “It’s babies raising babies. It’s not really taught in the home, no respect. Like when we were coming up, we were taught the love of God. My parents taught me about Jesus. Right from wrong. Compassion. Love for people.
Angry as children
Said another man: “And there’s an anger, you will appreciate this, there is an angry spirit and I see where that comes from a lot of times.”
“There’s an angry spirit because there’s no money, they’re stressed out. You mentioned babies raising babies. You’ve got a 16-, 15-year-old girl with a baby and she’s out to here with the second one, she’s pushing a stroller and the 3-year-old is walking along and does something and the next thing out of her mouth is she’s cussing the kid out.
“Culturally, that’s our fault. That’s nobody’s fault but ours. And we’ve got the poverty and all of that problem, but this. I have seen young girls curse their little 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds out, and I’m sitting there, how do you expect this individual not to grow up and be angry when he hears — he’s cussed out all the time, he’s called names.”
“He’s angry. That’s all he’s ever heard. So he’s already beat down from home. And that’s supposed to be his sanctuary.”
Wounds must heal, they agreed.
“A wounded person will continue to wound others. And you must reveal your wounds if you ever want to be cured. So you continue to conceal that, so whatever caused that to fester to the point that it made you go to seek a gun or something else. That is a disease. And to me one of the worst diseases we’ve had, the worst disease we’ve had in the United States is racism.
“And it’s bizarre. And it’s dangerous and detrimental to the human being, to hold onto that type of hate inside of you. That is a cancer. And how do you convince others, like why don’t you get rid of that? And the way we can do it is to have honest dialogue.”
“We’re afraid, too.”
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Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or email@example.com.