Where Does Youth Violence Really Come From?

by James Williams

Two South End Mothers Bury Children

Mulhdata Dawud, an Oromo youth who lived in New Holly, had his flame extinguished on July 29th.  He was killed in a drive-by shooting that took place in Federal Way.  Two friends in the car with him were also shot.  The deceased 20 year old was cherished by his community and known as a family man.  He was born fifth of nine children and raised by loving parents.  He will be missed by all, especially his older sister and niece.  Mulhdata had never been in trouble with the law.  He was the last person anyone would have expected to pass in this way.  

As a matter of fact, the bullets which took his life were not even met for him.  He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. That night, sitting in the wrong seat. Hangatu Dawud, Mulhdata’s sister, never imagined they would be burying a brother so soon.  In her own words, “I remember going to work that morning, and the day starting like any other.  On the Seattle Times page, I remember reading about a young man killed in an early morning drive by shooting out in Federal Way.  I didn’t even think twice about it.  I never imagined they could be talking about my brother.”

Zakariya Ibrahim Issa was a close friend of Mulhdata Dawud.  The next day after attending funeral services, Zakariya was shot down as he walked along S. Cloverdale St.  The second tragedy took place as Issa was talking on the phone to his mother and walking home to change clothes.  Zakariya and Mulhdata both resided in New Holly.  Both will live on through strong parents, powerful sisters, caring aunts, uncles, cousins, and so many friends.  A memorial has been erected at Van Asselt Community Center, a place both youth had been regulars.  Both young men will be greatly missed.  “Zak liked to hang out at Van Asselt.  He was always making people laugh.  He liked to ride bikes,” recalled a staff member there.

“The mainstream media always tries to portray our children as gangbangers and hardened criminals.  That’s just not true.”  Stated Ayan Musse, Zakariya Issa’s aunt.

The following Monday, many from the Somali community came together at a hastily called community meeting.  People were told recent violence in New Holly would be addressed with deputy mayor Hyeok Kim.  The room was shocked when told the agenda would start with an update on the Mayor’s new plan to shut down all Hookah Bars, with only the second half of the meeting being set aside to answer questions related to recent violence in the community.

“I don’t know why they killed my son…” said Mulhdata’s mother with tears on her cheeks.

My heart goes out to all families that have lost loved ones.  No mother deserves to outlive her offspring.  At the same meeting, a man dressed in a long white Jubba reminisced about teaching Mulhdata in a media training class just a few months before.  He shared how the youth had asked for help finding another job, even though Mulhdata already had one.  He recalled how smart and industrious Mulhdata had been.  The room overflowed with stories like this for both of the deceased.  “The money for Seattle Youth Violence Prevention is awarded to non-profits, but never reaches our community. There are is not enough help available for the kids who really need it.  The city needs to stop awarding money to organizations who don’t know our kids.”  Complained a woman wearing a black and gold hijab.

Others in the room called out the Murray administration for going extra miles to recall business licenses and shut down Hookah Lounges, one of the few majority black owned industries in the Seattle area.  One man complained that “shutting down the hookah bars because there has been an increase of shootings is like putting ice on your toe because your finger hurts.  A solution not related to the problem.”  Others chided the vice mayor for not devoting the whole meeting to talking about the two lives lost.  “This mayor is out of reach.  He seems not to care.  He’s out of touch.  The Somali community was better off when Mayor Nichols was in power,”articulated an elderly man with a red beard and deep gravelly voice.


Getting To The Root

All of us need to get past the victim blaming.  Need to get past the finger pointing and actually educate ourselves about what’s happening in these streets.  In a nonjudgmental way.  Before anyone can answer the question:  How does the violence stop?  We must first answer the question:  How did all of this start?

Historically, we live in one of the most violent nations in the world.  Seriously.  This America was made possible by the genocide of the Native Americans, enslavement of Africans, and economic exploitation of Asians.  We experienced violence as the Klan framed up and lynched our forefathers.  Violence is as American as Apple Pie.  American as discrimination and bigotry.  American as kangaroo courts and unequal justice.  This country has been causing harm to black people since before we arrived on these shores.  We experienced violence when men were burnt alive and women raped within an inch of their life during slavery and reconstruction times.  We experienced violence when our leaders were assassinated during the black power and civil rights movements.  Been dealing with police officers who behave like an occupying force longer than anyone can remember.  Billy clubs have been bloody in black and brown communities so long it seems normal.

The same way white people didn’t believe police were beating black motorist until Rodney King became famous, the rest of the world did not believe police were killing innocent black people until video tapes like Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and Eric Garner went viral over Facebook and YouTube.  This year, so many black men and women have been shot down in the streets or murdered while in police custody it almost seems like a new fad.  Television is violent.  Movies are violent.  Music is violent.  All of these are roots to our violence.  Everywhere we look, we have seen violence celebrated.

In his book “Blue Rage Black Redemption”, Stanley Tookie Williams talks about how current gang culture came to be.  From his perspective of being a co-founder of the Crips, he writes about how the original goal of his group was simply protection for young men in the south central Los Angeles neighborhood they grew up in:

“We started out — at least my intent was to, in a sense, address all of the so-called neighboring gangs in the area and to put, in a sense — I thought I can cleanse the neighborhood of all these, you know, marauding gangs. But I was totally wrong. And eventually, we morphed into the monster we were addressing…

We became a gang. We became exactly what I had odium for, which were gangs, street gangs. I mean, there were — they became a pest. They were a pest. Every time I looked up, my friends were being preyed upon. And when I came from camp, I decided to create something that would deal with them, to put them in their place. I mean, it’s — it’s really ironic, because we did too good of a job, and we morphed into what we were fighting, what we were battling against.” – Stanley Tookie Williams

Young people who get involved with gangs do so for a variety of reasons.  People I know did so because they perceived that lifestyle to be glamorous.  I know guys who got into the gang life or sold drugs because they wanted status and respect.  As adults, we need to make sure our youth have alternative avenues for shining and recognition.


Breaking The Cycle

Youth Violence in Seattle is not an East African problem.  It is not just a black problem.  It is not a new problem.  Not a Seattle or Washington problem.  Young people are killing each other in every city in every state. But it goes beyond that; youth violence has become a sign of the times.  It is the fingerprint of low income communities of color. It is also not a phenomenon unique to adolescents. In all these communities, adults are killing each other too.  In a 1997 BET interview, Sanyika Shakur articulates a similar point:

“This particular country and this culture puts so little value on our lives, we end up devaluing our lives.  So, it becomes nothing for me to kill you.  I don’t care about myself, how do I care about you?” – Sanyika Shakur (aka “Monster” Kody Scott)

In 1993, Tookie Williams’s decided to support the “Hands Across Watts – Gang Peace Summit,” which was attended by over 400 gang members.  This videotaped message supporting a truce between Crips and Bloods was received warmly at the event:

Working together, we can put an end to this cycle that creates deep pain in the hearts of our mothers, our fathers, and our people, who have lost loved ones to this senseless violence.” – Stanley Tookie Williams

The truce continued for years.  Homicides dropped almost 50% in neighborhoods where violence had been most prominent.  After his video message, Williams became more involved in working to keep young people out of gangs. With the help of a woman named Barbara Becnel, he  published several children’s books about gang life. He also helped orchestrate several truces between gangs.  In a Democracy Now interview that took place less than two weeks before his execution, Tookie shared thoughts on what made truces like the one he supported in the early 90’s effective and sustainable:

Well, the fact that a person such as me, of my ilk, who deemed the opposing gang as an eternal enemy, it wasn’t hard for people to believe me, because they knew where I stood. There were no clandestine or latent messages. Everybody knew where I stood. And for me to come out and say that what we were doing was wrong, it was believable. That’s why people didn’t — or at least the gang members didn’t discredit my propensity and my alacrity for peace. That’s why I was embraced with sincerity by those who I knew and those I didn’t know on both sides of the fence.”  – Stanley Tookie Williams


Step by Step

Nobody can do everything, but everyone can do something.  If we work together, we can get there.  Below you will find some concrete steps to take toward creating the healthy and thriving South End community we all deserve to live in.


Learn about Peacemaking Circles, a First Nation aboriginal peoples conflict resolution process that focuses on healing and unity rather than punishment and coercion.  Saroem Phoung at The Center for Ethical Leadership provides trainings in the Tagish Tlingit model.  Ancient practices such as this build community, defuse conflict, and give people tools to settle disputes without involving police or jails.

Support Restorative Justice models with real community input and accountability.  Rainier Beach Restorative Justice Project is developing such a model.  That coalition of community and youth organizations is working on designing and implementing an alternative to detention pilot program.  This new model of Juvenile Justice will only be effective and sustainable if the community understand and trust what the system is changing to.  That level of trust, deep understanding, and real input will only be possible if community is included from the beginning.

Family and Friends of Active Gang Members

Those of us who are not in gangs cannot stop the gang wars, only active gang members can do that.  If you are close to someone in a gang, you can help out by not judging them, by not always fussing with them, by trying to understand them.  If you know someone in a gang, you can talk to them about “civilian life”.  If you have a good relationship with them, you can try to understand why they got involved and why they stay involved.  Show them this article, and discuss it with them.  If you don’t have a good relationship, you should work to build one.

Active Gang Members

All of the violence in Seattle is not gang related, but some of it is.  If you are living that life, hear this message from Stanley Tookie Williams that was played again at his funeral:

Working together, we can put an end to this cycle that creates deep pain in the hearts of our mothers, our fathers, and our people, who have lost loved ones to this senseless violence.” – Stanley Tookie Williams

If you agree with any of that, check out organizations like United Hood Movement.  Spend time with like-minded brothers and sisters.  Listen to stories and soak up knowledge from others who have worked to bring peace and unity to our community in the past.  Check out “Tookies Peace Protocol – A Street Peace Initiative” and do what you can with it.  Here is the link to a free copy.

James Williams is a community organizer and works at Rainier Beach’s Urban Impact.

7 thoughts on “Where Does Youth Violence Really Come From?”

  1. Thanks James. I invite those who want to work for alternatives to juvenile justice, suspensions, expulsions, removals by child protection service to join us at the Rainier Beach Town Hall on Restorarive Justice – Wednesday at Urban Impact (7728 Rainier Ave So) at 6 pm on Wednesday August 19, 2015.

  2. Here is a tremendous issue, but i think we shouldn’t reduce it in specific limits.. we should ask ourselves about violence, not only youth violence. Youth violence is Violence. I would doubt that by taking outter measures youth violence like any other violence will dissappear.. once the inner is not in peace, when there is this feeling of division/separation, that we are different with each other, no matter which measures/legislation we will take, youth violence, like any other form of violence just can’t cease

  3. So how would “restorative justice” be applied to an alleged perpetrator like this one? What would we do with a suspect like this without a facility like the Youth Services Center? I would appreciate it, if the advocates for tearing down the YSC and not replacing it would be specific. Use this suspect and these facts as a starting point and tell us what happens to this suspect through trial. How is the alleged victim protected from him unless he is involuntarily held somewhere? Assume he is found guilty. Then what? What if he declines to participate in the restorative justice model? These are fair questions, so far unaddressed by the advocates of not replacing the YSC. That we over-incarcerate youth and that what happens when we incarcerate them is counter-productive is a case that has been made. We need alternatives that better serve the youth and the community. But the case that it is “either/or” incarceration vs. restorative justice, rather than “both/and” seems tenuous, unless you have an answer that addresses the facts of cases like this and the questions of safety for the victim and the community.

    1. I am not an advocate of tearing down YSC. But i need to point out that necessarily it’s an attitude that leads nowhere to cut reality into fragments and try to give solutions to this fragment and that fragment.. this will inevitably create new issues.. so to focus on the problem of a violence’s suspect and try to solve it by means of punishment will create new violence on the next turn, which actually perpetuates violence.

      Generally speaking to locate the positive can’t happen.. instead, to negate what doesn’t make sense will reveal the positive naturally. Once somebody is guilty of Violence, i wonder if punishment will ever actually change him/her. I am not suggesting solutions here, I say “this doesn’t make sense, i won’t continue this way, if i continue it will bring my to destruction”.. violence, like jealousy, anger, despair etc is a form of conflict.. to suppress or punish conflict will create new conflict.. its inevitable.. so deny it, don’t expect anything, just see its insanity and deny it.. the real revolution for humanity will never be brought by outer measures (revolutions, an innovative legislation, extreme punishments etc), the real revolution is the revolution of the mind.

      If allowed please take 2 mins to read my diary on violence: http://www.meditativediaries.com/on-violence/

      Thank you very much for allowing me to express these statements

    1. It seems that once any intellectual approach, method perpetuates violence, we should totally deny such approaches.. in your example, if the violent person could deny all intellectual approaches to his tendency to violence (which means not to analyze, not to suppress, not to explain, not to justify, not to translate – nothing at all), then probably unexpected things could happen.. in a state of no reacting, there is stillness, there is just existing.. in such case, it’s possible to observe every movement of the self, like your tendency for violence, with no words, no emotions, no judgement, no analysis.. actually this tendency consists of a wave of thoughts as “he deserves my violence, i will hit him hard” or “he was rude, i should punish him” or “it will be funny to beat him” etc.. being attentive, watching it closely, silently, all such thoughts reveals the meaning of this tendency, there is a profound understanding, which is action, so deliberative.. the tendency dissappears.. but everyone has to find on his/her own.. what i describe here is not the described..

      Also someone is able to actually see what is, is able to observe oneself, through the mirrors of one’s relationships.. probably a really good teacher/psychologist could act as really good mirror…

  4. Here I thought all my life that personal responsibility prevented me from running amok in my neighborhood shooting people. Now I find out it’s another one of my “white privileges”! OH, HELL NAH!