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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence
made the point that he thought people would always “catch beef.” He thought the key was knowing what to do, how to fight, how to scare someone, how to get the message across that “you are not a punk.”94 Donaldson made much the same point to us, describing how adroitly Sharron Corley, the teen star of his book, handled dangerous fellows who often posed a tremendous threat to him.95 The youths who lacked social skills, physical strength and agility, and intelligence were least likely to be able to employ these alternative strategies and most likely to be caught up in situations, either as victim or assailant.
Another corollary of the confrontation rule is that danger was highly localized, even in the East New York setting. Young people knew the geography well enough to know how to stay away from those places that were most violent. One Jefferson alumni pointed out that violence was a part of life, but you got into trouble only if you went someplace where you shouldn’t have been. As an example, he explained that he did not go to graduation. It was known that he was moving shortly thereafter. Therefore, anybody who had beef with him would have to settle it then. Instead of taking the risk, he asked his mother to pick up his diploma.96
Second, reputation had to be established and protected. Some actions were highly detrimental to reputation, including doing well in school, while others were very supportive of establishing reputation, such as hanging with a respected crew. One young man described being a member of the LoLifes, a gang of sorts whose major objective was to shoplift Polo clothing. He wanted to be “down” with the LoLifes because it was an honor that came from everyone knowing that you were a part of one of the largest gangs in the city. He thought that most of East New York operated under that mentality: everyone did what they did to gain notoriety. People ran when they saw you coming and you never even had to do anything if you ran with the right crew.
Guns had a legitimate role in managing confrontation-reputation scenarios. One young man who was deeply involved in the street scene said that he would walk around with a gun and go to school with a gun. People didn’t mess with him because they knew he was not to be messed with. He was willing to use the gun to remind them. He noted, “Once in a while I had to bust off a shot or two to tell niggas what’s up.”97 Another young man, who was more ambivalently engaged with street life, explained that he took a gun to school most of the time. At first, the gun was for defense, but then it became an offensive tool. He used it to threaten people and to show off, thus gaining status as a “bad motherfucker.”98
With the tension and pressure of violence omnipresent, some release was needed, and “wilding” appears to have provided a much-needed outlet from the rigors of daily life under a reign of terror. Wilding was a fundamental part of the world of boys. “Wilding” could be either a group