Searching for roots of U.S. violence in teen's murder

By Andrew Stern

CHICAGO — Much soul-searching and speechmaking has followed the videotaped beating death two weeks ago of a Chicago honor student that has been viewed around the world on the Internet.

The sight of Derrion Albert, 16, getting whacked in the head with a wooden board and set upon by other black teenagers triggered heated discussions about the root causes of youth violence in America and whether it is getting worse.

The uproar led U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to schedule a visit to Chicago this week with Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Duncan was formerly head of Chicago's 440,000-pupil school system and spoke movingly at some of the 34 funerals held for students slain in Chicago last year.

A thousand mourners attended Albert's funeral on October 3 where speakers decried black-on-black violence. Newspaper editorialists called the September 24 attack a venting of black frustration over intractable poverty and social ills.

"Rage killed Derrion Albert," wrote Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell. "It is the same rage that once led angry mobs of whites to lynch innocent blacks as law-abiding citizens watched. The same rage that once erupted into riots that drove young black men to burn and loot white-owned businesses, as residents hid in their locked homes."

A Chicago Tribune investigation concluded that one of Albert's friends delivered the first blow that knocked him down in a melee that grew out of rivalry between groups who attend the same high school but live in separate, poor neighborhoods.

Four young men and boys have been arrested and charged with murder, based on the cellphone video shot by an onlooker.

Fourteen thousand murders

The emotional impact of Albert's murder, a week before Chicago's failed attempt to host the 2016 Olympic Games, struck a nerve. But experts say such violence is relative rare.

"Murder is still a relatively rare event, though more common here than in other countries, and murders by kids are even rarer," said Melissa Sickmund of the National Center for Juvenile Justice.

The U.S. murder rate of nearly 6 murders per 100,000 people per year is more than three times the rates of France and Canada, though well below El Salvador, Colombia, South Africa, Jamaica and Russia.

Last year, there were 510 murders committed in Chicago and 14,180 in the United States, both down slightly from 2007 and well below peak years from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Most murders occur in poor neighborhoods of large cities, while other places are largely safe. While blacks comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population, 48 percent of murder victims last year were black. Fifty-eight percent of the 1,764 murder victims between 13 and 19 years old were black.

"Every generation of adults want to think their kids are worse than they were. But kids today are less violent than their parents — arrest rates are lower now than they were 25 years ago," Sickmund said.

Still, residents of poor Chicago neighborhoods complain of nightly gunfire and police maps show the bulk of violent crime occurs in areas like Roseland, where Albert lived.

Roseland became notorious in 1994 for the exploits of Robert "Yummy" Sandifer, an 11-year-old who wounded another boy and shot at rivals before his own gang executed him. Chicago has some 100,000 gang members in a city of 3 million.

Are kids angrier?

Albert's death dominated the airwaves in Chicago and on national cable television networks for several days, amid discussion about the roots of the rage on display.

Some say gang activity is rising due to the recession which has depressed trade in illegal drugs and created pressure on gangs to invade each others' turf.

At a Chicago hair salon run by the Jacobo sisters, two Hispanic mothers both with teenage sons, discussion turned to whether teenagers are angrier these days, and why.

"Maybe it's the kids seeing violence at home, or on the streets. Money is short, with parents having to work two jobs," which leaves children more on their own, Rachel Jacobo said.

Her sister Mimi said teenagers were less able to resolve simple conflicts and more sensitive to perceived slights. She also blamed video games that glorify violent combat.

"It's not just the baggy-pants crowd who are angrier," Mimi Jacobo said, referring to current teenage male fashions. "Well-dressed people are losing it too."

Social commentators have pointed to a decline of civility, illustrated by a Republican congressman's recent outburst aimed at President Barack Obama during a speech on health care.

Last month, Chicago's public schools chief Ron Huberman unveiled a $30 million federally funded program to target 1,200 high school students deemed most at risk of becoming victims or perpetrators of violence. The goal is to intervene with a mentor and help the teens land after-school jobs.

That approach falls woefully short because thousands more need guidance, said Vincent Woods, an ex-convict and ex-gang member who speaks to schools and published a popular memoir.

"If you haven't been to prison, which I have been twice, you aren't going to be able to reach those kids," he said. "If you haven't been in a gang, how are you going to tell them how to get out?"

October 7, 2009 — Return to cover.