By Nikki Jones, author of The Chosen Ones: Black Men and the Politics of Redemption
“My student reminded me of Jay, a young man I write about who was just beginning to make the kinds of choices that would lead him away from the street. Five years after our first meeting, I found myself speaking at Jay’s funeral – another young man, like my student’s friend, killed by gun violence.”
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I sat in my office on a recent afternoon, staring into the eyes of a student, a young Black man from a tough neighborhood in San Francisco. I was happy to see him, but he seemed sad. I asked if he was okay. Not really, he said. One of his best friends had been killed the night before. I knew immediately the dire circumstances the young man faced: he could be recruited into retaliatory violence, which could lead to a long prison sentence, or he could get shot himself.
The young man’s story is similar to the stories of the men and youth I write about in The Chosen Ones: Black Men and the Politics of Redemption, an urban ethnography set in San Francisco and written from the perspective of Black men – former hustlers and dealers – who see the ghosts of the destruction they brought to their neighborhood in their youth and now want to make good by changing their lives and the lives of young people in their small, historically Black, but quickly gentrifying neighborhood.
My student reminded me of Jay, a young man I write about who was just beginning to make the kinds of choices that would lead him away from the street. Five years after our first meeting, I found myself speaking at Jay’s funeral – another young man, like my student’s friend, killed by gun violence.
Jay and my student came of age under a harsh law enforcement regime that treated young Black men as targets, increasing the frequency of their encounters with the police without the guarantee of safety or protection from violence. Their vulnerability to violence was also exacerbated by what I describe as the crime-fighting community, which relies on an intimate collaboration among law enforcement (federal, state and local) and a select group of community members, including leaders of youth-serving organizations, faith leaders, and street outreach workers, to manage the persistent problem of violence in the city. The violence committed by young Black men (and the so-called right of the community to be free from such violence) is used to legitimize the efforts and organization of the crime-fighting community, but in a perverse contradiction, these efforts often leave young men like my student and his friend more vulnerable to violence at the hands of peers and the police.
I offered to help my student in ways that I could, but saving the lives of the thousands of young men and women like him across the country will require a critical reassessment of how we respond to the problem of violence in the city.
Given the current administration’s return to racist law-and-order politics and practices, it is ever more important to push back against the wrong-headed assumption that the heavy-hand of law enforcement is the sole solution to the problem of violence in cities across the country.
The Black credentialed class – key participants in the crime-fighting community – also need to embrace efforts that are more inclusive and liberating than crime fighting. We need support for community efforts that work outside of law enforcement paradigms. Even when led by the most progressive of police chiefs, policing is a racial project rooted in dominance and control – not in the inherent value of the lives of young Black men like Jay and my student.
The return to law-and-order once again places Black youth in the sightlines of federal, state, and local law enforcement – it is our job to get in the way.