Friday, May 1, 2015

"Thugs" Are Nothing But Children in Transition

Whenever there is urban unrest following a death of a young man at the hands of law enforcement, especially a young Black man, the word "thug" is brought forth, not only to dismiss outpourings of rage and violence the death might inspire, but to imply that the person dying some how deserved their fate and would not be missed.

I cannot stand silent when the term is used that way. It was the same term applied to many of the young people I coached and mentored during the 15 years I was coaching and running sports leagues in Brooklyn from the early 80's to the late 90's.

There were many young men in our youth program, which was based in Park Slope, but drew from Red Hook, Boerum Hill, Bedford Stuyvesant, and occasionally as far away as Bushwick, who were feared by other coaches and parents, and occasionally by teachers and school officials. Some of them were the most talented athletes we had; others were merely angry, troubled young people looking for a physical outlet for their emotions.

I refused to give up on them. Working with other coaches and league directors, some of whom were police officers, who believed no child was a prisoner of their fate, we created spaces where these young men could express their emotions without destroying the atmosphere required to maintain a team or a league; where they could find an outlet for their energy and athletic talents, where their leadership skills could be recognized, and where they could find love and support and mentoring when they were desperate. Sometimes that meant more than sports- it meant taking them into our homes, getting them tutors, organizing them into reading groups, finding the right schools for them.

And lo and behold, many of these "thugs," over time, underwent profound personal transformations, becoming star athletes at their high schools, attending community colleges and four year schools, entering the work force and becoming parents themselves. None ended up in prison.

The faces and names of these young people, and the fear they once inspired, are etched in my memory as a reminder that no child- and teenagers are still children- should be written off because they are angry and rebellious, much less defined for life through their actions in such a way as their deaths can be justified.

Every child is precious. Every child has potential. Every child in trouble should be viewed as someone in transition to a better place, not someone who deserves a life of misery.

That was my philosophy as a teacher and a coach.

It is also my mantra as I survey the current political landscape.

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