Dr. Frankenstein's Monster
One late afternoon during my sophomore year of college at Wash. U., I was sitting in a coffee shop in the Loop, back when the Loop was a tad more seedy and most businesses shut down after dinner time. We were young, cigarette-smoking idealists, probably talking about our philosophy courses, possibly picking arguments with crusading Christians who frequented that place at the time.
A young man walked in, looking rather anxious, shifting his eyes around the room in search of something. He ordered a coffee at the counter and waited for the employee to turn around before grabbing the tip jar and frantically making his way to the door. Long story short, he was accosted by a customer and held down while the University City cops made their way to the store to take him away.
It just happened to be my turn to write the staff op-ed in the student newspaper that week, and this event was fresh in my mind. The thesis of my editorial was that our society has been created in such a way that people like this not-so-swift small-time thief has been driven to steal tip money at the local coffee shop.
Mostly, my article flew under the radar. One letter to the editor came in, though, that I still remember to this day, 15 years later. It was unsigned, supposedly from a Wash. U. alum who lived in U. City. The writer was nonplussed that I would place the blame of this event on our society, rather than on the individual. Ok, fair enough. But he didn't stop there. He (I have always assumed that it's a he. Interesting. Did you?) labeled me as an apologist for the irresponsible actions of those who should know better, those who can choose a different, better reaction to almost unbearable poverty.
I've never been in that man's shoes, nor have I been in the shoes of the alum who decided to publicly berate me. I have, however, been poor.
I can never erase the memory of standing in my filthy, tiny kitchen in Brooklyn in 2005, deciding with my wife whether we were going to pay our utilities on time, or just take the late penalty and buy food instead. In no way am I saying that this is akin to living in poverty ALL the time, but those couple of years were humbling for me in so many ways. My wife and I affectionately refer to these couple of years as the “Dark Days.”
I can absolutely imagine being in a situation where, if I thought I was quick enough to get away with getting out of the store with 25 bucks and never be seen again, I might do it. I'm not saying I would, or have. But I've been in that mental space before. It's not a fun place to dwell.
Imagine being there. Every. Single. Day.
This morning's Post-Dispatch ran a cover story on the “knockout game.” If you stay oblivious to local news as much as I do, the knockout game is a pastime invented by teenagers in my neighborhood that involves randomly selecting older pedestrians and attempting to knock them to the ground with one clean hit. This occasionally involves doing so with several of your friends and kicking the absolute shit out of the person after he or she is down, and even occasionally killing them. Police on the South Side suspect that this game was invented by youth in the boxing program at Cherokee Recreation Center, a block and a half from my house. One of the victims was attacked in front of my library branch. Point being, this hits close to home.
Several weeks ago, I came home to the block adjacent to mine roped off with police tape, a young man lying on the ground. He had been shot. He later died in the hospital.
I don't feel any different than I did long ago as an idealist youth, though the cynicism that comes with age has been growing in me like a cancer since then. And I pose to us the same questions. I hope by some strange stroke of luck that this anonymous letter-writing alum is reading this.
What does it say about the environments we're creating for our young people when randomly attacking innocent adults on the street is their idea of fun? How do we transfer this restlessness into a focus that is self-driven, self-maintained, and supported by resources, human and otherwise? What is an alternative path to violence that doesn't translate to our youth as weak, boring, and uncool? In what way do we blame the poor for their actions within and reactions against the systems we put in place to enforce our control over them? Where's the line between understanding someone's plight and demanding more of them as individuals? How do white boys like me speak into the African American experience to offer insight without coming across as condescending or presumptuous?
Let's not try to answer these quite yet. Let's challenge each other's assumptions. Let's do so caringly and intelligently. Let's not make assumptions about the voices in the conversation based on false notions about who they are and how much they're worth. Let's dwell a little longer in the conversation, rather than having the answers and basing them on false cultural assumptions that we've forgotten to question.
Dear Anonymous Alum,
I forgive you for being cowardly in your response to my righteous frustration a long, long time ago. My frustration was based not out of apologizing for a man who was stealing from another man. It was based out of rage at an unjust system. I'm still not sorry. But you still owe me an apology. And I'll buy you lunch and talk about all this in a civil way, face to face, about how we can go about creating change. You want less crime in this town. Me too.
Kenneth Joseph Pruitt
P.S. - Are you a dude? I always picture you as a dude.