A DIFFERENT PATH: Ameena Matthews, whose father is Jeff Fort, one of the Chicago’s most notorious gang leaders, was herself a drug ring enforcer. But having children and finding solace in her Muslim faith pulled her off the streets. (Photo: Courtesy of Kartemquin Films)
Youth violence in Chicago has reached epidemic levels, with gunfire plaguing neighborhoods across the metropolitan area. It is a disease that is responsible for claiming the lives of dozens of young people, many of whom were engaged in activities as innocent as walking to school or playing in their yards when their lives were cut short.
Each day innocent bystanders are being killed due to the incessant gunfire. In an effort to counteract the violence, a number of community activists have come together in a collaborative effort with hopes of “interrupting” the bloodshed in the city’s streets. Their stories are told in the award-winning documentary The Interrupters. Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and produced by bestselling author Alex Kotlowitz (There Are No Children Here), The Interrupters chronicles the lives of three Chicagoans who were once participants in the destruction but who turned their lives around to become “violence interrupters.” Now they are working to restore peace to their community.
Last month, a collection of community organization, including the South Side Help Center, CeaseFire, and the University of Chicago Medicine, partnered with the filmmakers of The Interrupters to host a movie screening and panel discussion on addressing the youth violence problem. UrbanFaith attended the event and chatted with the students, community leaders, and anti-violence experts who participated in the forum.
At first glance, they seem completely unrelated. But a closer look reveals the inextricable link between the value our nation places on wealth and the value it places on human life in our inner cities.
As an urban minister and a political professional, there have been two big news stories that I have followed with some level interest recently. The first is the debate in Washington D.C. over the creation of a bill to regulate the banking and finance industry. The other is increasing levels of violence on inner-city streets around the country, perhaps most notably my home, Chicago. I, like many Americans, have looked at these issues and asked myself, “How can America deal with these two great crises?”
At first glance, the issues seem completely unrelated. After all, financial regulation has to do with billionaires on Wall Street. It’s about reigning in the bank bosses who single handedly drove the American economy off a cliff and caused the worst financial meltdown in recent history. While violence among the lowest economic ranks is clearly about desperation associated with a lack of financial resources. Since young African American and Latino people do not have access to jobs and other financial resources, they revert to illegal means of creating income; a drug industry that has violence as one of its primary byproducts.
Since I rarely expect things to actually be what they seem to be at first glance, I pondered these things further and read a little more. I surfaced a slightly more critical analysis that supposed that the fallout of corporate misconduct worsened conditions for the American poor and caused the spike in violence. It was clear to me that the issues were related, but a relationship of causality did not pass intellectual muster. If one caused the other, it would have had to precede it. Also, African Americans have never known a time in this country when they did not struggle for economic justice. Why is the violent response such a recent phenomenon?
Then I read in the recent Pew Center poll that most people in America are frustrated with government. It was clear that we are missing the big idea. What if there are not two groups and two crises? What if we really are one nation, experiencing one crisis? In America, from the wealthiest Wall Street banker to the most impoverished city dweller, we have a spiritual problem. But, what issue is there as pervasive and deadly as to be able to sneak into every level of society and bring it down so thoroughly?
In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. suggested that misplaced values caused Vietnam and that those misplaced values threatened the very life of the nation. I believe Dr. King’s thought process is relevant to this current crisis.
We have allowed ourselves to come to the place where money is valued above everything else in our society. The relentless pursuit of money and the pleasure it can provide has led us into the kind of chaos and violence we now experience. Chaos among those who have more access to economic resources because we consume at rates faster than we can produce. Violence among those with less access because we compete over very little. The poor don’t mind killing one another or watching each other die because we have been taught (however indirectly) that a life without money is a life without meaning.
Dr. King’s words ring as true today as they did all those years ago, “There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities.” While we work to reform Wall Street and build economic opportunity into our inner-cities, we must realize that these are not the great solutions. We must have, as Dr. King suggested, a revolution of values; righteousness over pleasure, honor over power, life over money.
Amid the calls for finance reform in Washington and economic development in Chicago, I fear that we will not see peace until we see, across the socio-economic spectrum, values reform and character development.
Among other things, the NBA star’s troubles offer this sobering reminder: An occasional joke is okay, but don’t quit your day job.
Washington Wizards basketball star Gilbert Arenas was recently suspended by the NBA because of a practical joke involving several unloaded handguns, a joke that he played on a teammate who was angry over an unpaid gambling debt. Consequently, Arenas was hit with a gun charge, to which he pleaded guilty, and now his contract with the Wizards appears on the verge of termination.
Clearly, the joke didn’t go over that well.
Nevertheless, Gilbert Arenas is a genuinely funny guy, and I hope that somehow, despite the fallout over his recent transgressions, he doesn’t lose his sense of humor.
See, humor is a funny thing.
In one sense, it’s a basic human need, a notch or two below the need for food, clothing, and shelter. This is why sitcoms and comedians are so popular. As people, we don’t just love to laugh, we need to laugh. Humor is a critical way that we humans express shared meaning and make sense of the world, and it exists at the convergence of our intellect and emotions.
Unfortunately, this makes the concept of funny mysterious and hard to pin down. It often depends on context, which is why sometimes it’s so hard to relay a funny joke from one situation into another. So many factors can change the equation so many times, that a joke that sparks a bout of side-splitting laughter here might only elicit a chorus of yawns there — or worse, an avalanche of boos.
This problem has plagued many comedians over the years, especially White entertainers who complain of an unfair double standard regarding ethnic slurs. Many White folks in general have cited, from the annals of Black pop culture, example after example of things said by Blacks that if said by a White person would be denounced as racist.
So it’s with more than a little schadenfreude that pundits and commentators of almost every persuasion have emerged from the woodwork to pontificate on the subject of fallen-NBA-star Arenas and his recent incident involving handguns in the locker room. Like Caesar, they come not to praise Arenas, but to bury him under a cloud of suspicion.
This wholesale denunciation is problematic.
Much has been said in defense of Arenas’s quirky, practical-joking “Agent Zero” persona. And I agree with those who have detected a racialized difference in the overall response and coverage of this and incidents like it, proof of the NBA’s overall image problem in mainstream America. Both the NFL and MLB have been dogged by far more police blotter activity, particularly as it relates to violent crime and drug abuse, yet neither is tagged as routinely as the NBA is as a “league full of thugs.”
Furthermore, too little has been said about the reason why Arenas had the guns in the locker room in the first place, which, according to reports, was because he didn’t feel comfortable with them coexisting with his children at home. This seems, on the face of things, to be a responsible decision.
But all of that is beside the point.
The real travesty is that Gilbert Arenas earned all the penalties levied against him because he failed to grasp a rather obvious truth: In life, not everything is a joke.
Inveterate pranksters often use humor as a defense mechanism to mask their insecurity. Arenas’s story — abandoned by his mother and raised by his father, whom he didn’t meet until he was 3 years old — is filled with the kind of personal pathos that can inspire insecurity and fear of rejection. Not only has Arenas fit this pattern throughout his career, but after the gun incident went public he actually admitted in his Twitter feed — boasted, really — that he never takes anything seriously.
This quality often makes him an engaging interview subject, but in this case, it clearly impaired his judgment.
How do we know this?
Because with even a modicum of awareness, he would have noticed the following:
• Guns are often involved in violent crimes, which are often perpetrated by, and thus associated with, young Black men
• The NBA is a league dominated by young Black men
• The NBA has, for the last few years, been trying to recover from a series of scandals that have generated a lot of negative publicity
• The D.C. team used to be known as the Washington Bullets, but the general public decided the name was in bad taste, considering the District’s notoriously high murder rate
• Not coincidentally, The District of Columbia has some of the strictest gun laws in the country
All of this, and still …
Not only did Arenas not have the sense to ask a team official about how to properly deal with his guns, not only did he not have the sense to realize that guns and practical jokes don’t belong in the same sentence, but even after he did these things and they became public knowledge, he didn’t have the sense to apologize or show any genuine form of contrition outside of a statement drafted by his attorney.
I think Gilbert Arenas defaulted to his normal response to everything, which is to turn it into a joke and hope it goes away.
This time, it just didn’t work.
Now, I’m not saying that he should lose his job over this. Some punishments, though understandable and legally permissible, are still excessive — like the guy who was fired from his job for being a fantasy football commissioner.
Plus, this will remain as a stain on Arenas’s reputation. As such, Gil will probably continue to feel misunderstood as he tries to put his career back together. Like many talented Black men with chips on their shoulders, he might be tempted to adopt a me-against-the-world mentality.
“Only God can judge me,” goes the typical ‘hood refrain. This could become his mantra.
But I hope not.
Likewise, I hope he doesn’t lose his sense of humor altogether. Maybe one day he’ll crack open a Bible, find Proverbs 26:18-19, and learn to use discernment when cracking jokes. And maybe he’ll discover Romans 13:1, and learn to receive correction from authority more gracefully.
Maybe, as part of his NBA penance, he’ll end up in a public service announcement about the dangers of practical jokes.
Now that would be funny.
Photo of Gilbert Arenas by Keith Allison from Wikipedia.