How did this even happen, where the zoo became the nightclub of Easter Monday?
That’s the question that Ron Moten, community activist and founder of Peaceaholics found himself answering in a conference room in Woodley Park earlier this week.
After a shooting marred events at the National Zoo the day after Easter, there was a marginal panic. Some people wanted to shut the event down, saying that it has outgrown its usefulness.
But ending the event typically geared toward black families and youth at the zoo would be the worst possible reaction to the violence. Why? Because the lack of constructive community events and traditions is what causes problems like this to begin with.
Kids with nowhere to go and nothing to do will eventually put their hands on each other in one way or another.
“There is nowhere for a young person to go Easter week and Monday to have fun. Everybody used to do stuff for youth. That doesn’t exist anymore,” Moten said in a phone conversation Friday. “So, the zoo has become the network, the social club, for young people. So, instead of young people going to venues, and places of fun that we had the opportunity to go to, instead of fixing them, we shut it down. So, they go to the zoo.”
And it’s a responsibility that the National Zoo doesn’t shy away from. Officials understand that violence between young people is not going to be fixed with one directive. But it doesn’t mean they can’t try.
“We’re a zoo. And a conservation education organization. Education is our mission. So we attract, we handle thousands of schoolkids and we have all kinds of programs that go right up to professional training programs,” Pamela Baker-Masson, director of communications at Smithsonian Institution, National Zoo, said Friday. “Are we resourced and are we able to reach the community in new and different ways? I think that’s what we have to figure out.”
It’s more than just a high-minded academic approach. It’s a real-life on the ground issue that requires involvement from everyone, not just law enforcement.
“Constructively, we can create atmosphere where youth can be youth, and make it safe. But it just ain’t gonna be the police, Moten said. Because they don’t care about the police. A young guy that’s coming from one of these neighborhoods in Maryland or Kenilworth, who ain’t got nothing, their mother and got nothing and they just see themselves being pushed out of the city and nobody cares? They don’t care about no police,” “They care about people who love them. They care about people who open their eyes.”
For all the YouTube videos of kids fighting in the streets that commenters use as fodder to insult teenagers, there are plenty who are just trying to be kids. I know the feeling of wandering the city, trying to figure out who you and where you belong. And at the same time do it with your friends. Mix in an increasingly divided society, socio-economically, and the result is what you get Easter week.
Instead of creating more security theater, consider the actual people right in front of you. When the problems of the less advantaged spill over into the backyards and playplaces of the haves, only then are they viewed as important. After all, they are the future of this city. They are, in fact, ever-present.
It’s a willful ignorance that an increasingly high percentage of Washingtonians have the privilege to enjoy.
Until that’s something all residents are willing to admit, native or transplant, the situation will only get worse.
“We gotta get back in the business of loving children, more than we love cranes,” Moten lamented Friday.
“When children are not allowed to network and be children, then that takes away from their growth. Being able to operate in public in a normal way. In a way that’s humanized, is something that we have to teach our children. And if we can’t teach them that, they become animals. And they become the types of people that need to be in cages, at the zoo. And that’s what we’re trying to prevent,” he said.
Because right now, not only do we not know why the caged bird sings – many of us don’t care.