Violence: Up Close and Personal

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My twenty-nine-year-old cousin was struck down by an SUV last summer as he crossed a street. The light had turned red a while ago and several people had already crossed the street. The eighteen-year-old driving drunk with a suspended driver’s license had skirted around traffic to run the red light. After he hit my cousin, he fled the scene. My cousin will be okay, but he’s still healing. In addition to multiple internal injuries, a lost kidney, and more than a year of rehabilitation which continues to this day, doctors have advised him to stop skiing, his true passion. The percentage of people who survive such impact is very slim, and his doctors said it was a miracle he survived.

The teen was sentenced to two years in prison, and at the hearing, the judge told him how he will probably never forget my cousin’s name. When I read about hit-and-run accidents in the newspaper now, it’s personal. And I can’t help wondering, “Who’s talking to these teens?”

One afternoon five years ago, I was riding a commuter train when a sixteen-year-old took a gun out of his pocket, lifted it in the air slightly, and smiled in my direction. I froze for a minute before I got up quietly and sought out the conductor. In my confusion, I started walking back toward my seat.

The teen got up quickly and exited the train before the conductor came upon the scene. I noticed the conductor brandishing a small pistol as he slowly walked down the aisle. I waved my hands, “No, no, he’s gone!” By that point, this made me equally frazzled. He put it away and wanted a full description to radio it in to police. I stared at him blankly. I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. This kid wanted to scare me—and he succeeded.

I was lucky. This pales in comparison to the violence other people face in their communities and around the world. But for the first time, it personalized violence for me—in a way that the news never had.

In August 2007, in Newark, New Jersey, three college students were killed execution style. The Newark school murders are a painful reminder to Mayor Corey Booker—and us all—that even when crime goes down, violence is still pervasive in our communities.

In Cheshire, a quiet suburb in central Connecticut, an entire family died—except the father—during a home invasion. I did not know this family personally, but it still affected me because I grew up in this “quiet suburb” until I left for college in 1990. I still know this town and its streets—and my family still lives here.

One of the perpetrators, a twenty-six-year-old out on parole, who lived in the same town, was in and out of schools and had started burglarizing houses as a teen. The teen that died that night was a high school senior who would have gone to Dartmouth College. Her sister was even younger. It’s yet another painful reminder that violence happens to our neighbors—and can easily happen to us. And sometimes our own neighbors are the perpetrators.

Teens face the same violence that adults do: guns, drunk driving and drug abuse, sexual abuse and neglect, gangs, bad role models, pressure to commit violence, terror, and killing every day in the U.S. and abroad. These are complicated issues with no quick fixes. How should families respond to such violence? How does the community and its schools, government, corporations, and nonprofits, come together to work toward solutions?

Opening a dialog between adults, teens, and their peers and creating opportunities for youth leadership may be one place to start. Organizations like the Non-Violence Project are working with youth in the U.S. and internationally.

Once violence touches your community, it’s harder to ignore. I sometimes think about that teen showing me his gun on the commuter train five years ago. I don’t know his name, but I imagine he’s about twenty-one years old by now. I hope he’s still with us.

Related stories: Get the Point: Nonprofit Helps Youth Find Own Solutions to Violence

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