Almost immediately after the road was blocked off to shield the scene where their young bodies lay, people began making excuses.
“That’s South Sac for you.”
“Why weren’t they in school?”
I was en route to the Sacramento City Unified School district office where I’m employed in early education, when I stopped for gas at the intersection of the crime scene and began to pick up pieces of the story from nearby onlookers.
At the time, several hours had passed and the bodies still lay on the asphalt, uncovered. This added insult to an already deep injury between authorities and residents, as it appeared to many that even the dead were not treated with decency. “They’re wrong for that,” The cashier commented, shaking her head.
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The boys were 15 and 19 years old.
They were brothers. The eldest one was expecting a child and had just celebrated a baby shower.
They were gunned down in broad daylight.
As family members began to gather, and media descended upon the street, my thoughts turned first to the mother of the deceased and then to the boys themselves.
As the mother of a young adult and two adolescent sons, I feel innately protective over the manner in which children of color are portrayed in the aftermath of a tragedy.
As an educator in the neighborhood where the boys lived and attended school, I’m painfully aware of the ways in which people — particularly those who reside outside of South Sac — attempt to frame these incidents in order to justify their frequent occurrence.
Yes, suburban Sacramento, I see you.
I work among you.
My children attend school with your children.
I sit beside you on the bleachers at little league games as you casually discuss events such as these, pausing to sip lattes while carefully choosing words that ultimately convey the same underlying message: It’s a shame that “those” areas are getting so bad.
Good thing the freeways provide some semblance of a safety barrier.
Good thing our schools have yet to be afflicted by students who are grieving over classmates lost to violence.
In the end, the comment section in my news feed always devolves into a debate about personal responsibility, parental failure, gang affiliation and school records.
In the end, the dead are left to face a public trial.
One that ruthlessly seeks to find character flaws in an effort to explain why they were denied the chance to live out their lives in safety and peace.
And those of us who are lucky enough to live in neighborhoods with tree-lined sidewalks free of clutter and chaos go back to our lives with little afterthought. It’s easy to look the other way when the children who are dying appear to be so different from your own.
If your concern for our youth stops at the perimeter of the neatly manicured soccer field your children compete on every weekend, I’m here to tell you that it’s time to wake up. In a world that is increasingly interconnected, we are naïve to think that the things that are occurring across town don’t affect our own well-being.
And that’s the most basic way of looking at it. On a human level, our hurt is a collective hurt. We are our brother’s and sister’s keepers. We are responsible for one another.
South Sacramento, with all its issues, is a microcosm of urban American as a whole.
In economically disinvested communities, opportunities and resources are largely out of reach. Over time, community instability grows and the effects trickle down to the families, particularly the youth. Symptoms of poverty manifest in countless problems such as disproportionate crime rates, gang activity and under-resourced schools.
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Within impoverished neighborhoods, parents often find themselves in a tug of war with the streets.
Incarceration, substance abuse, drugs and joblessness plague families and often leave youth searching for ways to make money in ways that further perpetrate the cycle.
Add easily accessible firearms to the situation and it makes for what can only be described as a war zone.
It’s comfortable for suburban America to look at the conundrum of inner cities and feel removed from the blatant display of turmoil within them. Arrests made on street corners, drug deals in parking lots, and yellow tape around crime scenes are visible for all to see.
The illness beneath the surface of suburban life is much more covert. But the ailments are well documented in the form of prescription drug abuse rates and opioid overdoses that disproportionately affect white youth.
Studies have shown that, on average, serious levels of depression, anxiety or somatic symptoms occur twice as often or more among children from middle class and affluent backgrounds, compared to national rates.
All of this translates to higher health care costs across the board, among other things. The public as a whole tends to overlook these issues until some well-dressed youth walks out of his gated community and shoots up a school, church or movie theater.
Or takes their life after relentless bullying. Or makes the news when given an offensively light prison term after committing a heinous crime.
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The problem remains this: We are failing our youth.
The solution must include a community response that crosses neighborhood borders and economic class. We are suffering as a nation because our youth are being written off by society as hopeless, worthless and expendable.
It’s going to take all of us to turn this around.
And my sense is that change will need to begin at a local level, as our current administration has repeatedly shown a disregard for programs and resources designed to help youth and families, particularly women.
Funding for after school programs is under attack, health care programs are being dismantled, and support for early childhood education is waning.
As a whole, the narrative in regards to families from men in power who claim to use Christian values as a measurement of ethics is clear: “You’re on your own.”
The establishment is not looking out for us. We must do this from the ground up. We are all so connected, yet we continue to see our problems as separate. They’re not.
The mother of the two slain boys works as a home care provider for elders, a field that is largely under-compensated and overworked. She was likely caring for the aging parents of affluent residents across the city as her children met their untimely end.
Our lives intersect in the quietest of ways.
When I was a college student on public aid, I began to realize how difficult it is to work in a job with an inflexible schedule and little sick leave while raising children. It was all I could do to plan dinner and stay on top of the laundry.
I lived in the Oak Park and Meadowview neighborhoods in South Sacramento and regularly saw problematic dynamics within the area, but I had no time to get involved in grass-roots efforts toward change. I hardly had time to tend to my children.
I bristle when people speak of these tragedies solely as a function of parental neglect. That assumption completely dismisses the fact that that there are a myriad of other issues directly affecting the well-being of our youth.
Parents often have little to no paid maternity leave or sick leave to even provide the most basic of care for their young. Our social safety net is fast disintegrating and Generation Y is the first generation that faces a future much dimmer than the one their parents looked forward to.
Social mobility, debt levels, higher education access and job prospects are all significantly worse than they were for previous generations.
As someone who works with families in these communities on a regular basis I can say that the majority of them want the same thing that the parents across town want: to raise their children in a safe and healthy environment, and to be able to adequately support them.
It’s going to take all of us. We owe it to each other.
If our national and local leaders would invest in proven pathways out of poverty, we would have the potential to radically diminish a wide variety of issues our youth face, including violence.
If we spent as much money offering opportunities to youth as we spend locking them up for minor offenses that further detract them from a productive future, we would see a positive impact across generations.
When our youth are presented with pathways to opportunity and are surrounded by caring communities, we give them an alternative to the hopelessness they currently face.
We are undermining our future.
They are an investment we cannot afford to pass up.
This essay originally appeared on Christina Martinez’s Medium page. She has given Voices: River City permission to share her words, and Crime Pays has given Voices permission to use their photography.