Youth violence spurs action, frustration

May 28, 2010
By

John Ruch

Arroyo: ‘Youth agenda’ coming soon

Web Exclusive

The apparently random killing of a 14-year-old boy on a Jackson Square basketball court on May 8 was a shocking crime in itself. But it also fits into a pattern of youth violence that cycles in certain parts of the city, including Jamaica Plain’s Jackson and Egleston Squares.

It is a pattern that local elected officials have struggled to break. Three of them recently spoke to the Gazette about their frustration. At-large City Councilor Felix Arroyo, a JP resident, is hoping that his forthcoming “youth agenda” will help target some root causes.

It emerged last week that the May 8 homicide victim, honor student Jaewon Martin, was a cousin of Cedirick Steele, an 18-year-old man gunned down in Roxbury on the opposite side of Jackson Square in 2007. Prosecutors say Steele was the victim of a mistaken-identity hit by street gang members—possibly the same motive for Martin’s death. Mistaken identity is also said to be behind the 2007 killing of a 13-year-old boy in Jackson Square’s Bromley-Heath housing development.

Many other violent crimes committed by youths against youths in JP and around the city are motivated by status-seeking and revenge, according to police and prosecutors.

At least once a year since 2006, a boy or young man has been shot to death on JP’s streets. City and state officials always express outrage after the killings, but lasting solutions have been harder to come by.

Local state Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez previously voiced his frustrations to the Gazette about Martin’s killing, wondering aloud what else officials can do.

“We have activism in the neighborhood and leaders are engaged,” he said.

His challenger on this fall’s ballot, JP resident Jeffrey Herman, tried a hands-on approach in the week after the killing, performing magic tricks for kids as part of Bromley-Heath’s increased youth programs.

But concerns about the big picture were voiced to the Gazette by Arroyo, who coaches youths from some of JP’s roughest streets, and City Councilor Chuck Turner, who represents Egleston Square and neighboring parts of Roxbury.

“When I was in eighth grade, one of my best friends was murdered,” said Arroyo, noting the long history of youth violence in Boston. “Why would we act as if we’re stunned? Some other young man is going to lose his life next summer” unless there is “systemic” change, Arroyo said.

Arroyo already intended to release his “youth agenda” next week, which will cover such areas as employment and mentoring services. The actual policies, however, will come from young people themselves—including youths from JP’s Hyde Square Task Force and Teen Empowerment—at a special City Council hearing and brainstorming session on June 9.

“The youth agenda will be written by young people in the city,” Arroyo said, noting that officials tend to do more talking than listening on youth issues. “I want the outside to inform the inside, and not the other way around…If I say I’m going to work on youth issues and I don’t let youths run that process, I lied to you.”

Arroyo also pointed to the dwindling support for youths this summer. Youth jobs funding from the state and federal governments has been cut. The Boston Public Library is shutting down branches, and the city is pulling workers out of some community centers. Arroyo said he understands the economy, but not the budget priorities.

“I think it’s really a moment now to recommit ourselves [to] young people,” he said.

Arroyo attended Martin’s funeral service two weeks ago. “There is that moment you see a young person in a casket, and their family and friends…It’s just an awful, pit-of-your-stomach feeling,” he said.

He wondered about the lack of “self-love” that Martin’s unidentified killer must have. Boston’s youths need to know that they “don’t have to be confined to their block or to their street,” Arroyo said. “There is a life for them out there.”

Arroyo said he has heard anxiety from local youths in the wake of Martin’s killing—an anxiety he shares.

“I don’t want to live in the type of city where you can be that kid and still lose your life,” he said.

Turner complained of “great hypocrisy” among business and government leaders when they protest violence but allow poverty and war to persist.

“It’s very difficult to achieve peace in urban areas where there’s no government or business interest in providing full employment,” Turner said. “[It is] creating a situation where people are going to prey on each other. That’s just common sense.”

“I think we have violence by…public policy,” Turner said. He referred to the US economy as a “neo-slave economy” that keeps wages down by maintaining a certain level of unemployment, and called the country a “moral cesspool” of materialism and vengeance. Turner is facing a criminal charge of his own—a bribery allegation to which he has pleaded innocent and cited as another example of government “evil.”

“It’s time to stop the hypocrisy at all levels and get more real,” Turner said, calling on men in particular to renounce violence as an example to children.

But Turner’s previous organizing effort on that theme, known as the Peace and Prosperity Initiative, was not successful, he acknowledged. He said he is working on “new and improved” organizing models to bring social change to the area.