White Supremacy, Youth Violence and Benign Neglect

“Our hemisphere is enveloped by an unending series of storms of our nation’s making.”- Dave Ragland  

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On June 30th, 2012, police were called to the McCarren Park Pool to respond to reports that a group of teens had assaulted a lifeguard. The teens had been doing backflips into the pool, and according to witnesses, when a lifeguard approached and told them to stop a fight broke out.

The public pool on the border of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, closed for 28 years, had been re-opened for exactly one day at the time of the assault.

The narrative of the McCarren Park Pool incident was clear from the start: unruly, violent youths ruin the dream of a government-funded, post-racial utopia. A 50 million-dollar public project that would bring together the gentrifiers and the gentrified in scene of perfect summer harmony.

Not quite.

I had been a high-school teacher for nearly eleven years when I read about the incident. One headline from NY Magazine caught my attention; “Yesterday, just one day after the McCarren Park Pool reopened to the public, Williamsburg’s newest summer attraction had to be closed early after a pack high-schoolers proved they are just not responsible enough to handle an Olympic-sized wading area.”

I remember thinking, since when are high-schoolers known for being responsible?

(Flashback to 16-year-old Erin sneaking out at midnight, putting mom’s car into neutral to roll it silently out of the driveway to drive without a license to pick up a boyfriend who wanted McDonald’s. Mom- if you’re reading this- I’m sorry.)

The gut reaction that I had when that first McCarren Park Pool incident occurred was confusion. Not confusion about a group of teens doing backflips into a pool where backflips are not allowed. (It’s hard to imagine swimming in a pool at that age and NOT doing backflips). And not confusion around the fact that these teens were defiant when they were told to stop. (Conjure your best memory of teen defiance now. It’s not pretty, is it?) My confusion sounded something like this:

How the fuck did this get so out of hand?

McCarren Park Pool has a capacity of 1500. During the summer season the pool is reported to always be at capacity. And let’s imagine that on any given day that the pool is open, of those 1500 citizens, residents of the surrounding Greenpoint-Williamsburg neighborhood, at LEAST 700 of those citizens are adults.

HOW COULD 700 ADULTS NOT GET THREE TEENAGERS TO STOP DOING BACKFLIPS IN A POOL?

I remember being utterly stupefied that the police had to be called to respond to three teens. I also remember thinking distinctly that the only person who intervened before it got out of hand was a lifeguard. And who are lifeguards at public pools usually? They’re teens.   So, to recap: 1500 humans at McCarren Park Pool on June 30th, 2012, three teens doing backflips and one teen who asks them to stop turns into a full-on “riot” (this word was used frequently in the live tweets that posted as it went down) requiring police intervention.

Sidenote: How many of the live tweeters were grown-ass adults watching it go down, filming and posting it to their feed without lifting a finger? How many of those tweeters were White?

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I know what you may be thinking. You weren’t there. You might not have done anything either. That’s fair- I wasn’t there. But to this day, I talk to kids I don’t know who seem to be in trouble or getting out of hand. I love young people and I care about their safety. Sometimes it goes well, and sometimes I get told to fuck off. I don’t take it personally. There’s a Salvador Allende quote that I love (shout out to the last week of HHM): “Ser joven y no ser revolucionario es una contracdiccion hasta biologica”. It roughly translates to: “Being a teen and not being a revolutionary is practically a biological contradiction.”

What was at play at the McCarren Park Pool in 2012 was fear- fear of children of color- and the perpetuation of a centuries-old cultural narrative that adultifies and weaponizes them, transforming them into dangerous criminals who can only be managed by armed police.

Flash-forward. Present day.

Last week an 18-year-old high-school student fatally stabbed a 15-year-old classmate and critically injured a second student at the Urban Assembly Wildlife School in the Bronx. The incident occurred in a classroom where at least two teachers were present. Police called the incident “a culmination of weeks of conflict.” All signs pointed to bullying, and the news media swiftly noted an absence of metal detectors and the chorus of desperate parents that had asked for them.

This incident is beyond tragic. It also felt close to home, because when I resigned from teaching in 2015, I resigned from an Urban Assembly Network school. But the coverage of the incident and the implicit messaging behind gives us a glimpse into the some of the more insidious ways that White supremacy, fortified by our collective cultural fear of Blackness and Black rebellion, manifest in our schools and put children in danger.

My gut reaction to this incident was identical to my reaction to the pool melee of 2012.

How the fuck did this get so out of hand?

I want to be careful here. This was a tragedy. I genuinely believe that the two adults present in the classroom when Abel Cedeno snapped and stabbed Matthew McCree and Ariane Laboy (the teen who tried to intervene) did not want this to happen. I acknowledge that they are certainly suffering right now and my heart breaks for the entire UAW community. I know for a fact that things can escalate quickly in schools, and that the majority of teachers and adults in educational settings want what’s best for the young people they work with. I also know that I’ve made mistakes as a teacher. Nothing I name in others is something I likely couldn’t identify in myself at some point or another in my career. So rather than pointing fingers at the adults in this classroom who couldn’t or wouldn’t intervene when the situation was travelling from point A to B, I think our time is spent more productively if we examine as a collective group of educators what is happening for us when we witness violence among young people and choose to act or not act.

We can call this contradiction of ‘good’ intentions and a failure to act the result of benign neglect in our schools and communities.

I remember an altercation I had with a student when I was a dean. I loved this young woman. She was funny and loving and she also struggled with self-control; her behavior could be violent and unpredictable. I had removed her from a classroom and was following her around the school attempting to talk to her in my office. She was escalated and angry. I was getting there too. We ended up in the main office where the principal was holding a meeting with the rest of the student support team. (I had been pulled from that meeting to manage this situation with her). She was screaming, and then I lost my temper and fired back at her. This occurred directly in front of the principal’s office. I remember distinctly that the six adults, including the principal, sat there watching us yell. No one stood up, no one offered either of us help or attempted to intervene. The young lady and I separated, cooled off and reconciled easily. Conflict happens. My real beef was with these grown-ups that watched us suffer; witnessed our crisis and didn’t love either of us enough in that moment to offer a helping hand.

White supremacy is rooted in a historical narrative of fear of Black rebellion. Bacon’s Rebellion (1676), the 3/5ths Compromise (1787), the Southern Black Codes (1865-1866), Jim Crow Laws (1896-1965) and the 13th Amendment’s slavery exception for those deemed criminals by the state (1860- present day) are evidence of a nation dedicated to the prevention of true Black citizenship, the political embodiment of a recognized humanity. And as Ta Nehisi Coates writes in Eight Years We Were in Power:

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When those measures proved insufficient to enforcing white supremacy, Black citizens were shot, tortured, beaten and maimed.

But laws such as those named (and that list was partial) can only be upheld if the cultural narrative constructs a convincing story of a people who need to be feared. And when we as a culture are deeply terrified of Black and Brown children, we must admit that that narrative is fully present in our cultural DNA.

I work in a lot of schools and I see the fear we have nurtured around our young people of color manifest in all of the ways individuals and institutions manage children. Children of color are seen as a threat to our physical and existential safety, so much so that even interrupting bullying proves, in many school scenarios, to be an impossible confrontation for the adults on staff.

I believe it is no coincidence that Abel Cedeno carried out this violent act against his classmates in full view of the school’s adults. Many of us who have worked with young people for a long time know that when they want to resolve a conflict with violence and not get interrupted by adults, they take it out of the school’s jurisdiction. I believe any violent behaviors enacted by young people in full view of adults, including bullying, are a cry for our intervention. Children do not want to be unsafe. They want us to love them and protect them.

When we are drowning, we do not politely ask for help. We scream.

The end paper illustrations in Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power; An American Tragedy, show delicate vignettes that combine the contemporary and historical experience of Black Americans in small, hand-drawn scenes. There is one drawing of a black boy in a modern-day hoodie, walking through a plantation followed by a civil-war era patrolman on horse-back and an armed, white, 19th century farmer pointing a gun at the back of the boy’s head. The juxtaposition is striking and clear.

McCarren Park Pool increased security after that opening summer. The pool has guards now, and police have been called multiple times in the pool’s 5 seasons. UA Wildlife had metal detectors installed the day after the fatal stabbing. Police were on high alert.

Our benign neglect of young people, both in moments of crisis or just moments of youth, are a direct result of this dedicated and intentional cultural narrative of fear around Black and Brown children. I believe we all need to search our own stories fearlessly and examine when we have contributed to that neglect. It is hard for me to shine a light in those corners, but I know if I’m truly going to call myself an anti-racist it is an essential first step.

Posted in Anti Racism, How are the children?, restorative justice.

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