My mother was elected to serve on a Midwestern Grand Jury this summer. She wasn’t allowed to disclose any information about the cases she reviewed, but her jury duty took an obvious toll. She would come home from hearings looking defeated. The routine was always the same: she would drop her keys on the counter, pour a glass of wine, hold her children, then retreat to her bedroom to watch television. The only detail I was ever able to coax out of her was how young the criminals were. She looked at me and said, “They’re just so young. All of them. They’re just so young.”
I can’t imagine how difficult it was for her to look at all of her young, funny, intelligent, beautiful black sons after listening to other people’s young beautiful black sons be convicted for murder raps. I can’t imagine how she felt looking at her bright and curious 19-year-old daughter with her heart in throat, after hearing other people’s daughters confess to stabbing a classmate to death.
I was always a little scared to ask her for details—I knew I was playing with fire when I tried to pry. Half of my heart hoping she would tell me so I could help her shoulder some of this burden. The other half of my heart hoping she wouldn’t slip up and tell me an old classmate’s name came up in a case. I went to elementary and middle school with kids like this. During the winter of my freshman year of college I watched old classmates kill one another through social media. I watched brothers die within days of one another. I watched mothers post funeral dates in closed Facebook groups with disclaimers like “please do not share this information with others without asking.” The fear of funerals being shot up, or siblings being hunted down was a reality for many. When I saw kids from my elementary school involved in the violence, all I could imagine was their seven-year-old faces. The kids I learned to do times-tables with were being slaughtered in front of my eyes. I thought about how jaded I had forced myself to become to cope with the reality of violence among my fellow black youth. Seeing black youth crime through my mother’s eyes was an unexpectedly touching sentiment. How could something so unnatural become so normalized? To this day, I do not have a Facebook account.
The culprits of violent crime love to brag on social media. Sometimes gang members will take a piece of jewelry or clothing from the person they assaulted and boast the item on social media so others will know what they’ve done. There was a time not too long ago when gangs would post pictures of crime scenes, sometimes even videos of their partners killing other people. They confess to crimes in their statuses and tweets without fear.
Youth crime is a pervasive expression of trauma. The victims of youth crimes span far past the immediately involved parties. Families cannot grieve without fear of retaliation. Siblings cannot lash out without serious ramifications. Partners cannot confront others without fear of vendettas. Where does the violence stop? The only words I could use to try to comfort my mother brought further tears to her eyes. “Mama,” I told her, “Think of all the black kids who never get a fair trial. Who never talk to a jury who gives a shit about them. Who have to stand in front of a court-room full of people who are completely comfortable labeling them another nameless worthless thug. At least these kids will get to speak to someone who wants better for them. Who can be impartial and root for justice.” She looked at me. She held me, resting her head on my shoulder. Then she picked up her glass of wine and retreated to her bedroom to watch television. The routine was always the same.