During the last several months, I have been addressing fear and aggression with youth through the sport of boxing. Although, this entire year I have been teaching boxing to various people from Christians to Muslims, Tibetans, Eastern Europeans, Western Africans, Iraqis, Koreans, men and women, young and old, and queers and heterosexuals, I am especially devoted to teaching young black boys in low-income neighborhoods. It’s not just about offering priceless lessons of discipline and self-defense. Boxers learn how to endure to win under pressure and how to regulate their fear and channel their aggression. These are transferable lessons in the real world.
Young boxers behave completely different in the gym than they do anywhere else. I remember last month seeing a young brother outside of my gym with his pants saggin’ and was amazed to see this expression. I saw the look of shock when he pulled them up upon my request, although it wasn’t expressed as a request. There’s a philosophy about boxing and saggin’. Even folks outside of the ring say it, “You couldn’t defend yourself with your pants saggin’.”
No young person has ever refused me and I’ve asked total strangers. However, just this past month I’ve placed a personal moratorium on asking young men to pull up their pants. While, I think the gesture is pretty immature and somewhat disrespectful in society I’m done with asking young people to adhere to my sensitivities. It’s completely unfair to take my cropped picture of a young person based on their physical appearance and my abhorrence to it and ask that they conform to what I want to view in a public or private space.
I did not arrive at this conclusion as a certified youth mentor, trained foster care parent, or as a fellow in preventing violence against young people. It was not as an advocate of alternatives in incarceration or as former executive director of a Bronx youth center.
It all happened last month shortly after Hurricane Sandy. I found a little time to volunteer at three neighborhoods hit extremely hard in my home city: Red Hook and Far Rockaway in Brooklyn and the Meat Packing district in Manhattan. I found myself feeling like a young black boy again and it was all too familiar. Although I was there to help, I was disparaged as a thief at two of the locations. In only one incident did the sheepishness of my denigrators conjure up enough nerve to apologize. I felt embarrassingly young again and too black.
When I returned home, I thought about the three times I had been stopped by the NYPD this year. One time I was in slacks, a dress shirt, shoes and carrying a laptop bag. I can’t tell people enough, the clothes are completely irrelevant if you’re black.
I halted my pitiful sulking for a minute to imagine how criminalized black boys have been stolen from their communities and sent to prisons, made suicidal or homicidal, corrupted by gangs, labeled mentally ill, or simply murdered. An elected official in 2006 during his re-election campaign and my campaign to gain support for alternatives to incarceration asked me, “what about the young recidivists who get into trouble constantly?” I thought about the disgustingly rich, the very powerful, and the enormously resourceful and replied, “We should give our youth the same number of chances the family of George W. Bush gave him.” The former U.S. president during his younger years had all sorts of problems: poor school grades, run-ins with the law including a conviction and alcohol abuse. He was president during that time.
As a teen, I can remember incidents with cuffs placed on my wrists and police guns pointed in my face. In each incident I was let go in 15 minutes. Growing up in Brooklyn, before my 14th birthday I’ve had guns pulled on me and even been shot at. Welcome to limited options, “zero tolerance”, and no resources.
I read that youth incarceration in NYC had dropped. I decided to take a closer look at the Mayor’s Management Report for 2012, focusing on ACS, which began overseeing juvenile justice in 2010. According to the report, recidivism has increased every year for the past 5 years. Weapons and narcotics were up. The daily population maybe down between 2008 and 2012, but the average length of stay has remained the same. The data showed that a 1,000+ youth had left incarceration during this 5-year-period. That’s miraculous; because, the subsequent 5 years saw a steady increase in youth being remanded to detention.
Ok, if it’s not obvious, the youth have been diverted to less expensive and far safer programs embedded in the neighborhoods of NYC. The first time I enrolled a young person into R.E.B.E.L (Rallying, Educating & Building Effective Leadership) was in 2005. I was not quite finished with my fellowship at that time, but the child was 15 and he was being sent Upstate. ATI’s are hardly new. However, during that time, not only was there no money being allocated to support ATI’s or ATD’s (alternative to detention) the so-called liberal attorneys were not serious about ATIs or ATDs. In 2006, I presented to the Bronx’s legal aid department. There were about 20 legal personnel present from the juvenile justice division, and not one was a male of color. During that time, more than ninety-five percent of all youth detained were black or Latino, the Correctional Association of NY reported.
Family court judges and probation officers used my number, and parents pushed their attorneys to contact our brand new ATI. Yet, in the poorest county in the State and in the borough with the most saturation of youth detention in the city, I was completely shocked and somewhat embarrassed that not one of those young smiling attorneys ever called me or returned my phone call.
However, not much has changed in youth incarceration. The Correctional Association of NY reported in 2010 black youth were 91% of those incarcerated in OCFS juvenile prisons, 49% in need of mental health services, and 45% are in NYC.
The same goes for stop and frisk practices, which according to the NYCLU the NYPD has stopped and frisked 700,000 people in 2011, up from 100,000 in 2002. Ninety-percent of these stops are of blacks and Latinos. The disproportionate stops of young black and Latino males were more blatant and egregious as they represent 4.7% of the city’s population but accounted for over 40% of all stops. In contrast, young white males were 3.8% of the stops but represent 2% of the city’s population. Of the nearly 685k people stopped in 2011, 605k was innocent. Forty-three percent of these stops were young black and Latino males.
The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement reported that between January 1 and June 30 of 2012, 69% of the 120 black people killed had been between 13 and 31. In both the MXGM and NYCLU reports they cite that police use phrases such as “suspicious behavior or appearance” or “furtive movements” as their motives for criminalizing youth.
The criminalization of young people is something I’ve seen for years in a complete mercantile capitalist society with the impetus being pure greed, but often race-related. Lieutenants visit poor community districts espousing their monthly criminal reports at community board meetings claiming to be “good guys” in our neighborhood of “bad guys”. This is their first pit-stop in their process of reporting crime. Then they transform young men into targeted young suspects, create quotas to harass them, produce numbers of “arrests”, “incarcerations” and “convictions” and then develop more reports in their requests for State and federal funding.
Not only do poor and working class neighborhoods fund this policing strategy through their taxes, these same tactics of criminalizing young people by identifying “bad guys” by their clothing, behavior, and other appearances is used within our communities. Our communities are conditioned to criminalize each other. Film director Marlon Riggs, in his 1986 documentary “Ethnic Notions” had illustrated during times of Jim Crow and post-slavery society had created unfathomable stereotypes that would define black people. In one segment, switch blades were said to be the choice of young blacks during that time. Riggs used various old clips to describe the great depth policymakers and white media were taking to paint young black males as too dangerous for their civil liberties. This was all part of an argument to return blacks back to slavery. Backwards caps used to be what switch blades were. Saggin’ pants are the new switch blades.
Where do black youth turn? I offer them boxing. From Jack Johnson to Sugar Ray Robinson to Muhammad Ali to today’s Peter “Kid Chocolate” Quillin young impoverished boxers beat down by society rise to victory. Thomas Hearns, who held five world titles in five divisions reflecting on the impact of the legendary trainer Emmanuel Stewart, said “He wasn’t just a trainer to me, he taught me about life. Right away I [saw] my life change. He changed a lot of people’s lives.”
Boxing is my solace, a refuge in a harsh and often judgmental world. A young person once said to me implicating the adults who chastise his peers for saggin’ pants, “They don’t know how I’m doing in school.” We make judgments based on our preference and fail to see the impact on the lives of young people.
Through boxing, I offer them will power, resiliency, calmness, self-confidence, strength, discipline, self-defense, regulation of aggression, a healthier body and attitude and overall wellness. I teach boxers how to reduce their emotions and focus on the goal ahead. Stereotypes are prevalent all around black youth, but if they gain love of themselves they will hurdle their obstacles and smash stereotypes. Whether they lose in the ring is inconsequential. The goal is not to become a professional athlete, the goal is learn to overcome and astound one’s self.
I offer their parents the keys to connect better with them. In boxing, like all martial arts, the student is quiet and patiently awaiting self-mastery. Students instantly recognize the difficulty of combat when immersed in the struggle and slowly become more receptive to learning the world around them.
In the gym, boxers always ask me, “What do you eat if you do not eat meat?” and “How do you ‘make’ weight?” I haven’t spoken one word about the political process or how a bill becomes a law although unbeknownst to most, that’s my more experienced background. However, as a 19-year vegetarian I am ecstatic to teach them about the abundance of legumes, nuts, grains and green leafy vegetables that allow me to weigh 165lbs and bench press 300lbs. I discuss my hypertension issues in the past tense and educate them on increasing their bananas and reducing foods high in sodium. I teach them to get a jumpstart on fruit and vegetable juicing.
We discuss fear and anxiety and then we go confront it in the ring with headgear, padded gloves, mouthpiece and a protective cup with regulation. The aggression is released in the ring. A calmness flows over you which is preceded by fatigue. Youth from all walks of life love the feeling of being in the ring with sparring partners. They hug their peers and partners, maybe bow, pat their heads or kiss each other’s foreheads to show respect and gratefulness for the engagement and encouragement.
I know what it is to rise off the canvas and prevail. Almost four weeks ago, I won a grueling amateur boxing match at the Fight Factory gym in Coney Island. My record improved and I won a beautiful belt. It’s always an incredible feeling to win in the ring, but I am especially happy about this win. I get to teach my progression. Young boxers always want to know the details.
My opponent was strong, fast and had a nine-year age advantage. To make matters worse, he knocked me down in the first round with a crushing left hook that brought the crowd to roars. The knockdown was enough time to have a conversation within myself about my determination, composure, and confront my own fears.
In boxing, you’re training your mind so much more than you’re conditioning your body. It’s hard to find serenity in the midst of battle, but that’s where you need it most. When I teach boxing I watch for errors in their form and make adjustments consistently. There are always improvements to be made.
It’s been several years since being a campaign manager, running a functioning organization or being a paid political strategist. When I would discuss civics to young people, sometimes it was like pulling teeth. With boxing, it’s effortless. They all want to learn how to win. Such a task allows me to incorporate anything I think is necessary, nutrition and dieting, how to throw a jab, how to defend, how to breathe when you run, how to exercise, how to respect the power you wield, how to control your emotions, how to respect your opponent, how to remain disciplined, how to love, how to rebel, how to deal with defeat or rejection, how to be young and black, how to be yourself and express yourself, how to dress the way you feel most comfortable, how to face your fears, how to understand civics and how to win in a society that has you pegged to lose.