Events, People

A lone voice decrying Detroit violence needs a chorus

Like most rational adults, I agreed with 16-year-old Dequan O’Neal when he declared Thursday that gun violence, particularly on New Year’s Eve, is a “tradition that must end now.”

Like any reasonable teen, O’Neal seemed nervous when first stepping up to the microphone. He was besieged by television cameras. Twenty of his peers surrounded him. Mayor Dave Bing stood by his side. And about 25 adults sat staring at him. But his voice only grew louder as he spoke during the “Hugs, Not Bullets” kick-off rally at the City/County building.

“I don’t want to be a target on New Year’s night,” said O’Neal, one of the youth leaders in the Neighborhood Service Organization, the non-profit group sponsoring the campaign against year-around gun use, particularly after midnight as people so-called celebrate the new year in Detroit.

Mr. O’Neal, you are a rare and wonderful example of why Detroit stands a chance of surviving. You have drive. You seem compassionate. You spoke with dignity, and that’s something few people can do (especially not when they’re still a sophomore at Osborn Evergreen Academy and in a room of complete strangers).

But you’re a target in so many ways. Selfish adults will ignore your plea; Wayne County still will participate what is one of the strangest New Year’s traditions I’ve ever heard of anywhere. You as a young Black male will be seen as part of the problem in Detroit despite your youth and relative innocence. (Don’t think so? Check out the nasty comments on the ‘Click on Detroit‘ website after WDIV posted its story. Nice using last year’s photo, too. But I digress.) While you aspire to college, so many objects will stand in your way: bullies, gangs, ignorance, prejudice.

Still, kudos to you, Mayor Bing and Assistant Detroit Police Chief Chester L. Logan. Thursday’s event was an eye-opener for me. Although this campaign is eight years old, I had never heard of it before. And it never hurts to declare your commitment against Detroit’s penchant for violence, dear Mayor. But, like O’Neal’s presentation, it’s a message that needs to be shared in an increasingly loud voice.

It’s not enough to hold a media event. (And could we rethink the name? Hugs do not seem like the equivalent to bullets.) The people who need to listen up aren’t tuning in to the evening news, reading a tiny brief in the newspaper or checking out this blog (probably). This meeting is something you need to see in every Detroit neighborhood.

How about standing at the top of every block with a big old drum? Start making lots of noise and you might get a few heads popping out of the front door. Then the message might be heard by the people that need it the most. (Or you might just scare the living daylights out of them. And that might not be all bad either.)

Anyway, some more on the NSO. The group’s Youth Initiatives Project has been working on the gun-violence program for the past year. Guys like O’Neal visit classrooms in elementary, middle and high school to talk about better ways to settle disputes – you know, conflict-resolution skills. The kind of stuff that pretty much all of us need to learn before graduating into the real world.

And, like all things, this is not just a Detroit issue. It’s statewide. From the press release: “According to the 2009 Michigan Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 84 percent of homicide victims who were killed with firearms in 2005 were between the ages of 15 and 19. Of all violent deaths the occurred on school property in Michigan between 1994 and 2006, 65 percent involved firearms.”

O’Neal said he doesn’t want to be seen as part of the problem in Detroit. He wants a real, long-term solution to our addiction to violence, guns, death, destruction. My friend, we’re all still working on that. But at least we could all greet the New Year with reverence and a bit of humility instead of a gunshot.

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