Amid Violence, Chicago Parents Try To Inoculate Their Sons Against Fear

Dec 10, 2015
Originally published on December 10, 2015 4:16 pm

The protests in Chicago have been mostly peaceful. But it's not just about police. This is all happening against a backdrop of gang violence, including the recent killing of a 9-year-old boy who police say was apparently targeted because of his father's alleged gang ties.

These incidents are forcing difficult conversations between parents and kids. And for African-American families, the conversation hits close to home.

How do you talk about what's happening? How do you reassure your kids? And how do you keep them safe? We visited with two families at the beginning and end of a busy school day to find out.

Our first stop: the neighborhood of West Chatham on Chicago's South Side. That's where we met the Johnson family.

It's 6:45 a.m., and Shango Johnson is waking up his 9-year-old son, Brendan.

With his long dreadlocks, high cheekbones, and quick movements, Shango Johnson is catlike as he moves up and down the stairs.

He and his wife, Karen, start breakfast and their son, Brendan, comes down to the kitchen — unfazed by early-morning visitors. He's in third grade at the Montessori School of Englewood.

Brendan shows us his drawings on the refrigerator — Goldilocks and the three bears — then heads to the family room to turn on the TV.

His mother makes sure he watches kid shows — not the news.

"We generally will wake up, turn on the news, see the first beginning of the news and then turn it off. It gets so depressing. It's just been bombarded with everything that goes on in our city," Karen says.

But even that doesn't mean she can escape news of violence. Last month in Chicago, a 9-year-old named Tyshawn Lee was shot to death. The boy's body was found in an alley the next neighborhood over.

"Brendan was in the car with me and he heard the story and he was asking, 'Why would that happen? Who would do that to a child?' And we just tried to explain to him that there are crazy people in the world. That to me, people have no regard for life anymore," Karen says.

Over the next few weeks, news reports implicated gang members. Police alleged the victim's father had gang ties.

Shango worries his son will start to think that somehow Tyshawn Lee wasn't so much a victim as a casualty of the violence people have come to expect from certain neighborhoods.

"We got so much on TV about violence and stuff, you know, my son may go to look at it that he died because of this, he died because of that. Nah, he's 9 years old. He shouldn't have died, period," Shango says.

When Brendan asked to go to the prayer vigil for Tyshawn, his mother said no.

But as she drove through the neighborhood, Karen says, she found herself taking her son on an inadvertent tour of the dead boy's life.

There was Tyshawn's elementary school. There's the street corner near the alley where he was killed. A few blocks down, the church that held his funeral.

Is a mother ever ready to have this conversation with her child, explaining a senseless death?

"Yeah, I don't want to say its the norm but it kind of is. We used to live in Englewood. We recently moved this past summer so with the violence being so bad how it is in Englewood we would be just driving, and my son would see yellow tape and it could be the construction tape [but] he would automatically think, 'Oh my God, someone has been killed.' So it's like he's almost used to the violence going on in our community," Karen says.

How does she explain the kind of imagery you see in videos of police violence, like with Laquan McDonald? Or does she try to keep it from her young son?

"I would tell him, 'I'd prefer for you not to watch it,' because I don't want it to be embedded in his mind. I don't want to replay that scene over and over again," Karen says.

Our conversation ends there because it's time to go to school.

Later that day, after school, we visit the Beasons.

They live just 7 miles away from the Johnsons in West Pullman, but it might as well be a different Chicago. The street is whisper quiet, with holiday decorations twinkling in front of their home.

The house is warm and smells like chopped peppers — Jacinda Beason is preparing chicken chili for her husband, Dave, and their three sons.

Malcolm is 17, with the broad shoulders of a football player. He plays for Lindblom, a selective public math and science academy. His 15-year-old brother, Matthew, attends as well.

Matthew's black sweatshirt says "CAUTION: Educated Black Man" and at 6 feet, 2 inches he's the tallest of the brothers, polite and soft-spoken.

The youngest is Marcus. He's 12 going on 13 — we're crashing his birthday dinner, so tonight, he's the center of attention.

Jacinda and Dave say these dinners are where whatever the kids are thinking — about gang violence in the news, about police shooting videos — gets hashed out.

"Our conversations have been, what do you do when you're not a gang banger? You're going to school and doing everything that you're supposed to do. And yet, I still have to prepare my sons — Malcolm, remember when you drive over to Lindblom, remember that that's three black men in a minivan. I don't like having that conversation. But if I don't prepare him to possibly get pulled over, and what you're supposed to do and what you're not supposed to do, and just reiterate that, I would worry," Jacinda says.

She says the conversations they have the most are about what kind of man their boys will grow up to be — and they've taught them four principles to help on that journey.

Marcus knows them all.

"Men of God, men who can think for themselves, a leader not a follower, know right from wrong," he says.

This is how Dave fortifies his sons. They don't want them to feel helpless. For example, they've discussed plans to march in the protests downtown over police-involved shootings in Chicago.

Jacinda says that's because they want their sons to look for solutions.

But her husband knows not everyone in Chicago sees the protests the same way. He has experienced that firsthand — with a colleague at work.

"He was upset about the protests that was happening. And he said the officer had the right to shoot him. 'Mr. McDonald,' I said to him, 'You don't have to worry about an officer killing your son when he goes out of the house. That is a concern, a real concern, in my family.' I don't know if he understood that," Dave says.

Even as they acknowledged the city's problems, Jacinda lists the things they love about Chicago: the museums, their church, their schools. They believe they've built a safe haven for their kids that can withstand the negative headlines.

Dave says it sounds corny, but that he's happy his sons still play Monopoly, have snowball fights and celebrate birthdays with quiet dinners at home.

And faced with the unpredictable — whether a random shooting, or a dangerous encounter with the police — the Beasons carry on.

"You can't go around being afraid. You can't. That's no life. So we pray before we leave, walk out these doors, ask God to help us be an example for his people, ask for protection, and then we live our lives," Dave says.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The protests in Chicago have been mostly peaceful. But this is not just about police. This is all happening against a backdrop of gang violence. These incidents are forcing difficult conversations between parents and kids. And for African-American families, the conversation hits close to home. How do you talk about what's happening? How do you reassure your kids? How do you keep them safe? We visited two families at the beginning and end of a busy school day. Our first stop - the neighborhood of Chatham on Chicago's South Side. That's where we meet the Johnson family. It's 6:45 a.m., and Shango Johnson wakes up his 9-year-old son Brendan.

SHANGO JOHNSON: Brendan, Brendan, rise and shine, Son, time to get up. Say your prayers, and get ready.

CORNISH: With his long dreadlocks, high cheekbones and quick movements, Shango Johnson is catlike as he moves up and down the stairs. He and his wife, Karen, start breakfast - sausage, eggs, waffles. Their son Brendan comes down to the kitchen, unfazed by early morning visitors.

Brendan, it's nice to meet you.

BRENDAN JOHNSON: Nice to meet you, Audie.

CORNISH: He's in the third grade at the Montessori School of Englewood. Brendan shows me his drawings on the refrigerator.

BRENDAN: This is Goldilocks. This is Poppa Bear, Baby Bear and Mama Bear.

CORNISH: Then heads to the family room to turn on the TV - kids shows. No news, says his mother.

K. JOHNSON: We generally - it's our - wake up and turn on the news, see the first beginning of the news and then turn it off. It gets so depressing. You know, it's just been bombarded with everything that goes on in our city.

CORNISH: But that doesn't mean she can escape news of violence. Last month in Chicago, a 9-year-old named Tyshawn Lee was shot to death. The boy's body was found in an alley the next neighborhood over.

JOHNSON: Brendan was in the car with me, and he heard the story. And he was asking, like, why did that happen, and who would do that to a child? And you know, we just tried to explain to him that there are crazy people in the world, you know, that they just - to me, I think people have no regard for life anymore.

CORNISH: Over the next few weeks, news reports implicated gang members. Police alleged the victim's father had gang ties. Shango Johnson worried his son would start to think that somehow Tyshawn Lee wasn't so much a victim but a casualty of violence people have come to expect from certain neighborhoods.

S. JOHNSON: We got so much on TV about violence and stuff. You know, my son may go to look at it that he died because of this; he died because of that. No, he's 9-years-old. He shouldn't have died, period.

CORNISH: When Brendan Johnson asked to go to the prayer vigil for Lee, his mother said no. But as she drove through the neighborhood, Karen Johnson says she found herself taking her son on an inadvertent tour of the dead boy's life. Here was Tyshawn Lee's elementary school. There's the street corner near the alley where he was killed - a few blocks down, the church that held his funeral.

Were you ready to have this conversation with your child - like, how to explain a senseless death, right? It's not an older relative dying.

JOHNSON: Right.

CORNISH: It's not someone being sick. You're explaining something very specific.

JOHNSON: Yeah. I don't want to say it's the norm, but it kind of is 'cause I would say we used to live in Englewood. We just recently moved and bought this house this past summer. So with the violence being so bad how it is in Englewood, we would be just driving, and my son would see yellow tape. And it could be the construction tape. He would automatically think, oh, my God, someone has been killed. So it's like he's almost just used to the violence that's going on, you know, in our community.

CORNISH: Similarly, with the videos of police violence of Laquan McDonald, with video, that means that there's just, like, this imagery all the time. How do you explain that, and how do you keep it from him? Do you try?

JOHNSON: I would tell him, like, I'd prefer for you not to watch it because I don't want it to be embedded in his mind. I don't want him to replay that scene over and over again.

CORNISH: Our conversation ends there because it's time to go to school.

Later that day, we visit the Beasons. They live just seven miles away from the Johnsons in the neighborhood of West Pullman, but it might as well be a different Chicago. The street is whisper quiet with holiday decorations twinkling in front of their home.

JACINDA BEASON: Hello.

CORNISH: Hello.

The house is warm and smelled like chopped peppers.

J. BEASON: You got the cheese, Malcolm?

CORNISH: Jacinda Beason is preparing chicken chili for her husband, Dave, and their three sons. Malcolm is 17 with the broad shoulders of a football player. He plays for Lindblom, a selective public math and science academy. His 15-year-old brother, Matthew, plays football and attends the school as well. Matthew's black sweatshirt says, caution, educated black man. And at 6'2", he's the tallest of the brothers - polite and soft-spoken. The youngest is Marcus. He's 12, going on 13. We're actually crashing his birthday dinner. So tonight, he's the center of attention.

J. BEASON: So when is the science fair?

MARCUS BEASON: Tuesday.

DAVE BEASON: This Tuesday?

J. BEASON: This Tuesday? No, it's not, Marcus.

MARCUS: Yes, it is.

CORNISH: Jacinda and Dave Beason say they hash everything out over these dinners - whatever the kids are thinking, whether it's about school or gang violence in the news or about police shooting videos.

J. BEASON: Our conversations have been, what do you do when you're not a gang banger. You're going to school and doing everything that you're supposed to do. And yet, I still have to prepare my sons - Malcolm, when you drive over to Lindblom, remember that, you know, it's three black men in a minivan. I don't like having that conversation. But if I don't prepare him to possibly get pulled over and what you're supposed to do and what you're not supposed to do and just reiterate that, I would worry.

So the conversations that we have the most is, who are you going to be? How are you going to represent yourself? What type of man do you want to be? And Dave can speak to that with those principles. Dave, what are the principles? I always forget.

D. BEASON: Thank you, yes. What are the four principles?

CORNISH: This is where young Marcus jumps in.

MARCUS: Men of God.

D. BEASON: Number one.

MARCUS: Men who can think for themselves.

D. BEASON: Two.

MARCUS: Leader, not a follower.

D. BEASON: Three.

MARCUS: Know right from wrong.

D. BEASON: Four. Very good.

CORNISH: This is how Dave Beason fortifies his sons. They don't want them to feel helpless. For example, they've discussed plans to march in the protests downtown over police-involved shooting in Chicago. Jacinda Beason says that's because they want their sons to look for solutions. But her husband knows not everyone in Chicago sees the protest the same way. He's experienced that firsthand with a colleague at work.

D. BEASON: He was upset about the protests that were happening. And he said, you know, the officer had the right to shoot him. I said to him, you don't have to worry about an officer killing your son when he goes out of your house. That is a concern, a real concern for me and my family. I don't know if he understood that.

CORNISH: Even as they acknowledged the city's problems, Jacinda Beason lists the things they love about Chicago - the museums, their church, their schools. They believe they've built a safe haven for their kids that can withstand the negative headlines. Dave Beason says it sounds corny, but he's happy his sons still play Monopoly, have snowball fights and celebrate birthdays with quiet dinners at home.

D. BEASON: (Singing) Happy birthday to you.

MARCUS: Hey.

D. BEASON: (Singing) Happy birthday.

J. BEASON: OK, blow it; blow it; come on.

CORNISH: And faced with the unpredictable, whether a random shooting or a dangerous encounter with the police, the Beasons carry on.

D. BEASON: You can't go around being afraid. You can't. That's no life. So we pray before we leave. We walk out these doors, and we ask God to help us be an example to his people. And then we ask for protection, and we live our lives. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.