The relative of a gang member who was recently shot and killed told the media, "Gang-banging was only a small part of who he was."
I knew what she meant. He was a son, a brother and a friend. He may very well have been a great guy.
This is the irony of criminals whose choices eventually catch up with them. Whether it be through incarceration or the gunshot that proved fatal, there are always people on the sidelines telling anyone who will listen what a great person they were - outside of being a criminal.
As humans, we cannot wrap our heads around senseless murders where innocent victims fall prey to violent and unstable killers.
The operative word is "innocent" in that the victims didn't engage in behavior that made them susceptible to harm. Truly innocent victims like those caught in crossfire, students in schools, shoppers in malls, or anyone else victimized by a dark-souled killer. These are the incidents that make us fall to our knees and ask our higher power, "Why"?
But when you are a person who engages in criminal activity, you must accept the associated risks. Similarly, if you are the parent of a child who hangs out with kids who "represent" by wearing gang colors or post pictures of themselves throwing up gang signs on their Facebook pages, that might be a clue that your child is up to no good.
If you take an active role in what your child is doing and with whom they are associating, it might thwart them from traveling down a destructive road.
I am not going to discount the aggravating factors that contribute to the evolution of a gang member. Social scientists tell us that the socio-economic status into which we are born, the geographic location, our culture, and whether we are loved or abused all play a part in who we become.
Kids oftentimes join gangs because they want to belong. If they don't feel a sense of belonging in their own family, they seek out that security elsewhere. The gang becomes their family.
There are so many reasons why our youth gravitate towards people and situations that are unhealthy. It is our job as parents and members of the community to provide the guidance they need to keep them on the right path.
It is the challenge of any parent to find the balance of structure and freedom.
I think of my kids as traveling on a highway where those solid, yellow lines flank the roadside. We want them to move freely within those confines and make their own independent choices about when to speed up, when to slow down and when to pass. But it is up to us as parents and mentors to monitor their speed, their distance from others on that road and to make damn sure that they don't cross those solid lines where danger lies on the other side.
The ultimate paradox is that kids not only need structure, they want it. One might think that joining a gang means youth break from structure but the truth is, gangs have plenty of it. There is a hierarchy and a fat book of procedures that accompany gang membership.
The first time I saw the bylaws of one of our local gangs, I recall thinking what a solid business model it represented. The organizational chart and its roles and positions were clearly outlined and defined. I wondered how successful the people who thoughtfully carved out the bylaws could be in the business world--- if only they channeled their talents towards positivity.
Knowing that kids need structure, it is all of our jobs to make sure they get it from people and places who will keep them "between the solid lines".
It is true that people are neither all good nor all bad. If it's true that the part of them that engages in gang or other criminal activity is just a small part, it is still the part that will get them killed.