Urban Violence Puts Damper on 4th of July Festive Spirit

(Article first published as Pardon My Pessimistic Patriotism on Technorati.)

This week was kicked off by 4th of July celebrations across the United States - barbecues and fireworks and parades to celebrate America's declared independence from the British monarchy in 1776.  (Well, truly independence was declared on July 2; the document of the Declaration of Independence was approved on July 4, but I digress.) 

People dressed in red, white and blue singing patriotic songs and guzzling beer, expressing pride in our country's strength, our freedoms and democracy.

I joined in on the celebrations, watching at least a dozen fireworks displays throughout Los Angeles and Orange Counties from the top of a hill near my house, awed at the large fireballs in the sky on a clear night.

I spent the day at a block party that was a child's wildest dream, complete with crafts, a bounce house, water slides, a parade, cotton candy, face painting, a DJ, food, entertainment and prizes.  I marveled at the way the neighbors had come together to build memories for their children and felt blessed to be in such company.

But in the pit of my stomach was a pain that prevented me from feeling terribly patriotic this year.  It was a pain that hit home the realization that for all the block parties and community fireworks and celebrations, for the freedoms we enjoy to express free speech and vote for our leaders, we are living in a broken society.

I am not referring to the economy, which everyone knows is disappointing.  I am not referring to bail-outs or big business, anti-war or pro-military campaigns, the prevalence in media to focus on celebrity and drama over hard-hitting investigative reporting.  I am not talking about the fact that I hear more about politicians' sex scandals than I do about the laws and policies they fight for.  No, I am referring to something much more personal and human, something that makes me wonder if our country has the courage to place value on the people who live here.  I am talking about violence.

This weekend, two days before Independence Day, my husband went to play soccer in South Central Los Angeles.  While he was there, he witnessed a horrifying act of violence.  Four young teenagers jumped another young teenager and beat him nearly to death, throwing him to the ground, kicking his ribs, stomping on his head, with no regard for human life or consequence.  While they beat him, nearly 100 people stood and watched in broad daylight, frozen.  Not one person stood up to stop the fight.  After the young men left the victim, presumably for dead, two middle aged women rushed over to help him, and got him up after about fifteen minutes.

My husband was shocked that no one acted.  I was too, but my first question was, "Yes, but what did you do?"

He did nothing.  He watched in fear and cringed.  He told himself that it was not his neighborhood, that he did not know enough about the gangs and the violence and the people to know what to do or how to act or how they could retaliate.  He told himself that they might have knives or guns and if he acted they could seriously injure him, a father whose family needs him.

I asked if anyone called the police, and he said that several people did dial 911.  I asked if anyone video-taped the incident on their cell phones to show the police, and he said they did not.  They all stood and stared, silent with mouths agape, and watched a young boy narrowly escape murder.

I do not know if all four boys were wearing a particular color clothing.  I do not know if words were exchanged.  I do not know what may have transpired prior to the beating, what history there may be between them and the victim.  I do not know if they were carrying weapons.

What disturbs me more than the violence itself is the fact that 100 people witnessed the violence and didn't do anything.  I can only presume the reasons.  I am sure some were waiting for others to step up.  I am sure that many were fearful, fearful that their own families would be targeted next, fearful that if they are undocumented acting would bring the attention of local authorities on themselves and their families, fearful of being hurt, fearful that if they acted no one else would stand up to support them.  I hope that it was fear and that it was not apathy or a lack of empathy.  If it was fear, our society may still have the strength to move forward, to face the fear and combat it.  If it was not, I am sincerely afraid for what the future beholds.

I imagine if one person had stood up, others would have followed and 100 people could have stopped four aggressive teens.  I also imagine more than one person there had a knife or a gun and it could have become significantly more violent and dangerous depending on which way the group mentality swayed.

A part of me was disappointed that my husband stood back and did nothing.  I'd be lying if I were to say that a part of me is glad that he did, that I know he returned home safely, that he was thinking of us.

I like to think that I would have done something, that at the very least I would have recorded it on video and called 911 several times.  I could have shown the world that a kid can be in serious trouble, with no one to help, in the middle of a sunny Saturday, in front of more than a hundred people.

Those 911 calls that my husband said several people did make?  After the women helped the boy up, the soccer players resumed their game.  They played an additional 45 minutes.  They police never showed up.  An hour after phone calls saying that a boy was being beaten, that his skull and ribs were under attack, the police still hadn't come.  They boy hadn't been checked by a medical team; no statement was taken.  He won't even be counted as a statistic on the mayor's report on urban violence.

In the relatively affluent area where I live, the police would have responded in minutes, without a doubt.  I am thankful for this, but worry about the message.  Pay enough tax dollars and we won't forget about you.  I worry about what I would have to teach my children if we lived there instead - in case of a violent attack, curl up in the fetal position and cover your head to survive?  Hope that the attackers aren't packing?  Depend on the police if they have the time to deal with calls from an already violent neighborhood?

So, forgive me if I didn't feel especially patriotic, if I am having a hard time finding my pride for my country, when we are spending billions on wars overseas, but 20 minutes away a war is raging among our youth and only two women have the courage to do the right thing and help a boy stand up to see another day.  I thank heaven for those two women, a symbol of maternal protective instinct and heart.

Or perhaps that is the very meaning of patriotism - a love for one's own country and community so strong that they would rather find a way to fight to fix the wrong that go on turning the other way in passive acceptance of the norm.

Regardless, in my full naivete' I sincerely wish that we will find a way to fight the battles in our backyards, that we will not stand in fear as our youth suffer, that we will combat anger and hatred with education and love and courage, that those children will have a teacher or an adult enter their lives who they can look up to and who can make them see that violence truly is not the answer.  I'd love to see them take that bravado and use it for good. 

For if that day comes, count me first in line to raise the flag, yell out the anthem and shout out my pride and patriotism as an American for all walks of life.

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