Joining the Army would be safer than staying in West Philadelphia.
Or so Ashley Beasley believes. Her neighborhood has a rich musical past and is home to some of the city’s best parks, but it has also struggled with violence and unemployment. The 16-year-old is an 11th-grader at a Philadelphia charter school. She’s also enrolled in community college classes to boost her chances of getting into a college out of state, or at least out of the city where she was born.
“But if I get stuck here or if I don’t get into a good college, I might join the Army … It’s dangerous here,” she said, standing outside a classroom at the Community College of Philadelphia as the Democratic convention began just over a mile away downtown. “Every minute somebody’s getting shot.”
Though violent crime has fallen sharply over the past two decades, the risk of getting shot remains exceptionally high — compared to the population at large — in neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and parts of dozens of other large American cities. Homicides, mostly committed with guns, have surged over the last year in many of these places.
Teenagers like Beasley say that the last thing they need to worry about is getting shot by someone who is supposedly there to protect them. But this, they say, is also part of their reality.
This summer, high-profile police shootings of black men became a common occurrence. Last week, a teenager with a BB gun was shot by police in Columbus, Ohio. Soon after, police in Tulsa, Okla. shot and killed a man who had his hands over his head. In Charlotte, N.C., a wave of protests has followed the police shooting of another black man outside an apartment complex.
The shootings have become fodder for presidential politics, with Republican nominee Donald Trump dubbing himself the “law and order” candidate and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton embracing victims’ families after walking back her original support for her husband’s controversial 1994 Crime Bill.
Young people in places hit hardest by the police-involved violence have their own takes about its roots, what to do about it and how it’s affecting their lives.
Cleveland drew national attention in 2014 when police shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who had a fake gun tucked into his waistband. The incident, along with other high-profile shootings of black males by police officers, left a mark on Cleveland teens.
In the week following the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile shootings in July, a group of students at Cleveland’s MC2 STEM High School debated how safe they felt leaving the house. As a discussion with a reporter about Cleveland schools turned to another issue weighing on students’ minds, one said he refused to live in fear, but others said the risk of getting shot is on their minds every time they go outside.
“For you actually to go outside and start shaking … that is sad,” said Mecca Primm, 17, a junior. “I don’t want to cash my life check at a young age.”
Senior Eric Brown, 17, agreed. “After Tamir Rice, after Ferguson, I felt like, I’m just not safe here,” he said. “It was the feeling like you’re getting knocked down. You know there’s another punch coming. You know that. Even though you’ve already lost the fight, you know that you’re still about to catch one.”
But Brown, and several of his peers, said the worst part wasn’t their own personal fears — it was worrying about what might happen to family members and how concerned their parents were for them.
“Every time we leave the house … there’s like 10 to 15 calls from my mom every two minutes because she’s just worried,” Brown said. “You shouldn’t always be that stressed out about your kids. I know there are people out there with lighter skin than mine who don’t ever worry about where their kids are because they know they’re safe wherever they are.”
Darrius Smiley, 17, lives in one of the remaining units of the once infamous, now mostly torn down Cabrini-Green housing project on Chicago’s near north side. The 11th-grader says the local officers know him and his friends on sight — their full names, their addresses.
“The police will bother you for nothing,” Smiley said. “They will bother you for walking down the street.”
Beyond the examples of black men being killed by police that he hears about in his neighborhood or in the media, these frequent stops leave Smiley distrustful of the police as a source of help and protection. While officers seem to be available to stop and search kids on their way home, Smiley says when someone gets shot, the authorities don’t show up until hours later.
“I go out and I gotta look to my left and my right,” Smiley said. “I don’t trust who’s behind me or in front of me and the police ain’t going to help me. I’m a black, young brother. Really, I’m my own man.”
Across town, Isaiah Montes, a 19-year-old student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has become a regular protester against police brutality, joining rallies in the name of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and others. Montes grew up on the south side, a part of the city known for its concentrated poverty and frequent shootings.
His distrust of police began in elementary school, when he witnessed a police officer pull his mother out of their car by her hair because the officer was looking for a robbery suspect. Montes can point to examples of good police officers he has come into contact with since then, so he doesn’t want to make generalizations about the field, but he says even the good ones should be held accountable for the violence that has inspired him to protest.
“I completely respect those that go into the job with the intention to protect and serve,” Montes said. But he adds that good officers who refuse to break a “code of silence” around the questionable or downright illegal actions of colleagues are complicit in the violence.
Police brutality in Baltimore garnered national attention after the popular television series “The Wire” aired on HBO more than a decade ago, but longtime residents say they haven’t seen much change since then. Last year, the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the police reignited long-simmering tensions as protests rocked the city.
After the July shootings of Sterling and Castile, middle school teachers in Baltimore’s summer school program held an assembly and asked students to write down their reactions.
“The officer who shot him probably won’t get punished because they never do,” wrote Tiera Shivers.
“Police shoot black people for nothing,” wrote Darius Johnson. “They only kill us because of our skin color and our race. Black people never get to have peace.”
A sense of helplessness ran throughout many of the essays.
“I feel completely outraged that something this tragic is happening all over America,” wrote Jayson Jenkins, “and we are powerless to stop the ones who are supposed to help and protect people like us.”
“The shootings that took place broke my heart,” wrote Ashley Pettis. “I think that just because you’re a minority doesn’t mean you are less of a life. It’s something that our grandparents fought for, and it’s like history repeating itself.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
[Photo: AP Photo/David Goldman]