The thug next door

This article was originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on September 24, 2006. Image from Google News Archive.

Forum: The thug next door

People who think thug culture is urban or black or far from their schools and neighborhoods might want to rethink that, says Duquesne professor MIKE DILLON

Sep 24, 2006
12:00 AM

I had two encounters with thug culture last weekend. One an annoyance, the other tragic. One white, the other black. One where I live, the other where I work.

Thug culture may have gotten its start on the urban street, but it long ago transcended any geographic or racial boundaries. It’s aggressive, macho and hinges on the prospect that any provocation, however slight, might end in all-out violence.

Last Friday, my 10-year-old daughter called her teenage sister on her cell phone to tell her some bigger boys were swearing at her and her friends as they rode scooters in the schoolyard, a block from our Brentwood home. Figuring it was the usual neighborhood goofballs, we acceded to our teenager’s request to let her go over and handle it, to be the peacemaker. She’d know the boys, tell them to back off and that would be the end of it.

It happens.

Ten minutes later, both girls were back. My teenager told me these boys were strangers and that one in particular, a real gangsta wannabe, she said, met her request to back off with the crudest kind of language.

I walked over.

The do-ragged ring-leader, who had a piercing through his lip and looked to be about 14, sat on the ground, about 25 feet away from his would-be posse, fiddling with his cell phone. What’s the problem? I asked. Why was he dropping f-bombs on little girls?

“They were giving me trouble,” he replied, without looking up.

That ain’t gonna fly around here, buddy, I told him. He needed to clear out and it better not happen again.

He looked up. “Are you gonna hit me?” he asked tauntingly.

What?

“Are you gonna hit me?”

I thought through the consequences and decided that, no, I was not going to reach down, grab him by his scrawny neck and jack him up.

Much as I would’ve liked to.

Instead, I repeated that it had better not happen again and walked away. When I got home, I called the cops. The young cop who came to my door told me he knew this kid. Wouldn’t let his own kids near him. Bad kid. Bad home life. Parents won’t do anything.

Oh well and boo-hoo.

“We can’t tell him where to go,” he said. The cop suggested the neighborhood kids avoid him. So should I. Effectively, he was telling me, this kid now owns our schoolyard. He said he’d look for the kid and talk to him. Like that was going to do any good.

Later, I talked it over with another neighborhood dad. We agreed that in our day, a parent simply showing up would be the end of the matter. If talk didn’t work, a call to the kid’s parents would. A kick in the pants was an acceptable last resort. And that would be the end of it.

Times have changed.

On Sunday morning, I got an e-mail from one of my journalism students. Had I heard about the shooting on campus? I found out what little I could on the Web and headed over to Duquesne University. A cop was hosing blood down the cobblestones outside a dormitory.

The blood, at least some of it, belonged to Sam Ashaolu, a student in my introductory media course, who had been shot in the head. Sam enrolled late, told me he wanted to catch up and I helped him. I can’t say I got to know Sam — but I missed seeing him in the back row in class this past week. He was quiet, but he sure seemed like a nice kid. Gentle.

I was still steamed about Friday’s encounter with our small-town would-be thug when I learned about Sam and the other four students who were shot on my campus. That put Friday’s encounter in a new light.

What if I had pressed the issue with the kid?

Now, it was not beyond the pale to imagine he might have had a weapon. There were kids all over the schoolyard.

Now, it was not beyond the pale to imagine that he and his pals might single out a little kid walking alone on another day and assault her. The cops would do something then, but at too high a price.

Now, the inventory: Kids can’t settle things themselves without the shadow of extreme violence hanging over them. Parents can’t do anything; the juvenile thug knows if a grownup tries to “escort” him from the premises the grownup will pay the cost. Cops can’t do anything until the worst happens.

People who think thug culture is urban or black or far from their schools and neighborhoods might want to rethink that.

Kids raised in the most vanilla of suburbs are fed an endless diet of violent junk, much of it romanticizing thug culture of every shade and stripe. “Grand Theft Auto.” “Scarface.” “Gang Related.” Take your pick of music videos. Thugs, skinheads, black, white . . . it all comes down to the same thing: Anger and hostility masquerading as courage.

I study and teach about the media at Duquesne University. I’m not suggesting that a kid who watches violent movies or music videos, or plays violent video games, picks up a Glock and goes looking for someone to kill. Media influence doesn’t work that way.

It is pretty clear, however, that degradation of girls and women, instant and extreme reaction to perceived “disrespect,” all-out retaliation for real or imagined slights, is the cultural air our kids breathe.

Kids learn from their parents, but in the absence of strong parents, they learn from pop culture, which helps them answer questions like, “What does it mean to be a man?” “What is the proper response to ‘disrespect’?” “What do I have to do to save face?”

Last Sunday, at Duquesne, the answers were clear, direct and issued without warning: You pull out a gun and open fire.

We all know there are better answers. What are we doing to help our kids find them?

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