D.C. victims do better than get even with vandals

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, May 19, 2010; B01

The code of the street called for payback.

When vandals trashed the Benning Terrace Soldiers youth football team headquarters in Southeast Washington on May 7, even some parents began expressing a desire to mete out vigilante justice.

What happened instead was . . . well, nothing short of astounding. Team members came through the ordeal with only feelings of gratitude -- for one another as well as for the outpouring of support from people throughout the Washington area. Retaliation was but a fleeting thought.

Efforts are underway to replace uniforms that were stolen and computers and trophies that were destroyed. The team van was trashed, the tires slashed. But hopes are high that it can be repaired.

"We're not sure why anybody would do something like that, but we're not worried," Delonte Hunter, 16, a student at the Friendship Collegiate Academy and a Soldiers running back, told me. "The main thing for us is sticking together, helping each other get through the healing process and moving on."

Charles Penny, executive director of the group, called the act of vandalism a "cry for help" and vowed to heed that call if the culprit came forth. In an urban culture where thoughtfulness and self-restraint too often lose out to mindless rage and revenge, the Benning Terrace players and coaches have chalked up a moral victory that surpasses anything they could ever accomplish on the gridiron.

And they are not alone.

Last summer, vandals struck at another highly regarded after-school enrichment program, Life Pieces to Masterpieces, at Merritt Middle School in Northeast. About 200 African American boys and young adults are learning to become gentlemen, scholars, athletes and artists.

Andre Johnson, 18, was among the first to arrive on the scene that day in August to find the group's paintings and drawings ripped from the walls and defaced with spray paint; food and appliances were destroyed and strewn about the floor.

"There was a lot of anger at first, but we made a decision to turn the negative into a positive," said Andre, who graduates from McKinley Technology High next month and will attend college in the fall. "We formed a healing circle and meditated on the issue. We vowed to love our enemies and focused on sympathizing with the perpetrators and the kind of pain they must have been in to do something so vile."

Mary Brown, co-founder and executive director, put it this way: "Everything we teach about love and compassion had to be put into practice." Sure enough, out of the destruction came an extraordinary burst of creativity.

Artists in the program, who range in age from 3 to 21, gathered up the ripped pieces of art and sewed them into a canvas mural they titled "Renewal." It was digitally photographed, enlarged and put on permanent display at the public library on Benning Road NE.

"We learn how to forgive," Andre told me.

Delonte said: "We learned to trust one another. There is no 'I' in team."

In the District -- and the suburbs, too -- it is not uncommon for some miscreant to break a school window or mar the walls with graffiti. But attacks on youth development groups that impart such wisdom go far beyond anything that could be labeled simply vandalism.

A more apt description would be domestic terrorism, demoralizing acts aimed at perpetuating a culture of chaos, where academic excellence remains anathema, unemployment accepted as a norm and prison but a rite of passage.

Any insistence on self-discipline, accountability and responsible behavior meets with resistance.

John L. Johnson, professor emeritus of education at the University of the District of Columbia and an expert in conflict resolution, thinks that the root of the problem is "internalized oppression" -- in this case, young black males who have adopted society's view of themselves as worthless.

It is a great paradox that such people can be so hellbent on undermining any effort to save them.

"We have a saying, 'Hurt people hurt people,' " said Rico Rush, president of the Alliance of Concerned Men, which helped negotiate a truce between warring gangs in the Benning Terrace area.

That is the cycle of violence in a nutshell.

But hurts can be healed and the cycle broken.

Life Pieces to Masterpieces and the Benning Terrace Soldiers are showing how it's done.

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