Street Soldier: One Man's Struggle to Save a Generation, One Life at a Timeby Joseph Marshall, Lonnie Wheeler
As a public school teacher, Joe Marshall grew sick and tired of watching his most promising students fall prey to the lure of gangs, drugs, and crime, and end up either dead or in prison. Finding that neither the justice nor school system seemed willing even to try to address the underlying problems - to give the kids the kind of information and assistance they really… See more details below
As a public school teacher, Joe Marshall grew sick and tired of watching his most promising students fall prey to the lure of gangs, drugs, and crime, and end up either dead or in prison. Finding that neither the justice nor school system seemed willing even to try to address the underlying problems - to give the kids the kind of information and assistance they really needed - he leapfrogged right over the system and co-founded the Omega Boys Club, based upon the belief that young people of the inner city want a way out of the life they're in, but just don't know how to get out. Since the club's inception in 1987, with a handful of kids in a community center basement, he and his small army of street soldiers have already helped 600 kids out of gang-banging and drug dealing, and pushed, tutored, driven, and even funded 140 inner-city kids into colleges around the country. Four years ago, to direct kids at risk to the Boys Club, he started a weekly radio call-in program called "Street Soldiers" that is now broadcast throughout California to an audience of over 200,000. His callers ask tough questions about gangs, drugs, teen pregnancy, and the multiple pressures of life in the inner city today. "Street Soldiers" not only provides callers with a lifeline and listeners with a practical resource for hope, but has repeatedly averted gang warfare and stopped "payback" violence before they occurred.
A junior high school teacher and co-founder of the Omega Boys Club, Marshall provides a penetrating critique of black urban America and the values that define the lives of its youth. In a society characterized by guns, unemployment, and crack, young children, too often abandoned by drug-addicted mothers and absentee fathers, seek their surrogate families in street gangs that only wreak further havoc on their lives. Instead of forming friendships, these young people bond together in what Marshall calls "fearships," in which horrendous crimes are committed for the sake of "preserving one's reputation and not being labeled as a punk." The dehumanization of these young people, contends Marshall, is reinforced by street language: Referring to themselves as "niggas" and the women in their lives as "bitches" and "hoes," young black urban males broadcast their sense of worthlessness. Marshall manages to reach even the most hard-core of these youth by appealing to whatever sense of pride and self-worth may still be intact. Reading the writings of Malcolm X with them is his prerequisite for understanding the institutionalized racism that has allowedand possibly encouragedyoung African-Americans to destroy one another. The author wants black youth to take full responsibility, to rehabilitate rather than destroy themselves. Marshall succeeds, according to testimony from his young friends, because he values them when they have been demeaned by everyone else. He reaches the "hard rocks" because of his relentless faith in their underlying goodness. The book's one glaring omission involves Latino youth, whose similarly shattered lives are not considered here.
Interspersed with riveting first-hand accounts by the youth portrayed in this book, Street Soldier poses a challenge to all Americans.
- Vision Lines Publishing Co.
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Read an Excerpt
My most vivid memory of childhood is that of my father getting up at five-thirty every morning to dig ditches for the Southern California Gas Company. I would groan and roll over in my bed, not the least bit aware of how lucky I was to have such a role model in the house.
A short while after Pops returned home every afternoon, soiled and sweaty, my mother would leave for her job as a night nurse. One of my parents was nearly always home, and one of them was nearly always working. Through such an arrangement, they miraculously managed to send all nine of the Marshall children to college. It was an incredible feat that took me a long time to fully appreciate.
The upshot of all the parenting and sacrificing and nurturing that went on in our house was that it created enough of a buffer against the madness of the inner-city streets to keep me not only alive and free but healthy, straight, and relatively safe. That might not sound like much, but for a black city boy growing up in our society, it's about the best you can hope for.
Because of my home life, I was luckier than many of my friends and acquaintances in South Central Los Angeles, and from the start it made me a little different. It made me relatively tranquil--at least by comparison with the scowling, bullyish brothers who hung together in clusters in the parks and on the street-corners--and it also made me ambitious in a way that might have been more socially responsible, or perhaps legitimate, than was the local custom. But even so, there was a thread of union and communion that ran through all of us. We were all young and black, each trying in his own way to survive on the cold hard streets of urbanAmerica.
In general, and now in retrospect, the overwhelmingly positive nature of my own upbringing--and that core of union and communion between all of us--has left me with the unshakable conviction that people can be made immune to their surroundings, however vile or pernicious. I hold tightly to the belief that inner-city teenagers can be taught and raised in such a way that they don't have to become part of the wantonness swirling around them. They can be persuaded to steer clear of guns when everyone else is packing M.A.C.-10s; to stay sober when everyone else is drinking forties; to stay clean when everyone else is either selling crack or smoking it, if not both. They can--and given the opportunity, frequently do--become part of the solution.
What makes this possible is the peculiar fact that the players of the urban game actually hate the game they play. Although few show it and fewer admit it, many of them inwardly despise the violence and the degradation that rule the neighborhoods and bring so much anger and pain to them, their families and their friends. They join the game only because they can't beat it; or, more to the point, because they think they can't beat it. Because it's all they see, they think it's all there is. And because they recognize no alternative, they become the very thing they despise: players in the game. To some, playing the game means getting crazy-rich off crack. To most, it means taking care of business. To all of them, without exception, it means earning a rep. Tragically, it means being a predator so as not to be prey.
The homie does these things because, unlike me thirtysomething years ago, he has no fortification against an environment that has escalated its attack upon him. He inhabits a different world than I did. He faces serious unemployment issues that discourage the legal work ethic it takes to compete in mainstream American society. He has to deal with weapons of war that have been literally dumped on the streets of America--AK-47s, Uzis, nine millimeters, glocks, M.A.C.-10s. But most of all, he has to deal with crack cocaine, the worst thing to hit black America since slavery. Hell, crack is worse than slavery. Crack cocaine pulls young men into the illegal work ethic--some as young as age nine or ten--and most of them never manage to get out of it, ending up dead or in jail. But there is something even more pernicious, even more insidious, about crack. Crack has been able to do something even slavery couldn't do: It has stopped the African-American woman from mothering her child. Imagine that--a force stronger than motherhood. The effects of crack are nothing short of unbelievable.
So here sits the homie with a daddy he never sees, hardly knows, and deeply resents. Hell, Daddy's probably in prison anyway. Mom's home being both Mom and Dad, but too often now she's strung out herself, buried too deep in her own problems to worry about fixing snacks or checking the bookbag when her son gets home from school. And dude's angry about that because he knows he's getting screwed. Other adults, meanwhile, the extended community--well, they're scared to death of him because he's been terrorizing them from the age of thirteen.
So the homie goes where people are there for him, at least ostensibly. He goes to the streets to hang out with the other brothers who have nobody at home, either, and who share the same problems. As a group--a gang, a set, a clique, a posse, whatever you want to call it--the lot of them try to be for each other what they desperately need in their lives: men. Of course, they don't know how to do that because nobody's shown them. Nobody has shown them about getting up at five in the morning to dig ditches; about responsibility; about values; about what's really important; about what works and what doesn't work. They think taking care of each other means protecting each other's backs from homies in the next hood who are also trying to protect each other's backs.
The information process has obviously miserably failed these young men. Instead of fathers and mothers at home giving them information to live by, they have homeboys and homegirls in the streets giving them infommation to die by. The communication crisis is like a virus that has been sweeping over the inner cities ever since I grew up in South Central. But it's not incurable. It can be arrested. I believe--hell, I knew, I've seen it proven--that with the right information and guidance, the homies' immune systems can be built up to a level at which the kids have some protection against themselves. We can put a stop to black genocide by inoculating the young brothers with knowledge and tender loving care. It must be done, and if their own parents aren't up to the task, it has to be done by one of us, the lucky ones. Actually, it has to be done by a lot of us. It is our duty and special privilege to open up our lives to the children whom fate has dumped on the street and society has left there. By making our resources their resources--by giving them some of the time and support that every kid needs--we can make them just a little luckier. Very often, that's all it takes.
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