What's Goin' On?
Baton Rouge, Louisiana. St. Paul, Minnesota. Dallas, Texas. The tragic events of this week have the entire country and much of the world in an uproar over the intractable problems of violence on the streets of our cities. Twenty years ago Pierce and Shows founding partner Jimmy Pierce wrote a column in our client newsletter, the Pierce and Shows Post Script, which I believe is as timely and powerful today as it was twenty long years ago. Jimmy mentioned Roscoe Brister and Tyris Wilkerson when he spoke of street violence in 1996. To update those references, Tyris Wilkerson was killed by Baton Rouge police officers in late July of 2013 after a car chase. The officers reported that Wilkerson steered his fleeing vehicle towards officers before the shots that killed him were fired. The 1996 stabbing incident that claimed the life of Roscoe Brister occurred two miles from the location of the Alton Sterling shooting death of Tuesday morning.
The thoughts shared and the questions posed by Jimmy Pierce in 1996 are as powerful and pertinent today as they were then. In 2016, we must ask, is this the best our society and our leaders can do on these issues?
I am reproducing that column here in its entirety so that we can once again read those words, give thought to these ideas, and reflect upon how the problem has grown in the twenty years since Jimmy’s words were first published. Be safe out there, and keep your loved ones close.
From the Desk of Jimmy Pierce
Originally published in Pierce & Shows post Script, Spring 1996
Mother, Mother, there's too many of you cryin'
Brother, Brother, Brother, there's far too many of you dyin'
You know we've got to find a way, to bring some lovin' here today
Father, Father, we don't need to escalate ... You see, war is not the answer.
For only love can conquer hate
You know we've got to find a way to bring some lovin' here today.,.
What's going on?
Marvin Gaye sang those words over 25 years ago - but they still seem as appropriate today (maybe more so) as they were back in the 70's. Whether I'm reading the morning paper, or watching the 10 o'clock news, I find myself more and more reluctant to hear "what's goin' on" in Baton Rouge today, as more and more often I seem to hear the names of friends and clients who get caught in the crossfire of life out there - often literally.
And so I was watching the 10 o'clock evening news on Thursday, March 14, and saw the usual yellow police crime scene tape, this time at the Burger King on Chippewa, and heard about a stabbing - then they said the victim was Roscoe Brister. I jumped up from the couch, not believing what I'd heard . . . Roscoe always reminded me of my grandfather on my mother's side, Benjamin Dickens - the man we always called Granddaddy Dutch. Roscoe, like my grandfather, was as gentle and kind a person as you would ever want to meet. If he ever did anybody wrong. I never knew it and here he was, dead, gone over to the other side.
Another client and friend, Tyris Wilkerson, is making the news now. And the news about Tyris, just like the news about Roscoe, is not good. Charged with second-degree murder for allegedly killing a man during a robbery, Tyris is the first child in the parish, and perhaps in the state, to go to trial under a new law that allows 14-year-olds to be tried as adults for murder and other serious crimes. He was convicted, and he now faces the possibility of imprisonment until he is 31. Life has not been easy for Tyris. Let's hope and pray that, if this occurs, life will somehow be better for Tyris in 16 years, when he gets out of prison.
What's goin' on?
Marvin Gaye, the man with the golden voice, can't tell us. He was killed 12 years after he wrote that wonderful song by his own gun . . . by his own father - the man to whom he dedicated the album. We all were shocked and saddened to hear that story back in 1983. How could it have happened?
What seemed such a shock to us all then seems all too commonplace today. Drugs, guns, violence - It's a way of life for a lot of young people today. A social scientist who has surveyed North Baton Rouge children and teenagers says that these kids are showing the same kinds of stress and emotional turmoil that kids in war zones suffer from - like the children in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, the children in Vietnam back in the 60's. No surprise, when over 50% of these children have either seen a friend get shot or seen a drive-by shooting, and have had to run for cover themselves to keep from getting shot. And the juvenile arrest statistics are startling: robbery arrests tripled from '89 to '92, rape arrests more than doubled from '89 to '94, and arrests for murder rose by over 500% from '91 to '94. William Raspberry, the columnist whose writing appears in the daily paper every week or so, wrote a column a few years back about the ever increasing rise in youth violence and drugs. He says the increase coincides with the increase in another statistic, an increase that goes back to the early 70's - the increase in the number of households without both parents to raise the kids. This makes some sense - who wouldn't agree that it really does take two loving, dedicated parents to have enough energy and stamina to raise children well in today's society?
But there is surely more to the problem than this. Guns are part of it… most of us agree that there are too many guns around, causing too many killings, of too many innocent people. I read recently that the murder rate today is 50% higher than it was in the 'Wild West" of the U.S. during the last century, and, yes, Louisiana is one of 6 states with more deaths by guns than by car accidents. The truth is, a lot of people who are dead today would still be with us if there just simply had not been a gun handy with a bullet in it - a trigger can so easily be pulled in a single out-of-control moment.
And drugs are part of it - back in the 50's and 60's, when I was growing up, drugs were something that heroin addicts in some big city somewhere knew about. Now it's something all of our children know about, and many of our children either see, use, buy or sell every day. But are these causes of the problem, or just symptoms of the problem?
Probably the truth is that guns, drugs and violence are both symptoms and part of the problem as well. Certainly the problem, whatever its root causes, is complicated by the fact that guns and drugs are everywhere, and that violence has become a part of our lives that too many of us just simply accept.
I think there are other pieces to the puzzle that help explain why we are where we are today with the ever increasing levels of drugs, guns and violence in our neighborhoods and among our children. Try the lack of meaningful jobs around for starters. I was told recently that more money was spent on the pay of our congressional representatives in the month the government was shut down than would be paid to all the workers in the country who would be affected if the minimum wage were to be raised to the level currently being debated in Congress. And even if you are lucky enough to get a minimum wage job, try raising a family on that money! For kids getting into the workforce today, it's not too hard to see that the temptation of easy money in the drug business is a lot to resist, especially when the alternative is often no job at all. But the sad truth is that while a few kids may make a lot of money in the drug business, and lead a fast and exciting (and often brief) life doing that, the result is that our neighborhoods, and children, are getting poisoned and destroyed from the inside-out by the "drug problem".
Our educational system all too often doesn't really prepare the kids to realistically enter the workforce. One big reason: funding - by the time the money flows around the legislature for this and that, there never is much left over for our schools and our children. The dropout rate in Louisiana's high schools is incredibly high, and those that graduate often do so without the basic skills we all used to take for granted just plain reading, writing and arithmetic.
So the gap between the haves and the have-nots, between the rich and the poor in this country, keeps on growing. During the 80's, the income for the people in the top half of the population continued to grow, while the income for the people in the bottom half continued to fall.
What can we do? Well, I think that the most immediate answer is in the question. The emphasis is on what we can do. President John F. Kennedy once said "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country". If we wait for the government, or someone else, to do it, who knows when it would get done, what would get done, or whether anything would get done at all. The only thing any of us can absolutely control is what we, ourselves, actually do, or fail to do. I can't tell anyone what they can or should do, but I believe these things: Children, from babies to teenagers, learn from us, their parents. They look to us for guidance about what is right and wrong, what is good and bad. If we show them a world of drugs, guns and violence, and show them no other way, they will assume they have no choices. As long as we do nothing, and assume that we can't do anything, then our children will see this in us, assume that nothing will ever change, and nothing ever will. I wish I had some fantastic quick-fix answers, but I don't. But the truth is, all the great social changes that have occurred in the world have been the result of individual people taking charge of their own lives, and doing whatever they themselves could do to make the situation better.
So, I'd like to dedicate this newsletter to Roscoe and Tyris, and all the others we all know whose lives have been taken away or otherwise directly affected by the guns, drugs and violence that passes for life on the streets in the '90's. May we all be able to do something to turn the tide back around.
Perhaps Eldridge Cleaver said it best in San Francisco, back in 1968 - "You're either part of the solution, or part of the problem". If we do nothing, we're part of the problem - if we do something, anything - just the best we can, by our children, families, friends and neighbors, - at every turn of the way, and at every opportunity we have - then we will be part of the solution .and if everyone does the best they can, the tide can be turned around, and sent back out to sea.