Personal Voices: Surviving 'Kilwaukee'
September 7, 2007
"Imagine us in that bottom on that PCP.
Walkin' to school wit a tool,
who gon' beef wit me.
Got addicted to sellin' drugs,
marijuana and coke.
Momma, she washed
her hands, and let me go.
The rest you know.
I aint gotta explain,
I been a man, since I went got my own."
Lil Boosie, "My Struggle"
The roots of despair
When 16-year-old Preston J. Blackmer was murdered outside of his foster mother's home in Milwaukee in April of 2005 most people living in the midsized Midwestern city barely noticed. After all, death is almost an every-other-day occurrence in "Kilwaukee." Especially in Blackmer's neighborhood where teenage drug dealers often sell dimes, sacks of crack and weed to their extended family members to keep the fridge full.
The fear of death is a fact of life for many young African-Americans living here. There have been nearly 1,500 murders in this city of 650,000 people since George W. Bush took over the oval office. Most of the victims have been Black folks living in a small concentration of census tracts on the city's segregated North Side.
But violence is nothing new to Milwaukee. African-Americans have been dying at the hands of their peers at alarming rates for the last 25 years. It's just that today both the victims and perpetrators are getting younger.
Born at a time when their parents and grandparents were facing Depression-era joblessness and underemployment, Blackmer's Milwaukee is not the same attractive industrial boomtown that once pulled tens of thousands of former sharecroppers out of the South in the 1950s. Not only have many of the social safety networks -- that once protected youth like Blackmer from the harsh realities of poverty -- have disappeared, but also the rapid disappearance of work has weakened the bonds of black kinship networks.
Few politicians and community leaders want to admit it publicly, but children and young adults currently living in many of Milwaukee's inner city neighborhoods are now more likely to go to prison than graduate from high school. Forget about college.
But Blackmer's story is not unique to Milwaukee. All across the country, former industrialized metropolises like Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have been hit by a wave of violence. But what's causing the increasing death toll? Has the Hip-Hop Generation finally hit the self-destruction button?
Rethinking 'Murder Was the Case'
Of course, there is not just one source of urban America's social woes. There are many issues at play including hypermasculinity. In his recent WireTap article "Murder Was the Case," author Matthew Birkhold highlighted that there's "a link between the construction of masculinity and the emergence of murder." Birkhold argues that in an attempt to act 'hard,' "many men spend entire lives trying to prove their manhood, hurting others in the process."
But while Birkhold's analysis raises some important points about how institutional racism has historically worked to exclude African-Americans from fully participating in society, he never truly gives a voice to the institutionalized powerlessness that is running rampant among today's youth. Because unlike their parents or grandparents, who once shouted that they were "black and proud," many young folks have never had a vision of self-empowerment.
Nothing for us
"Man, you can have all the rallies you want, but you are never going to stop violence. I mean, not unless you are stopping poverty, racism and all that other stuff. You can't stop that, so mufuckas is going to keep dying," says 21-year-old Jeffery Cannady aka DJ Willie Shakes, a popular DJ and youth organizer in Milwaukee. "It's like you just got to live your life man, because I mean these times are written in the Bible. We only got so much time left."
This sense of hopelessness isn't unique to DJ Willies Shakes. In fact over the last three and a half years since moving back to Milwaukee, I've talked to thousands of young people like DJ Willie Shakes who just don't believe that life is going to get better.
"There is nothing out here for us," said 19-year-old Lanisha Martin, an aspiring rapper who is also an organizer with a group called the Campaign Against Violence. (Editor's note: The author is also an organizer with the Campaign Against Violence). "Of course people are going to get killed. I mean I've lost a lot of friends. And it's sort of crazy to realize that I will never see them again."
My story vs. the game
Either way you look at it, the odds of Blackmer making it out of his stomping grounds were more than stacked against him. Born at the height of the federal government's War on Drugs, Blackmer was a product of the crack epidemic. Not only had he never met his drug-dealing father, but also Blackmer's mother was addicted to the street life and all its fatal trappings. For most of his short years on earth, this invisible man-child had to fend for himself.
And survival meant bouncing from couch to couch and occasionally getting off dime packs of crack and weed to keep food in his stomach and clothes on his back. Without a "wicked jump shot" or the extra support needed to succeed in the public school system, Blackmer spent many a school day locked up in the county juvenile detention facility. By the time he passed away the young man was just another statistic; just another black boy lost.
Sadly, Blackmer's story is no different than his killer's. Murdered in what appeared to be a crime of passion, Blackmer's killer was a small-time hustler who was jealous that the handsome boy was spending time with his girlfriend. Like his victim, it is obvious that this young man had very few reasons to believe that his life was going to get any better.
While conservative talking heads would have you believe that young African-Americans are the source of their own woes, the truth is that the game of life is fixed against many young people. Living in cities where vast bureaucratic infrastructures are dedicated to maintaining the prison industrial complex, millions of well-meaning Americans throughout the country make their living off the warehousing and storage of black youth. And like the big-box retail stores that seem to be popping everywhere, youth incarceration is big business. This year it will cost Milwaukee County nearly $95,000 a year to lock up a juvenile offender.
"The biggest hustle on earth is you," says nationalized recognized spoken word artist Muhibb Dyer to a group of young African Americans at SEIU Local 150's sponsored conflict resolution training in Milwaukee in late July. "Everybody is making money off you. Doctors who stitch up bullet wounds make money off of you. Funeral homes make money off you, and lawyers and judges make money off you. So my question to you is, do you think people really want this to stop?"
It's at that moment that the many of the kids realize that the prison industrial complex is working exactly as planned.
It's on you!
If we are going to truly come up with proactive solutions to inner city violence, we must first understand that the issues that young African-Americans are facing in black America are not new. Since the early 20th century, black folks living in urban areas have suffered from extreme levels of poverty and drug use.
Pick up Claude Brown's Man Child in the Promise Land, Nathan McCall's Make's Me Wanna Holler, or even Malcolm X's autobiography, and you'll see that young African-Americans living in urban areas have been facing many of the same issues for nearly a half century. Sure, poverty, the "gangsta aesthetic" and the drug trade may indeed be influential factors in pushing many young people to embrace violent behavior, but these variables do not alone explain the increase in violence in urban America.
Of course today the consequences of these social woes are becoming more drastic. Prior to an influx of heavy narcotics in the 1970s, the black family protected young folks like Blackmer. Never as formal as the monolithic nuclear families seen on television, extended kinship networks consisting of friends, neighbors and family members have always ensured that children could survive the often-harsh realities that African-Americans have faced throughout history. Yet in the 21st century, after a generation of systematic attacks on the black community, these kinship networks have grown weak and inefficient.
And it doesn't look like they will be revitalized anytime soon. Not only is the political climate becoming more tolerant of the criminalization of youth, but the generational rift between the Hip-Hop Generation and Civil Rights Generation that Bakari Kitwana first wrote about in his influential text Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in Black America is having a drastic effect on the quality of life of post Hip-Hop millennials.
That's why it's up to us to have rich and diverse discussions around the issues of urban violence. In my opinion, the issue highlights how truly broken urban America has become. Not only was the War on Drugs a quick-fix solution to deindustrialization but it has also had a tremendously negative impact on all aspects of American life. At the end of the day the rising trends of urban violence all across America highlight that the failed campaign has neither ended drug use nor made life safer for urban Americans.
If we are going to truly impact urban violence we must give voice to those that are living and dying on the streets. We must be able to hear their stories and be empathetic to their perspectives. Otherwise, we will never be able to empower young people to come up with creative solutions to their communities' problems. Because there have been enough Preston J. Blackmers. It's time for us to start stepping up.
Rob "Biko" Baker is a nationally recognized hip hop organizer, journalist and scholar. Biko served as the Deputy Publicity Coordinator and Young Voter Organizer for the Brown and Black Presidential Forum (a nationally televised presidential debate which aired on msnbc). Biko is currently the League of Young Voters Institute Director and he also works with the Campaign Against Violence. Biko is a frequent contributor to The Source and serves on Wiretap's Editorial Board.