MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Now we're going to go Behind Closed Doors. That's the part of the program where we talk about things often kept hidden. Today, we want to talk about a situation that's hiding in plain sight in many communities. Young black males are dying, and often they are being killed by other young black males. Now this is the kind of the situation that's known all too well to some communities, but it was recently documented by two prominent researchers at North Eastern University.
They found that from 2002 to 2007, the number of homicides involving black male juveniles as victims rose by 31 percent and as perpetrators by 43 percent. And all this was going on while the murder rate for other groups has either remained stable or declined. We feel this issue warrants many conversations.
Last week, we talked to the lead researcher on the study, James Alan Fox. Today, we're going to speak to two mothers of young men whose lives were claimed by gun violence. Joining me are Sylvia Banks, whose son Deon was killed in Detroit in 2003, and Karen Graham, whose son Aaron was killed in Milwaukee in 2004. Also with us is Ron Moten. He's the co-founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Peaceaholics, that's a non-profit group that tries to stop the violence by teaching kids alternatives to using violence to resolve problems and drug use. And I welcome you all for joining us. Thank you so much for being here.
Mr. RON MOTEN (Co-Founder, Peaceaholics): Thank you for having me.
Ms. SYLVIA BANKS: Thank you.
Ms. KAREN GRAHAM: Thank you.
MARTIN: And to the ladies, of course, I want to say I'm so sorry for your loss, to both of you.
Ms. BANKS: Thank you.
Ms. GRAHAM: Thank you.
MARTIN: Sylvia Banks, if we could start with you. The sixth anniversary of Deon's death is coming up soon. He was killed January 11th in 2003. What happened?
Ms. BANKS: First, good morning to you, Michel. My son, Deon, he was a student at Grand Rapids Community College in Michigan, and he was a part of the football team, and they decided to go out to celebrate. Well, once they was at this local night spot, what was frequent by most of the college students, they came upon this gentleman, which was an African-American male. He was upset that his car was blocked in. So instead of waiting for the people to move their cars, he resorted to violence and an altercation occurred, and the young man started shooting in the crowds, and my son was hit in the back.
MARTIN: He didn't know this - none of these people knew each other?
Ms. BANKS: No, they did not.
MARTIN: Karen Graham, your son Aaron was killed in 2004 after a party, as I understand it, involving some words about a girl?
Ms. GRAHAM: Yes. Well, what transpired was Aaron went to a house party with some of his friends, and it was a very diverse party with lots of different races that were represented there. And allegedly, Aaron and a young lady got into some type of a minor verbal altercation in which he kind of pushed her on her forehead and said, you know, back up. And this young lady there before called her family members and said that she had been assaulted by this black young male. And the young lady was white, and it escalated from there, and Aaron left the party.
Some phone calls were made telling him that they were going to kill him and come on back, and they were going to shoot him, et cetera, et cetera. And Aaron, using very poor judgment, got a gun and he went back. He was not driving but the two young men he was with took him back to the party. And from my understanding, he fired one shot in the air, must have realized, you know, oh, my goodness, I don't want to do this. And as he dropped his gun and began to run away, the father of this young lady shot him once in the back of the head, and he died instantly.
MARTIN: Wow, that's awful. Ron Moten, let me turn to you. I think when a lot of people read the papers and they see these stories about a killing here, a killing there, they think that, oh, well, this must be people involved with the drug trade or something like that. But from your experience, with what you see, you know, every day, why is this happening?
Mr. MOTEN: Well, one thing in America, what we don't looked at, hurt people hurt people. And we have a lot of people in our communities that are hurting, and we haven't dealt with the social economical issues that cause people to come up in these conditions. Look at the issues where we've had a school system - educational system that has failed out black young males for the last 20 years, and now we're seeing the fruit of not paying attention and dealing with these issues. Having a system where we don't deal with family, where all these young black men and girls are raised without a father in the household and where our welfare system pays women to keep a man out of the household.
You can't get any help as a family but you can get help if a man is not in the household. So from all these things together, with a recession coming and things of that nature, we are seeing the impact in our community, so - and we don't have a village anymore. With all of these things, you know, we've always had a lot of these things happen, but we still had that village. And with the violent video games, I mean, our children are being trained to be angry.
MARTIN: But let me push this, Ron, because the fact is that, you know, white kids have video games, the divorce rate is very high in this country in all populations, not just among African-Americans, but you don't see this - at least the data shows that the surge in homicides is primarily affecting young black men. So what is it about this community that is...
Mr. MOTEN: I can address it for you...
Mr. MOTEN: If you look in D.C., you would think of Ward 8, where predominantly - probably African-Americans live, that that would be the highest drug use per household. But it's a fact - statistically it's shown that in Ward 2 it's the highest drug use per household, but they have programs there. The family had the resources to help their children and family members when they suffer from drug addiction. So in our communities, the children don't get that, and in every shooting in Washington, D.C. where a young man committed a heinous crime, they were under the influence of PCP.
So what I'm saying is we don't have a drug treatment for young black African-Americans in Washington, D.C., but if it happens in Ward 2 with their children, they do have it. So it's a lot of things like that. Even though you might say, well, yeah, the rate of divorce is high in America, but the communities in those communities are still together and they support each other, the families support each other, and we don't have that in our communities anymore.
MARTIN: I want to hear from both of the ladies on this, too. And Karen, I'm going to you first because in addition to being a mom who's experienced this terrible loss, you're also a former deputy sheriff. And you're in law enforcement...
Ms. GRAHAM: Yes.
MARTIN: And you worked in youth services, you worked with kids. And so what's your take on this? Why do you think this is happening? I now understand that there are circumstances in your son's case that are distinct, that you think there's a racial element here that is a part of it. But what is your take on this whole situation?
Ms. GRAHAM: Well, first of all, I do understand that there are definitely disparities between African-Americans and the vast majority, shall we say. But I also know that there are very good single-parent households raising wonderful children, making wonderful choices. I have a tendency to go back to teaching children that there are consequences for all their behavior, whether it's positive or negative. In law enforcement, I was there when I began to see a trend of the average incarcerated African-American may have been 25, 30, and then when I left it got to be maybe 20, 21. And the lack of disrespect that was hailed by so many, even for us, being African-American females, it was deplorable and I - oh, go ahead.
MARTIN: I'm sorry, what were you saying - you're saying that you thought that the sort of the prison culture, in a way, kind of taken over these kids, is that you're saying? That younger and younger kids were getting arrested and they were kind of learning how to act from people in prison, is that what you're saying?
Ms. GRAHAM: Yes, they - and the family members that they've agreed or the other kids on the block that they saw that were there. And you know, they were so cordial to them, you know, when they came into booking, but yet and still, the - it's a culture. And it's something that they seem to aspire to, and for the love of me, I don't even understand it with my own son. I don't know why, what is so enticing about living on the edge and, you know, being locked up. I don't understand.
MARTIN: You think your son was kind of a thug wannabe, if you don't mind my asking that?
Ms. GRAHAM: No, that's - and that's fine. I think he had - you know, he had friends from all different backgrounds, and Aaron grew up really not wanting for much. And so the choice he made was, I think, trying to fit in, trying to be a part of, and he was also one who everyone knew would give the shirt off of his back. And I think that sometimes he felt as though people took advantage of him because he was kind-hearted, and I think there was a part of him that just said, you know what, I'm not letting anybody walk over me anymore. I'm not a doormat for people. He didn't really care what color they were. Aaron had friends from all backgrounds. But I think...
MARTIN: But I guess that makes it all the more puzzling, though, that he seemed to feel like he had take on this kind of thug-life persona, at least in this instance that...
Mr. GRAHAM: In this instance, yes.
MARTIN: Sylvia, could I get your take on this? And obviously, what I think makes your situation so difficult is that your son just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But I know that you've been active in the community since this happened, and you were before. What's your take on what's going on here? Why do you think that this surge in violence seems to be going on among some young men?
Ms. BANKS: Well, I concur with them in reference to the - some of the entertainment because these children have failed to separate fiction from reality. So they are getting so involved with the movies and the games and on the music that, you know, as a parent, we have to take control of our children and help them to understand reality versus fiction. I have to be grateful that my son was in a controlled environment in reference to his family life.
But in his situation, when this happened, when you say in the wrong place at the wrong time, I - my thoughts on that is my son was a college student, and when you go to college, you go to venture out, and this is a place that was visited by college students. So I think he was at the right place because this is how they grow up. And this young man that was there, he was in the wrong place because he was just released from prison himself in July. So by being there, he was in the wrong place, so when you say the wrong place at the wrong time...
MARTIN: Mm hmm.
Ms. BANKS: But I think from another aspect of this, the community - everyone has to become and has to realize this is not just a black issue. We got to make this a human issue because somehow we have to start making a difference in these children's life early on because by exposing them at the age of three and four to games such as that, you know, the violent games, we got to understand our children don't understand the reality of that. So somehow, as a parent, we have to learn how to take control back over our children's life and not let the media raise them and not let the peers raise them. We have to raise our children to help them to understand reality versus fiction.
MARTIN: If you're just joining - I'm sorry, I just have to jump in for a minute just to say, if you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Sylvia Banks and Karen Graham, who are two mothers who tragically lost their sons to gun violence, and Ron Moten, who's an activist about the rise in the murder rate among young black teens in America.
Ron, what's your take on that? Do you think that that's true, that there are kids who have difficulty separating from kind of a fantasy from reality? Because again, I go back to this question, white kids get video games too, but you're not seeing the same reality - you're not seeing the same trend.
Mr. MOTEN: There's no question. And we see it not just now in the African-American communities and families, we also see it in the suburban families of a lot of white children who are committing heinous crimes based upon games and other influences that they have from the media. But one of the other things I wanted to say about the African-American children who commit some of these heinous crimes, we often work with a lot of children in Oak Hill, the juvenile detention centers. And we have our children come home to the same situation, and we expect different results. So until we build the infrastructure for our family and children so we can get these different results - we have an 88 percent success rate over the last two years with 64 children and families of the most violent children in D.C. But we had to fight to get the resources to do this, and it is successful.
So my question is, are we committed to our children? I mean, we spent a billion dollars in D.C. to build a baseball stadium for a owner who didn't even want to pay the city the money, and we couldn't invest a billion dollars? And look at China. They're getting results from investing in the children and family.
MARTIN: But can I just go back to something, Ron? You work with a lot of kids at Oak Hill and I hope at some point we'll get a chance to talk to these kids ourselves and ask them what they were thinking when they got involved in these situations. But when you asked them, why did you shoot this kid, what do they say?
Mr. MOTEN: Well, most of them don't have nobody they can go talk to before they commit a heinous act. You've got to develop relationships with these communities, with these families, and they will call you before something happen. People in the communities will call you before they - hey, such and such is about to go do this. And you go talk to him. You can't come like you're coming on for UFO after something has happened, act like you're trying to help people. And most of these children don't have a father.
My son, he just took my car when I was out of town, 16 years old. I bet you he won't do it again. But these are things that children do as a part of growing up. He's influenced by Lil Wayne. Lil Wayne in the phone. I took the phone because after he did certain things, he's not entitled to that anymore. And that's what a parent does, that's what a father does, and that's why we need to get these African-American men back in the families. They're separated with this, like I said, the welfare system, with these child support system. What is child support? If - is it just a check? I think a man should be incarcerated for not spending time with his child, not just a check.
And people don't know the importance of family. And we're just like - we got smarter than birds. A bird - you know, they build a nest before they put their egg in the nest. And we're not nurturing our children first. We're just, you know, doing everything we don't need to do.
MARTIN: We only have a couple of minutes left and I apologize for cutting you off on something so important, but time is the one thing they're not making any more of, so...
Mr. MOTEN: Right.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask each of you in the minute or so we have left is Barack Obama coming in - becoming president of United States, it's a very big deal to a lot of people. Do you feel that this will make a difference? Is there something you would like him to do that you think would make a difference? Sylvia, if I could go to you first, as briefly as you can.
Ms. BANKS: Well, with Barack Obama coming into office, that should be a positive role model for the children because if you look back and you think about it, there has not been a lot of great role models for children to say, I want to be a president. So now they have this, and hopefully, as a parent, we can somehow make sure our children realize the sky is the limit. So you can reach for that. That is a goal. Let's do this. This is more significant than being a rapper or being someone in entertainment. Not discrediting those people, but yet and still, to try to be the one - the most powerful person as the president of United States - that has more influence or affluent to your life than being a rapper.
MARTIN: Karen, what about you?
Ms. GRAHAM: I would agree with Sylvia on that point. But I would also say that if anything, I hope that he does not take money out of the budget or keep removing money from the budget for programs that address these issues.
MARTIN: And Ron, final thought from you.
Mr. MOTEN: I think that, you know, long as he doesn't forget that people like John Lewis, Reverend (unintelligible), Martin Luther King paved the way for him. And he must make sure that young African-Americans and all people have the same opportunities that he had because without people sacrificing for him, he wouldn't be where he's at. And a lot of people can use the fact that he's in there as something that gets us. So just because we have a black president doesn't mean it's good for our country. So in saying that, I just think as long as he addresses the issue that he knows stop young black men in Chicago for making it, we'll be all right.
MARTIN: All right, thank you. As I said, the first of many conversations about this important question. I appreciate it. Ron Moten is the co-founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Peaceaholics. It's a non-profit organization that tries to give kids alternatives to street violence and drug use. He was here with me in Washington. Karen Graham's son was murdered in 2004. She was kind enough to join us from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Sylvia Banks is the chapter leader of Parents of Murdered Children in Detroit. Her son was killed in 2003. She was kind enough to join us from Detroit. I thank you all so much for speaking with us.
And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.