Fist Stick Knife Gun

I’m almost through Geoffrey Canada’s Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America. He describes growing up in the South Bronx and learning the intricate codes of violence starting at about age 7, with the (slightly) older kids on the block as morality teachers and fighting coaches. It all made a kind of terrible sense, and insured a kind of safety or at least stability within danger in a place and time when adults and all manner of authority – police especially – had abandoned the children to a violence so systematic and unremitting it can only be called war. Made sense that is until handguns and crack. Then, Canada says, the code of fair fighting went out the window. And the only thing that made sense then was to carry a gun yourself, if you could get one. And you usually could. In fact, he documents how gun manufacturers, having by the mid-80's saturated the white male market, turned to black and Latino/a youth in the cities. They even gave their new cheaper guns cool new names that would appeal to kids.

Canada was amazed to find that even young children knew not only the names of many handguns but their caliber, type of ammo and so on. As I was amazed (and at first doubtful) of 16 year old Lamarr's knowledge.

Lamarr grew up at the height of the crack epidemic. By the age of eight he was making decisions that would send a middle-class adult into therapy for months. “They wore their lack of fear,” Canada writes, “as a badge of honor” (61).

We left a generation of children alone in a war zone. We gave them boot camps instead of police protection. We gave them the Rockefeller Laws instead of afterschool programs. We gave them metal detectors at the entrance to every school instead of adults willing to brave the streets they walked everyday to and from school. He quotes this stat from a 1994 Children's Defense Fund Report: every two hours a child dies from gunshot wounds, while a police officer dies every five days. We ought at least to have given them flak jackets.

That swagger we see on TV, the tough guy bop; that coldness in the face of violence; that disdain for authority – they come from kids who found their own way to survive terrible odds and never had any reason to trust adults.

I’ll never fully understand Lamarr. I’m amazed he’s let me and Kaki in as much as he has, given us the gift of trying to explain what he lived through. He must often have thought we were stupid. We are stupid, in his world. To not even know what eye contact means, or a slouching posture in certain situations. To believe phoning the police ends violence, or walking alone to the corner store is easy.

Canada writes: “Adults standing side by side with children in the war zones of America is the only way to turn this thing around” (109). Because we see then the complexity of the problems. This can be overwhelming. But standing side by side with the children and teens we also can’t help but see their strength and courage, and their intelligence: they have ideas, they can envision peace, they are willing to work for it.

Are we?