Sunday, October 06, 2002

Different city, familiar questions

        Milwaukee is searching for answers to the questions we Cincinnati-area residents know all too well. How could children be so cruel, so inhumane, so criminal? Where are their parents? What should a community do about it?

        Last Sunday a group of at least 17 youths - ages 10 to 18 - beat a man to death on a porch in a Milwaukee neighborhood.

        It started with a prank, a 10-year-old threw an egg, but it ended with youths chasing a man down and brutally battering him with anything they could grab - shovels, bats, folding chairs, even a baby stroller. The man, Charles Young Jr., 36, died Tuesday of brain injuries.

        So far, 14 boys have been arrested. Several have made confessions. Three are at large. Prosecutors are deciding whether to try them all as adults.

        As the city emerges from its shock, its leaders look for root causes, places for possible reform or blame. The usual suspects come to mind: Parental neglect or abuse; poverty; lack of educational, employment or recreational opportunities; too much exposure to violence, drugs, and gangs; too little exposure to caring, positive adults.

        No doubt some or all of these factors fed the morass in those little minds.

        At least one suspect, a 16-year-old, told police he used a wrestling hold he saw on a WWF “Smackdown” to keep the victim's head up so his buddies could strike his face.

        Several youths claimed gang affiliations, though police said the murder wasn't gang-related.

        According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, this neighborhood was already so misbegotten, its residents nicknamed it Little Beirut after, eight years ago, a teen ambushed and killed a police officer there, just three blocks away from last week's assault.

        In recent months, neighbors said, it appears to have gotten worse. Groups of kids running the streets at night despite the curfews, not bothering with school during the day.

        Some neighbors claimed police were slow to respond to their non-crime 911 calls.

        Police presence in the neighbor already was high, city officials said. Officers patrol the neighborhood in squad cars staffed with four officers each.

        But many of the streets are not through streets, making the area harder to police and easier for would-be criminals to hide and claim territory.

        Many residents can't escape the crime. More than half the adults there earn less than $9,000 a year. A third of the households are headed by single mothers, and 43 percent of the population is 18 or younger, according to census figures.

        Similar statistics could be cited for some of Cincinnati's census tracts. Not surprisingly these 'hoods also have high crime rates.

        Could something like Milwaukee happen in Cincinnati?

        In some ways it already has. No one died during the April 2001 unrest, but it did just as much damage to the city's psyche and its image.

        Just as much anger, confusion and useless finger pointing ensued. And with every subsequent event involving unruly youths, the same voices were raised at black parents, black community leaders, police, politicians, business people.

        “They've got to do something,” we all said, forgetting the “they” is us.

        I hope Milwaukee learns that lesson, even though we still haven't mastered it.

        We each have to commit to changing neighborhoods that spawn such youthful violence. The parents there, residents, and police can't do it alone.

        Mentor, volunteer, lobby for neighborhood reinvestment, adopt a family. Do something to help rescue our youth.

        E-mail Past columns at


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