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Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2007

Personal Loss

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When one of Milwaukee’s violent street shootings touches someone we know personally, that doesn’t make it any more tragic than the 120 or so homicides every year that involve people we don’t know.

But, for a brief time at least, we share some of the pain and trauma created by every one of those sudden, violent deaths that today’s news media treat as routine, even expected.

I was returning from New Orleans when I learned that Christopher Roberson, the son of Cassandra, my broadcast partner on 1290 WMCS-AM, had been shot to death and left on a Milwaukee street.

I had been broadcasting about the continuing neglect of African-American neighborhoods in New Orleans that bore the brunt of government’s failure to protect citizens from the ravages of Katrina.

I immediately was plunged into the parallel tragedy of government’s failure to protect African-American neighborhoods in my own city from the ravages of street violence. And, no, I’m not calling for more police officers, the simple-minded, superficial response of most politicians.

As anyone who knows her would expect, Cassandra herself, during one of the hardest times in her life, tried to focus the public discussion following the death of her son on the need for personal responsibility and community action.

She called our show to thank the community for the overwhelming outpouring of love, prayers and condolences her family had received in the wake of the tragedy. But she asked for community prayers as well for the families of those who had committed the violent crime that took her son’s life.

As painful as it was for her to receive the phone call from police at 3:30 in the morning, she said, her heart also went out to any mother who had to receive a phone call that her child had been arrested for committing such an act.

At that time, no one was in custody. But nobody was surprised when a few days later a 17-year-old and two 18-year-olds were charged with shooting Christopher during a robbery.

“I knew it!” said Congresswoman Gwen Moore, who was on the air with me when news of the arrests came through. Moore said earlier she knew exactly who would be arrested—young men who had lost all hope of achieving anything beyond the streets.

“They’re just babies!” Cassandra told me later. She felt Christopher, at 29, with three young children and another on the way, was just a baby himself. His life had been ended as it was just starting. Now, the lives of three teenagers were essentially over as well.

Community Responsibility

Make no mistake about it, violent, young criminals who aren’t killed violently themselves go to prison for a long, long time. The criminal justice system is very good at fasttracking African Americans into prison, usually for the rest of their lives.

As Eric Von, another WMCS colleague, asked at Christopher’s funeral, who is left in the community to teach young black boys what it means to be a man when so many black males are either killed or incarcerated?

Christopher Roberson was an example of a young, black man who was taking responsibility. He worked at multiple jobs and was there for his own son and all the women in their lives, including his two daughters, his wife, his mother and his grandmother.

He had the support of a loving family with strong values. For all the young men in the community who have never had any support system, we have to find some way to create the stability and hope for them that Christopher had in his life.

That can only happen if community leaders pour enormous resources into making the machinery of education and job creation work as surely and efficiently as the machinery of incarceration. We also have to get serious about removing deadly weapons from our streets. We know how little privacy anyone has in an age when government can monitor private telephone conversations whenever it wants to target a politically controversial alderman.

The only possible reason for government to allow illegal guns to proliferate unchecked in our most violent neighborhoods is the lack of any real desire to stop it. Our politicians can’t wait to set up minute-by-minute surveillance of pathetic sexual misfits for the rest of their lives, but they have so little interest in keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous criminals that they issue hunting licenses to violent felons.

A repeated emotional plea from Christopher’s friends at his funeral was for members of the community to intervene themselves in the lives of young, black men to stop the killing on our streets.

Nothing will be done to stop the wholesale killing of young, black men in our community until we all take the loss of young men like Christopher Roberson personally, whether we know them or not.