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Hip-Hop Fridays: The Complexity of the Rise of Juvenile Violence by David Muhammad

Less than 48 hours away from boarding a plane to attend college on a football scholarship, Terrance “TK” Kelly was gunned down on the streets of Richmond, CA in the notorious Iron Triangle neighborhood. The admitted shooter was 16 years old and TK’s father says his son was killed because the 16 year old was jealous of his son, believed his son had “disrespected” him at a basketball game, and because the shooter was possibly drunk, high and had easy access to a gun.

This horrible story that has gained national attention is the epitome of a growing trend in the rise of violent crime in inner cities across the country. The juvenile crime rate has spiked nationally. Both the number of young victims and perpetrators of violence have grown. And while these incidents of violence are still primarily in the Black and Latino neighborhoods of the inner city, the violence has become more callous and less about the drug trade. An enormous crime spike in the late 80’s and the early 90’s was nearly exclusively the result of gang and drug turf wars. While these causes of violence certainly have not disappeared, they have seemed to be overtaken by the new leading cause of death: the notion of respect.

When you ask a young man why he was just in a fight, the most common answer is “he disrespected me.” Mean stares, accidental bumps, misinterpreted comments, and looking at someone’s girlfriend have lead to violent confrontations. Such incidents are the leading causes of homicide in some cities according to police data.

Contrary to many media reports over the years, gangs within the African American community in Oakland, CA have been nearly non-existent. The crips and bloods have never been able to penetrate the drug sales culture of Oakland. But in the past few years, a new phenomenon of young teenage “clicks” has permeated the city. The names of these gangs exhibit the callousness of its members: the largest of these clicks is called STI, which stands for: “Scandalous Type Individuals.” Then there is DL for “Don’t Listen,” named for the deliberate stance to not listen to adults. Another common click is MNB, which is “Making Niggas Bleed.” Lastly there is the one that got a lot of media attention for its heinous acts of violence: The Nut So click.

The largely vile and violent messages promoted through rap music played on popular radio stations have exacerbated the problem. While such music certainly does not represent all of hip-hop, radio rap has increased drug and alcohol use and heightened attitudes of hostility.

Others hypothesize that the level of brass callousness comes from the fact that we are in the era where the crack babies of the mid 80’s to early 90’s are now teenagers and in their early twenties – the main group involved in the violence. The lack of impulse control in this group has led to unexplainable acts of violence that leads to homicide.

All of this added to the enormous increase of the use of higher potency marijuana, ecstasy, and alcohol consumption among teenagers. Then this is all combined with the easy availability of guns and it all makes for a deadly combination.

There is a great sense of despair and hopelessness among youth in many areas. Poverty, lack of employment opportunities, extremely high rates of incarceration and AIDS, absent fathers, have all have led to a lack of hope for far too many young people. This hopelessness added to the prevalent messages of violence and drug use in media, added to the ready availability of firearms, has created a culture of violence that many big cities across the country are suffering from.

In an article about the rise of youth violence, Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy, recently noted that, “Here's part of the problem: Juveniles, many of whom have been robbed themselves -- ripped off by parents and schools and communities that couldn't care less about them -- have become hardened and increasingly violent.”

So the cause of the current spike of violence is very complex. There are no easy answers and no quick solutions. There are two major issues to be addressed: the decades of neglect of investment in many inner city communities (and school districts) and the culture of death that permeates so many of those neighborhoods.

David Muhammad has recently left his position as the Executive Director of The Mentoring Center, a non-profit in Oakland, CA, to take a high level position in the juvenile justice in Washington, DC. He can be reached at

David Muhammad

Friday, November 17, 2006

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