Other People’s Children

Published April 16, 2013

If the states are laboratories of democracy, then what does that make our cities? Showcases of the experiments’ results? If so, then we are in for a terrible time.

One need not be an alarmist to note the increasing acceptance of uncontrolled violence in our cities. Yes, it’s true that for forty-five years we have not witnessed widespread civil insurrection on the scale of the summer and fall of 1968, when Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. were shot and killed, radical students occupied office of deans of college campuses, rioters and looters burned down the west side of Chicago, and the Chicago police beat heads in front of what was then the Conrad Hilton Hotel, home to the 1968 National Democratic Convention that nominated Hubert Humphrey for president.

It has been forty-three years since the Ohio State National Guard shot and killed four protesting students and wounded nine others at Kent State University in northeast Ohio in 1970, and over thirty years since anyone took a potshot at a president, namely Ronald Reagan in 1981. But such violence shocked the nation and made the nightly news.

Today we seem to face a more systemic, low-grade, but pervasive cult of violence that has become the norm. Certain parts of Manhattan – to the rest of the nation just “New York City” – had become so crime-ridden and violent in the 1970’s that New Yorkers elected “tough cop” Rudy Giuliani to clean it up and Manhattan today is safe, clean, and fun for visitors around the world. But in places like Cleveland, Philadelphia, and especially in Chicago – where street gang members outnumber policemen over ten to one – the trend has gone the other way.

On North Michigan Avenue, the heart of Chicago’s tourism and shipping industry known as “The Magnificent Mile,” wilding youths from the south and west sides of town have for several years been preying en masse on tourists and businesses, looting stores, shoving pedestrians, and stealing their iPhones and jewelry.

For a fare of two and a quarter or a jump of the turnstile, the nearby CTA “red line” stop at State Street and Chicago Avenue is easily accessible and provides a direct route from the South Side to a local McDonald’s restaurant that has become a haven for drug dealing and a gathering point for hoodlums. From there the miscreants soon spill over to the Mag Mile and the nearby “Gold Coast” neighborhood, where they terrorize tourists and engage en masse in shoplifting. An unusually cold and wet Chicago spring has so far dampened the violence, but everyone from the neighbors to the Mayor knows that warmer spring and summer evenings will bring another onslaught.

Apple-picking,” as the theft of iPhones has become known, is popular up and down the Red Line and in surrounding stations. That includes two that also serve the Brown Line, on which many of Chicago’s young urban professionals commute: the Belmont and Fullerton Avenue stations. One miscreant, 19-year old Prince Watson, was convicted of murder and on April 12 was sentenced to 32 years in prison for shoving down the stairs of the Fullerton Avenue stop a 68-year old mother of three who died the next day after suffering broken bones, brain contusions, and bleeding in the fall.

At the age of 17 Watson had determined, as he claimed at his sentencing hearing, that “snatching iPhones was the safest and quickest way to make money and support myself without hurting anyone.” But in his haste to escape the person whose iPhone he had picked at Fullerton, Watson happened to shove one Sally Kitona-King, a church deacon who had survived an alcoholic father, rape in an alleyway at the age of 8, polio, divorce, and the shooting death of her second husband, and Watson discovered that life was not so simple. “Now I understand,” the Chicago Tribune quoted his one-page typed statement as saying, “what I did was wrong and it hurted [sic] a lot of people deep down inside.”

Like Kitona-King, Watson also had a troubled childhood. According to the Tribune, Watson’s mother was an alcoholic who’d had gin for breakfast the day of his birth, delivered him while carrying a near-lethal blood alcohol content of 0.28%, and died of a drug overdose when Watson was a toddler. By age 13, Watson had turned to drugs and crime, dropping out of high school his freshman year and quickly building a juvenile arrest record for disorderly conduct, battery, and retail theft. His siblings fared little better: Just eight months before he shoved Mrs. Kitona-King down the stairs to her death Watson lost his sister to a shooting – allegedly by her husband – and a month after that lost his twin brother, a convicted armed robber, to an eighteen-year prison sentence.

Two tragic childhoods with intertwined lives ending in tragedy, but the lives in between were night and day different. Kitona-King became a church deacon, a self-taught baker, and a mother of three now-adult children who cooked meals for disadvantaged families; Watson became a druggie, a petty thief, and now a murderer.

Hillary Clinton famously claimed that “it takes a village to raise a child,” but in contrast to current government schemes to fund group education at earlier and earlier ages, parenting of one’s own children remains the best option. Responsible child-rearing requires grounding children in education, morality, and cultural literacy.

The U.S. Supreme Court may insist on separation of church and state, but surely it is not too much to ask that – echoing the image of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments in the very frieze that stands above the portico of the Court itself in Washington – our schools both public and private teach the fundamental code incorporated in one way or another in every civilized society in history: thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods, and thou shalt not kill.

At the age of 19, Prince Martin says he now understands that what he did was wrong and that “deep down inside” it hurt a lot of people.

Why didn’t he understand that at the age of four or five?