No one knows why a group of about 10 teenagers surrounded Trell Thomas at a bus stop in downtown Washington earlier this month and beat him so badly that his jaw was broken, causing permanent damage. But Trell has given a lot of thought about how to respond to the climate in Washington and other cities that incubates such attacks, and he’s chosen to use what happened to him to sound the alarm about the destroyed dreams of millions of young people around the country.
Trell happens to work for the New Organizing Institute, an organization that educates grassroots activists on the nuts and bolts of activism. He also happens to have considerable experience as a volunteer for various youth organizations, both in Portland, Ore., and in Washington. In Portland, he helped run an environmental group that got young people working on green energy projects.
So when he was brutally attacked, he saw these youths as being more than bad kids doing violent things. “There is a sense of hopelessness, a sense of ‘what else would I be doing?’,” he told me in a telephone interview.
Before jumping to the obvious answers, such as “They should be at home doing their homework,” consider the backdrop.
If you’re outside the Beltway bubble, you probably repeatedly hear, as I did on a CNN report Tuesday, that the Washington, D.C., economy is doing fine, buoyed by government employment. But that’s misleading. On average, the metropolitan area is doing well. But the reality is that in July the unemployment rate in the District jumped more than a full percentage point, to 11.3 percent, compared to the national average of 8.9 percent. But the District also ranks highest in the nation in teenage unemployment, with a rate above 50 percent, according to an Employment Policies Institute study.
The fact that housing prices in the Washington area have not dropped as they have in most other parts of the country has been a mixed blessing, sparing homeowners the economic misery experienced in most parts of the country but making the city among the most expensive in the country for housing. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition reports that a household would need to earn close to $60,000 a year to be able to afford the fair market rent on a two-bedroom apartment in the District.
One consequence is that revitalized sections of the city, such as the newly chic Gallery Place area where Trell was attacked, are often uncomfortably bordered by pockets of severe economic struggle.
The quality of schools has been a decades-long problem in the District, one for which there is plenty of blame to go around. But it has not helped that one of the responses from the conservatives controlling the House of Representatives is to impose a mandate that allows federal funding to be used to subsidize tuition to private schools. The “Opportunity Scholarship” mandate not only siphons off funding that could be used to improve the schools but also siphons off the most engaged parents.
A depression-level economy festering within reach of restaurants filled with lobbyists and government contractors and chronically troubled schools do not excuse a gang attack. But these are factors that “absolutely contribute” to the problems of youth violence—as does the continuing failure to make the problems of our youth a priority on our political discourse. “It’s ignoring the needs of these people that causes a lot of these problems,” Trell told me. The message that many young people perceive these days coming from political leadership is “not only are you not seeing what’s going on, but you don’t care.”
A major public-sector jobs program designed to employ millions of adults and teenagers in areas of particularly high unemployment “would be an amazing first step” toward addressing the economic problems experienced by these young people, Trell says. That would pour money into the economies of depressed neighborhoods—places where the private market has never worked well in years—and create the demand that will begin to repair them. As the private sector expands, we then need to keep the focus on creating good jobs that pay wages that support a family.
At the same time, we need to keep up a 360-degree push for quality public schools, one that recognizes that good schools requires good teachers, effective administrators, engaged parents, students ready to learn and the resources that make all of that possible. Instead of the conservative approach of attacking teachers, demonizing unions and diverting public resources into private schools, we need to give schools and students what they need to succeed and hold them accountable for success.
At the Take Back the American Dream Conference next week, we will be forging a strategy that push progressive solutions to the crises faced by young people to the forefront of our political debate. We are involving people from the Generational Alliance, the United States Student Association and other other groups to make sure youth concerns are included in the broader agenda for change.
Conservatives rarely talk about youth unemployment or the severe economic conditions in some of our cities. When they do, their response is to use these conditions as a wedge to push for more corporate tax cuts, eliminating the minimum wage, or schemes that take advantage of the economic desperation of people by offering them such things as “training” that amounts to low-paid or unpaid labor that too often does not lead to a real job.
We must repudiate those policies, and demand a better way for our young people. Remember, Trell told me, “these are the people who are going to take our place. If we are not providing them with the tools with which they can succeed, what kind of world are we setting ourselves up for?”