With a per capita violent crime rate seven times higher than the national average, Flint, Mich. consistently ranks as the most dangerous city in America.
It is easy to become desensitized to the grim statistics that come out of this formerly thriving industrial city of more than 100,000. But some stories really bring home the sadness of it all, like these headlines I read over the summer:
I couldn’t help but wonder why children, again and again, seemed to get wrapped up in such ugly tragedies. Already in 2013, more than 650 kids have become victims of crime in Flint, and more than 115 kids have been arrested, according to the City of Flint Police Department. Among the 115 arrested kids this year, more than 40 have been brought in for violent crimes, including murder, robbery and assault and battery.
I wanted to know, what is it that pushes some children, and not others, down a path of violence? What is it like to grow up in the murder capital of America?
Flint through a child's eyes
Weeds had pushed their way through long cracks on the concrete basketball court. Of the hoops that still had nets, almost all were in tatters. Warped and wilted rubber swings were hanging from rusty chains. No kid could ever sit on one. Someone had graffitied the sidewalk with “Thuglife.” Someone else had spray-painted commemorative messages for young people who lost their lives too soon: “R.I.P. Nino,” “R.I.P. Oatmeal.”
We took our cameras to a park on Flint’s south side to get a glimpse of a child’s life in the city. A group of four neighborhood boys between the ages of 9 and 14 seemed completely unphased by the depressing playground equipment as they giggled and hopped around on the slide, the one part of the jungle gym that was still suitable for child’s play.
Their game of tag ended abruptly when something more intriguing caught their eyes: our America Tonight crew and the chance to be on national television.
The group approached us with curiosity. At least one boy seemed to have hopes that an interview with us might make him famous. He quickly dashed home to the public housing complex across the street to change his shirt and grab some movie star sunglasses.
With their parents’ permission, I asked each child about their experience of crime in the neighborhood, and how kids their age get tangled up in it.
“It’s bad here,” said 9-year-old Brennen. “A lot of people don’t like it.”
Quayvon, 10, told us that avoiding conflict can be hard at times. “Sometimes people try to talk trash and I just – sometimes I ignore them, but sometimes I get angry and ready to fight. But not usually, not like all the time,” he said.
The oldest one of the group at 14, Devontea explained that kids become more violent in middle and high school. “They want to get all their reckless energy out, so a lot of people decide to do reckless things like fighting and everything,” he said. “I just choose to ignore that and stay away from the drama that comes along with it.”
Devontea said he managed to ignore the drama by sticking to the common sense his adoptive mother taught him.
“From a very young age, my mom gave me her clear definition of what was right and wrong and what she was expecting of me to do, and I pretty much follow that out of respect for all the things that’s she’s done for me,” he said. “What I say is don’t worry about what everyone else thinks of you. Your main important thing of what matters to you should be your opinion of you, your family’s opinion of you, and what God thinks of you, truly...People need to use their own morality to think about decisions before they make them.”
He added that his biggest fear is losing a family member to crime.
Flint in one word
Getting a sense of the entire city can be difficult. Some neighborhoods have perfectly trimmed grass, blossoming flowers and nicely-painted porches. Community groups have revitalized many neighborhoods by cleaning up the blight, trimming weeds and building new, renovated homes. But the loss of tens of thousands of automotive jobs over the last few decades have left still-visible scars.
There are streets of houses with caved-in roofs, charred walls and broken windows, battered by arson and abandonment. Only drug dealers live there now.
When I asked adults in Flint to describe their city in one word, they said things like, “challenged,” “violent” and “rare.” Pete Hutchinson, the director of community engagement for Michigan’s Youth Violence Prevention Center, described the city as a “phoenix” because “we’re coming out of the ashes.”
When I posed the same question to each of the boys from the park, they seemed to be filled with optimism.
Brennen, the youngest, spoke first, concluding that Flint is “alright.” With typical precociousness, Devontea said “uncanny.” He wanted to choose word that could capture how hard Flint was to summarize, with all the good parts mashed up with the bad.
Quayvon explained that he thought the city can sometimes be “helpful” or “bad,” but mostly, he said, it’s “great.”
Then, it was Jacqualan’s turn. At first, I wasn’t certain I had heard the soft-spoken 13-year-old correctly, when he so smoothly and confidently rattled off the word “death.” But I looked into his eyes. They were sad and empty. I’d heard him right. Two of his siblings, a brother and a sister, he said, had been killed.
“People always run around killing somebody every day for no reason,” he told me.
When asked what he would to make Flint better, Jacqualan said he’d move out of town. He hopes to be a famous football player. Then, he added that perhaps being on TV would help his cause.
“I could tell everybody not to kill people,” he said.
“I know it’s a lot of killing, but we all can stop doing that, but we need to make a way to do that,” Quayvon added. “So when I’m grown, I say it’s great because I want to help people to talk to them.”
There are a good number of community advocates in Flint doing this work right now. The program Youth Empowerment Solutions, run by the University of Michigan School of Public Health, brings kids together to help with community improvement projects, like painting murals, planting gardens and creating parks out of vacant lots.
And more Flint natives, who left town and found success, and returning to their hometown. “A lot of the young people that grew up here in the ‘70s and ‘80s are coming back here to work, to mentor, to lead the parade out of desperation and hopeless,” said Hutchinson, the violence prevention advocate, who’s currently working on year three of a five-year study to see how programs like mentoring and neighborhood cleanups help interrupt the cycle of violence.
As a young teenager, Devontea is the exact age when kids often become sucked into this cycle. But he told us that he was determined to stay out of trouble, and in time, help others stay out of trouble too.
“If I grow up and become as successful as I hope to be, I do plan to come back and give back to my community,” he said. “Definitely.”