Awareness Not Fear… Please? A commentary on a recent New York Times article on gang violence

by Maggie Dunne

Once upon a time there was a barren wasteland where everyone was wasted. The dilapidated homes were full of drunks and the children all dropped out of school, long before High School. Once the kids hit the streets, they roamed together in gangs and they killed each other, daily. Those who were not killed by rival gang members ultimately killed themselves. Everyone who grew up in the wasteland just waited for death to come knocking on the door.

Anyone want to visit this mystical place? Anyone want to give them support?

I didn’t think so.

That is how the New York Times depicts the Oglala Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation in a December 13, 2009 article on the emergence of Indian gangs. The article, by Eric Eckholm entitled “Gang Violence Grows on an Indian Reservation” focuses on Richard Wilson, “an unemployed school dropout who lives with assorted siblings and partners in his mother’s ramshackle house, without running water,” and who reportedly has a “scar on his nose and one over his eye.” The author describes Pine Ridge as a “stunning land of crumpled prairie, horse pastures turned tawny in the autumn and sunflower farms … marred by an astonishing number of roadside crosses and gang tags sprayed on houses, stores and abandoned buildings, giving rural Indian communities an inner-city look.” The author states that gang allegiances spring from “broken, alcohol-ravaged homes,” and offer members “an identity drawn from urban gangsta rap and self-protection.” The web version of the article includes video clips of gang members talking about their craft.

The problem with this article is that it fails to report on the cause for the emergence of the gangs and depicts the Reservation as a tsunami of violent crime. Life on the Pine Ridge Reservation is unlike life anywhere else in our great country. Life is tough, people are dying way too early and although many are working for change, it is happening too slowly. The gangs are a symptom of the poverty that consumes the entire Reservation, as are the alarming incidences of teen suicide.

By focusing on an unfortunate symptom without examining the cause the New York Times article serves to fuel those who harbor prejudices and who blame the Lakota for their terrible circumstances. It scares others away. The rising gangs are not responsible for the Reservation’s poverty. As long as people are trapped in desperation, there will be desperate actions. The living conditions found on Pine Ridge do not excuse gang life and cases of criminal conduct, but they do explain how the current situation has come about.

In my opinion, the NYT missed the opportunity to have a positive impact on the plight of the Lakota. They missed the chance to not only educate their readers about the perpetual instances of violence on the reservation but also to mobilize these readers to bring change to “the Rez” and highlight the fact that there is hope for the future. Pine Ridge is not a barren wasteland. It is land bound to a series of historical injustices, and the home to people with a rich culture that has survived against all odds. It is not that the Lakota do not want change, but without access to resources and tools that are necessary for societal advancement and security, maintaining stability takes priority, and certainly they cannot do it all themselves. While the NYT article mentions that a few entities are making efforts to reach the troubled youth, it does not explain why the population of troubled youth exists, and thus perpetuates stereotypes and ultimately does not do much to help the Lakota.

The NY Times might have missed this real reporting opportunity, but it is not too late for the future, just like it is not too late for the youth of Pine Ridge.

By mobilizing or encouraging people to eliminate the poverty on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the gang violence will cease… Now, that would be news!

One Comment on “Awareness Not Fear… Please? A commentary on a recent New York Times article on gang violence

  1. If the world were populated by compassionate and caring people like Maggie Dunne there would be a noticeable difference in all communities of this beautiful world that is so mired by complacency violence. I have had the pleasure of meeting this articulate young woman and seeing her in action. She has touched the lives of so many of Americas forgotten children I can only imagine what the world would really be like if people and politicians in power were able to accomplish the hands on, in the trenches approach she so easily displays. Awesome!
    For our dear friend of the Lakota–Maggie Dunne
    Mr. Inila-Wakan Janis Sr.

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