Story of a thesis (Part III)

As I told you last time, there are several social network — that could come to be one big social network — in Baltimore where crime is not a rarity and where deaths from homicides are common. I don’t know about you, but I can count on one hand how many friends and acquaintances I’ve lost to gun violence. Some of the kids in those networks have lost way more friends and acquaintances than I could ever imagine.

This all got me wondering about those kids. What kind of things go through their mind when they see a friend of acquaintance get gunned down?

I asked this today to a very bright professor who is visiting the school of public health. She explained very clearly that the micro and macro culture of the young men in Baltimore has normalized violence to them. They have been convinced that to be a man they need to be tough, they need to make money in any way they can, they need to defend their turf, and they need to react to conflict in the most brutal way possible. In essence, they’ve pretty much lost their humanity.

The professor was right in stating that people who are humane don’t do inhumane things to other people, and they don’t tolerate inhumanity. Whether it was seeing violence day after day, not having a role model to be an example of holding on to humanity, or whatever else… These young men are not seeing violence as an aberration, which is the way that I see it. They see it as part of being a man and growing up into being a man in Baltimore.

A friend recently wrote on his blog that he had come to understand an extremely hateful anti-vaccine person. The anti-vaccine person in question had recently lost two immediate family members to protracted diseases, so they had come to see vaccines as a symbol of the medical establishment that had failed their loved ones. The person then engaged in some vile attacks on science-oriented people. My friend wanted to find something to fight back, something personal. Instead, he found out the reason why that person was so angry. In doing so, my friend wrote, he came to love that person.

That’s the thing about seeing these stories come out of Baltimore almost every day. You see the social media postings of these otherwise very “macho” young men where they state that they have been crying for their fallen friends. Or they post pictures of their friends with halos and wings… Or pictures of them embracing each other. Those times of grief seem to be the only times when they show their humanity, their “soft” side.

Let me tell you about a group of kids.

In Baltimore, the word “lor” is a local word used instead of “lil”, which is in itself a diminutive of the word “little.” So a kid calling himself “Lor Ren” is just calling himself “Little Ren.” Get it?

“Lor A” (not his actual nickname) was 16 years old and, by some measure, a somewhat successful rapper among his peers. He had a good grasp of language and how to use it to a beat to convey ideas. He could have been a poet, writer, etc. Instead, on an afternoon in January, he decided that he was going to make a music video in the hallway of his apartment building. One prop he decided to use was a live gun. Lor A shot himself accidentally, dying in that hallway.

Initially, the Baltimore Police Department treated it as a shooting. Once the actual mode of his death was discovered, they pretty much let it go. Lor A’s death doesn’t “count” as far as most public sources of data are concerned. He’s just an unfortunate kid who played with a deadly weapon. In a vacuum, this incident alone would have been a pretty good warning to kids that guns are meant to be handled by adults, well-trained adults. But Lor A was just one of several Lors I’d come to know — and understand — in the last few months.

Lor A, per his social network accounts, was friends with “Lor B.” Lor B was the brother of “Lor C.” Lor C was stabbed multiple times while sitting in his classroom at a charter school. He died a few days later from his injuries. Lor C’s assailant was another kid who had a beef with Lor C. The only way to solve it, in that kid’s mind, was to go into the classroom and brutally stab Lor C several times in front of horrified students and the teacher. The assailant would later be arrested at his home.

Lor A and Lor C both attended the same charter school. In this narrative, Lor C was stabbed in November, Lor A shot himself in January. Come February, Lor D, another student at that charter school, was shot death. In three months, that school had lost three students, two to gun violence. A week before Lor D was killed, a friend of his (“Lor E”) was shot dead as well. Lor E was a bit older, but he was friends with Lor D.

Going back a few years, Lor A had two-degree social network contact killed in Washington, DC. Lor A’s Instagram account and Facebook account both show a lot of pictures of fallen friends. They’re all acting tough for the camera, holding booze or cigars or money while giving gang signs with their hands. Between Lor A to Lor E, only Lor B is left alive, and he shows signs of being involved in troubling activities.

The thing is, Lor B is slightly older than the others, out of high school and likely too old to qualify for any of the intervention programs available to Baltimore youth. I looked around at different violence prevention programs, and none really covered young men his age except for government employment programs and, naturally, the prison system. In essence, Lor B is on his own, and having a job may not be enough to protect him from violence if he lives in a “bad” neighborhood or runs with the “wrong” crowd.

Worse yet if all of this violence has stolen his humanity.

So the final aim of my thesis will be to look at existing interventions and evaluate their cost-effectiveness. I’m looking to answer a big question: How much of an impact in the number of violent events have these interventions made? If you look at the overall picture of violence in Baltimore, the answer is, “Not that much.” But these programs are not operating all over the city, and there is little data on what their catchment areas are like now that those programs are there.

Once I assess this, I plan to fit in the stories of the different “Lors” into the narrative of these programs, perhaps even using some mixed methodology to ask the administrators and workers in these programs how they would address the situation of Lor B. Chief among my questions is whether or not they would wait for Lor B to make his move or if they would go to him and offer help given all he has seen around him.

It’s probably going to be tougher than I think it is. But I don’t do things because they’re easy.

I’ll tell you more about those programs next time.

There are five parts to this story, by the way:

Part I is here.
Part II is here.
You are reading Part III.
Part IV will be here.

I'm a doctoral candidate in the Doctor of Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. All opinions posted here are my own, of course, and they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my school, employers, friends, family, etc. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen