As of March, it has been 25 years since I had my introduction to society. My ninth birthday was in my sights, as was the end of the school year. Springtime in Chicagoland may not always bring sunshine and flowers, but it does come with promise. The occasional 60-70 degree day gives just enough hope that the dirty snow underneath the schoolyard hoop — that was fun to kick people off of when it was cleaner and taller in December — will soon melt, and that sting from the aluminum little league bats won’t last so long when a pitch is fouled off in the wrong spot. That particular spring however, literally on the first day of spring in 1997, Chicago got hit with much more than a ringing raspberry in its hands, it got hit with an attempted lynching.
That was the Friday evening that 13-year-old Lenard Clark Jr. was nearly beaten to death by three older white teens. Victor Jasas (17), Frank Caruso (17), and Michael Kwidzinski (19) allegedly punched Clark off of his bike and threw his head into a wall and yelled racial slurs while attacking him. They beat a middle-school aged Clark so badly that it put him in a coma. Caruso was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison for two counts of hate crime and aggravated battery, while Jasas and Kwidzinski pleaded guilty to battery and only received 30 months probation.
For many reasons, racial tension in America never truly cooled after the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but during the years just prior to Clark being beaten, the thickness of it was something that my elementary school brain couldn’t grasp. I didn’t understand how racism colored the entire O.J. Simpson trial, I just wished I could watch one day of television without it being plastered all over the screen. I knew that James Byrd Jr. being dragged to death in Jasper, Texas, was a murder from a time discussed during Black History Month, but in 1996 I had no idea what a lynching was. What I did understand though, was a kid falling off of his bike.
My yellow and black Huffy bike was my vehicle to the world. I wasn’t allowed to ride it past the pod where our townhouse was in the complex, but forget the television shows that my parents went to painstaking lengths to etch into my brain aren’t real, and those Reading Rainbow tapes they played for us at school. That bike made me feel like I could go anywhere.
Then I thought about that boy being hit while on his bike. If you had a bike as a child, you fell off it many times. You might still have a scar in the middle of your knee from it. I knew exactly what that felt like to take that tumble, and I also rode that bike in the white neighborhood my family and I lived in at the time. Clark’s beating lingered in my thoughts at night for a while. I have a vivid imagination and some nights it was hard to fall asleep, because I’d close my eyes and see him coming around that corner and being attacked by people who have the same complexion as my neighbors.
Yes, I’m Black and had been prepared for that realization, and honestly sometimes prodded into it by my parents, who were grisled veterans when it came to experiencing racism. It was that bike though, that took me to a place I had to find by myself. But for those that aren’t being nudged in that direction, or have a third-grade revelation about their circumstances, what vehicle is going to take them into the real world?
Something I also loved as a child was NBA basketball. While Michael Jordan sparked it, I loved the whole production. The lights dimmed for the intros, the music, the noise, then the game played by some of the best athletes in the world whether in Chicago or Seattle, everything went into what was an epic event I watched like Power Rangers and Spider-Man.
On Sunday, I was surprised when out of a commercial break ABC went right to TD Garden. No intro, no Mike Breen, just the players lined up on opposite sides of the court. The optimist in me thought that maybe we’ll get to see the player intros for once. This Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics second-round series has been outstanding. Maybe Disney decided to squeeze commercials in elsewhere and give us all of the pomp and circumstance to properly build for an event like Game 7 of the best playoff series in four years.
No one spoke but the P.A. announcer for TD Garden, but he didn’t introduce the singer of the national anthem or the starting lineups. He asked for a moment of silence for the victims of recent shootings in Milwaukee and Buffalo and then the broadcast went to commercial break.
There would be no cutaways to the Deer District outside of the Bucks’ home stadium, Fiserv Forum, during Giannis Antetokounmpo’s huge first quarter. There was no watch party there on Sunday and a curfew was imposed for people 20 years old and younger after 21 people were injured during three separate shootings near the stadium on Friday night. If you’ve seen a Bucks’ playoff game the last two seasons, you’ve seen the mass of people standing shoulder to shoulder in the Deer District. Imagine that mass in terror, attempting to flee the premises because they’ve heard gunshots.
On Saturday, there was a single shooter in Buffalo and that would prove to be far more tragic and disturbing. Payton S. Gendron was arrested on the scene after authorities reportedly surrounded him as he had a firearm pointed at his own neck, after allegedly murdering 10 Black people in cold, bigoted blood. In his manifesto, he said that he targeted that specific grocery store because it was in a predominantly Black neighborhood in East Buffalo, and even researched what time of day that it would be busiest, per the New York Times. While those incidents were the most talked about from the weekend, that’s hardly the only gun violence that took place in America this past weekend.
In Chicago a 16-year-old boy was shot dead over the weekend near “The Bean,” downtown in Millennium Park. While Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in one breath, “As a city, we must ensure that our young people have safe spaces to congregate and that in those spaces they are peaceful and actually safe,” in the next she barred people under the age of 18 from being at a tourist attraction after 6 p.m. on weekends. There were also shootings in Southern California at downtown Los Angeles’ premier indoor public market, Grand Central, and at a church in Orange County that resulted in a person dead.
Gun violence is an issue in this country that, while real, can be manipulated as easily as biblical scripture to prove a point. It’s generally accepted that as an entire country, especially in the major cities, it’s not the problem that it was during the cocaine blizzard of the 1980s and early 1990s. While in total that’s true, tell that to the people who feared for their lives over the weekend and those who had a lovely spring weekend turned into the worst one of their lives as they lost loved ones to lead and chrome. These days, however, there is a group experiencing gun violence like never before. According to a study from the New England Journal of Medicine, for the first time in at least 40 years, guns are the leading killer of adolescents and children.
That’s right, in the years since the effects of inner city non-white neighborhoods being neglected and discriminated against by the United States and local governments, with highways connecting the suburbs that U.S. government money constructed and would decimate whatever wealth that Black neighborhoods had accumulated (and would eventually result in snipers atop the Cabrini Green projects in Chicago and other mayhem in high-rise cathedrals to poverty and racism across the country in the previous century), it is now at the turn of this decade that guns are extinguishing the lives of young people more than ever before.
So, what is our message as a nation? What has it been as people get murdered at home, at schools, at work, on street corners, at places of business, etc? The President offered a feckless message about unity following the Buffalo murders, and it’s quite doubtful that those 10 lives lost will pause the crusade of many state and local government officials to eliminate any reasonable discussion of the causes that lead to tragedies like Buffalo.
I most certainly don’t want to live in a society in which the state is the only entity allowed to possess a firearm. As futile as it would be to try and use a firearm to defend myself against an attack by an officer of the state, the existence of that option does offer some comfort. That being said, the firearms industry, whose tools facilitate destruction, recently generated more than $70 billion in yearly revenue.
Recently, Delaware State’s Women’s Lacrosse program got hit in the head by one of those bad apples from the police department. Their bus was pulled over in Georgia, and the fact that bus was likely full of university athletic apparel and equipment didn’t ease the officers minds at all. It was emphasized to these ladies that marijuana was still illegal in Georgia. That was a dominant thought in mind of a law enforcement officer pulling over a coach bus of college athletes. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Liberty County sheriff told an outright lie about what happened. He said that the ladies’ personal property wasn’t searched. The officers’ body cameras showed them pulling the bags out from the luggage storage compartments and rifling through them on the street. F
rom the 1967 Johnson Commission report about crime in America, a poll showed that 70 percent of non-white people believed that police were not “almost always honest.” The report stated that in order for crime to improve in impoverished non-white neighborhoods, trust had to be restored between the civilians and the police, the onus of that is on the police because they are the professionals. It has been 55 years since that report was released, and currently the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department is being investigated for having gangs — yes, like the kind in Colors — within the department that made it a point to harass citizens. Tack that along with the 1,055 people shot and killed by police in 2021 — the most since the Washington Post started keeping track of that data in 2015 — and it’s clear that after all of the protests and consent decrees, the Black people keep getting clunked by these rotten apples.
As abhorrent as racism is by itself, it also sets the foundation for any life to be disregarded when an agenda or ideology is at stake. You may not be Black, but you see how fast some of these governors not only want race out of schools, but any discussion of sexuality and gender outside of the nuclear 2.5 kids, a picket fence, and a dog family that isn’t even affordable for many anymore —some just roll with the dog. And children who aren’t going to grow into that group have to figure out life for themselves. This while last year, per the Trevor Project 14 percent of LGBTQ youth attempted suicide and 45 percent had suicidal thoughts. Yet the Ron DeSantises of the world are scared wokeness will eat the brains of heterosexual white children like the beetles in The Mummy.
Those children would absolutely benefit from strong anti-racism, anti-homophobia, anti-transphobia, and anti-misogynist training, because a lot of people like Gendron out there get brainwashed by white nationalists and then go out and kill a bunch of people making a weekend run to the supermarket, or shoot wildly at a big outdoor event.
See, when a branch as important as law enforcement is consistently producing rotten fruit, it speaks to a larger problem. The powers that be don’t seem to be interested in a truly less violent society. That would require a change in the way police and the weapons industry is funded. It would also mean a commitment to presenting the youth the history of this country in a way far more similar to the way that they are taught about Russian and Cuban history, and the way we used to be committed to teaching about Nazis — places that also have the blood of its citizens on their hands. Those are sins that are taught must not ever be repeated.
What is done here is some try to navigate around the rot, and some try to use it to their benefit. If that’s how we feel about violence in America, that it’s an unavoidable fact of life or something that can be used as a strategy, why would anyone respect the law.
Of all shows, Walker Texas Ranger even had an episode dealing with racist police. If the problem is so clear that it’s in an episode of a show where Chuck Norris roundhouse kicks bad guys on network television, how can anyone have a true deference towards law and law enforcement? And then how can anyone respect Black lives if they constantly see them treated the way that they are while so many people in authoritative roles take no active role in stopping it? Throw in the conditioning of hundreds of years of racism that dozens of states don’t want mentioned in school, someone won’t think twice about putting a bullet in a Black grandmother or a Black student. And eventually, a rot that severe can only spread to other venues because if Black lives can matter that little, eventually all lives won’t matter and we see it every week, nearly every day as someone is shot to death somewhere, many times multiple people at a time.
Is there a bike in sight? Any vehicle that can take enough of this country to the real world that is made from the periodic table of elements and centuries of hate? Or is the limit of what we can do to pause the commercials for a handful of seconds, while some third-grader is tossing in bed at night scared to ride a bike into the world that is supposedly there to be enjoyed?