A Quick Note on Violence

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There was some shock and dismay last week when I wrote that I was rather unsurprised by the violence that broke out at McCarren Pool, but was in fact more surprised that the NYPD hadn't put in place a more forceful police presence on opening day. I argued yesterday that violence tends to follow whenever you have masses of people in tight cities and no authority with teeth. It was pointed out to me that this isn't the case in Japan. I conceded, though as was pointed out later, this lack of violence is somewhat dependent on the presence of a penis.  Nevertheless, I was slightly taken aback by the fact that many of us seem wholly unfamiliar with this sort of violence--directed at an authority figure, and undertaken by a group of teenagers. 


I don't know what was going through those kids minds. But I know that I used to be one of them.  When I was 14 years old my English teacher yelled at me in front of the class. I responded by threatening him. I was subsequently arrested for assault, suspended and almost thrown out school. (You can read the long version here.) Like most of the boys I went to school with, I was obsessed with rather hollow notions of "respect" and saving face. I was not--by any measure--a tough guy. But this made things worse. At any rate, I deserved everything I got. You can't go around threatening teachers. Or people.

I have talked at great length--book-length even--about what leads teenage boys (and even adult men) to violence. I don't want to repeat it. But suffice to say violence, in my urban experience, is a constant possibility. To a large degree, my job as a father involves teaching my son how to negotiate violence--how to keep his head on a swivel, how to walk the other way when the crowd forms, how to talk to the police, how not to escalate, how to productively deal with his anger and so on. Cities are filled with young boys who have no such instruction, and even those of us who get it are very apt to ignore it.

This bit of testimony from my home-town was all too familiar:

I worked as a lifeguard in the Baltimore City pools when I was a teen. The job was in many cases more security guard than life guard. At my home pool one of the few things I saw someone get fired for was not jumping in when another pool attendant was getting beat up. I recall once getting shipped to a neighborhood pool that wasn't my own because it was understaffed that day and the pool manager's orientation for me was, "don't take anything you value out on the deck if you want to take it home with you tonight." The first, and really only, time I recall a guard having to do full on CPR was after a fight that started at the pool ended in gunshots.It was't like that at every pool I visited though. 

Plenty of pools that I temped at were reasonably well run. Ultimately being a lifeguard doesn't automatically grant you authority figure status. In most cases it came down to who the senior managers were at the pools. Pools where the pool managers and the lifeguards who worked with them understood and respected the neighborhoods they worked in had a pretty good chance of receiving a commensurate level of respect from their patrons. But any time I ended up at a pool where the pool managers had a "these kids are crazy" or "because I said so" kind of attitude, I knew I was in for a long day.

This is the world a lot of us (though not all of us) live in. For the most part, I think the people who run this city know what can happen here. They got caught off-guard once. Hopefully it won't happen again.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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