At a hearing on why kids throw stones at Metro buses, no one spoke for the kids


Community members want a show of force to stop bus vandalism. (Daniel C. Britt/The Washington Post)
Courtland Milloy
Columnist December 4, 2012

The first stone cast during Monday’s public hearing on rock throwing at Metro buses was aimed at the juvenile offenders.

“A lot of our youths have gone wild, and there is no way to deal with them,” said D.C. Council member Marion Barry, who represents neighborhoods in Southeast Washington where rock throwing has gotten out of hand.

Jackie Jeter, president of the local transit workers union, said that some youngsters were just “bad” and that the only way to stop their “war on buses” was a “show of force” by police.

The hearing drew about 100 residents, bus drivers and law enforcement officials. But no kids, for they would likely have thrown more stones at those who tried to put all the blame on them.

One resident, Larry Sternbane, noted that a walk from a bus stop to his home takes him past abandoned buildings and vacant lots with tall weeds. “Sometimes, I don’t feel safe,” he said.

Barry replied: “I wouldn’t feel safe, either.”

Nobody seemed to care that the kids actually lived in danger.

One of the buildings in the area had been home to several hundred families until it was emptied out and slated for renovation in 2008. So far, no work has begun. It just sits, a boarded-up eyesore, with kids left to think that they were kicked out for no reason other than to get rid of them.

“All the new development coming to Southeast has some residents feeling like the city is being cultivated for new residents and that the current residents have to go by any means necessary,” said the Rev. Alfred Harrison, who, with his wife, Claudia, founded the community service organization Angels of Hope Ministries.

The ministry is in the 2400 block of Elvans Road SE, where several buses have been struck by rocks. That’s also where the hearing was held.

“The young people have been trying to hang on, but they keep seeing their bit of turf slipping away,” he said. “Their schools closed, their apartment buildings torn down, their friends going into the penal system, others relocated to another county. It has a profound effect on them.”

The dislocation they feel can even be life-threatening in neighborhoods with long-standing turf rivalries, where transferring from one school to another can be traumatic, or worse.

“A central fact of life in this area is turf wars,” Harrison said. “You can’t have people from Wellington Park walking Stanton Oaks because they wouldn’t survive. Some of these disputes have been going on for more than 30 years, a mind-set passed down through generations. You can ask some of these youngsters what the ‘beef’ is all about, and they can’t tell you.”

Neighborhood destruction is nothing new in Washington; the massive displacement of low-income residents has long been a hallmark of urban renewal — some say urban removal — in the District. When large numbers of residents are forced from their homes, as has been occurring lately, relationships with family and friends suffer; social support systems fall apart.

Barry noted that the city had spent $29 million to renovate Turner Elementary School in Southeast, only to close the gymnasium two days after the grand opening because vandals kept breaking out the windows.

Anthony Lorenzo, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member in Southeast, called them “our misguided youth.”

Also misguided are plans to pump more resources into catching the vandals and so little into healing these wounded kids. It should come as no surprise that if a neighborhood gets a new rec center and a kid from another neighborhood is not allowed inside, that kid just might do something to mess up that new rec center.

Quick fixes just don’t work. As drivers rush to avoid getting pelted, a vicious cycle ensues. “I have seen bus drivers speeding through the neighborhood almost hit some kid who then picks up a rock and throws it at the bus,” Harrison said.

Residents complained that Metro Transit Police were not deploying resources effectively — spending too much time “posting up at the pancake house instead of posting up at the bus stops,” as Carolyn Mallory put it.

Bus drivers complained that both residents and Metro management were insensitive to risks they faced — and if the rock throwing didn’t stop, they’d just stop driving those routes.

Before the hearing even began, their bosses at Metro had pulled a proposal to curtail routes to neighborhoods served by the W6 and W8 buses. Maybe enlightened public policy is possible in the area, after all.

“We cannot take any more violence,” Jeter, the transit union president, said once the hearing began.

The kids surely could have said the same thing. But while bus drivers could threaten to curtail service if their grievances weren’t addressed, the kids had no such recourse.

Only stones.

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