Palm Beach County is not Chicago. Not yet.
In Chicago? It’s been another summer of violence. Over the Fourth of July weekend 55 people were wounded and 10 killed, many of them children, all from gun violence.
Thank God that’s not happening here, right?
Not so fast.
Last weekend, as the Post’s Lulu Ramadan reported, there were three shooting incidents involving five victims in Palm Beach County within 24 hours. It was the ninth straight weekend of fatal shootings, most involving young people.
Meanwhile, at Boomers in Boca Raton, a teen at a birthday party accidentally shot his pal while transferring a stolen gun into his back pocket so he could ride the go-carts.
This isn’t happening in one concentrated spot. It’s happening from Jupiter to Boca Raton, from Dixie Highway to Lake Okeechobee, clustered mostly in pockets of poverty — fertile ground for gangs.
The Post’s Julius Whigham II and Michelle Quigley have created an important interactive map that shows details of all county homicides, at http://www.palmbeachpost.com/homicides/. Especially disconcerting are the photos of the victims. So many of them are young African-American men and boys.
There are a few different ways to respond to spasms of youth violence like this. You can shrug and say, “Thank God I live in a gated community. Not my problem.” Lots of people do just that.
You can buy your own gun. Get a security system. Say, “Lock ‘em up. These kids are no good.” Lots of people do that, too.
But those attitudes make things worse. The average prison inmate is locked up for less than five years. When he gets out, no one will hire him. Then what?
Another school of thought asks: “Why are these kids turning to violence? Why are the gangs winning? How do we change this story? How can I help?”
Last week West Palm Beach City Commissioners Keith James and Cory Neering took that third path. They held a summit on youth violence at Gaines Park, and invited the youth themselves to answer those questions. Dozens of people showed up, and they said things the wider community should hear:
• “When something bad happens and you want to talk to your mom or dad, or even go to your church, the doors are locked. There’s nobody there. So you go back to the kids in the neighborhood. They’re the only ones there for you.”
• “You make a mistake and there are no second chances, even if you want to do the right thing. Nobody will hire you once you have a record.”
• “There are no summer jobs. The camps cost too much. There’s nothing to do.”
• “You get labeled as a ‘bad kid’ and you start to believe it’s true.”
These are powerful themes. Locked doors. No adults around who care. No opportunities. No second chances.
So how does change begin? One kid at a time. Neering and James are thinking jobs are a good place to start.
“If you look at the millions and millions pouring into this city now, you can’t tell me we can’t start making sure these kids get jobs each summer,” Neering said.
They’re also thinking about connecting mentors with kids. Lots of folks agree. Palm Beach County’s new Youth Services Department is taking on President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” mentoring initiative, and trying to sign up 100 African-American men to mentor kids.
Meanwhile, Gary Graham, who runs the mentoring initiative for the United Way, has a waiting list of over 2,000 young people hoping to get connected to a mentor. “If you’ve never seen a successful minority male in your community, how can you be one?” Graham asks. “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
To James, the message is for everyone to get involved. “This is all hands on deck,” he said.
If everyone reading this would pick up the phone and volunteer, lives could change. The United Way of Palm Beach County is at 561-375-6600. And Palm Beach County’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative is at http://www.mbkpbc.net/ or 561-242-5700.
“You’d be surprised how being consistent with a kid, being that one person they can trust? You’d be surprised what a difference that can make,” Graham said.