body’s bigger brother and you tell them, if somebody do this to you, you do that to them, who you gon’ listen to? Somebody who come to the school and tell you, ‘Stay away from drugs and don’t fight’ or do you listen to your older brother?”100
Families, too, attempted to guide their children in positive paths. As Jason Bentley described his own family, his father often lectured him on the right way to act. Sadly, one can imagine that the lectures fell short of addressing the sights and sounds of East New York. As one example, Jason described, at approximately age 5, seeing an even littler boy stab his older brother with a broken bottle because he would not share his icee. Jason exclaimed, “Over an icee!” the chill of the moment still with him, nearly 20 years later. It is generally true that families have little training in the management of trauma, and it was certainly true that families were not prepared to deal with the magnitude and the ferocity of the traumas their children saw on a nearly daily basis.
Returning to the confrontation-reputation system, this system was largely lost on parents, teachers, and other adults. One adult, his voice dripping with sarcasm, told a story of a violent act, “triggered by something really important: somebody stepped on his sneakers.”101 A youth we interviewed told us, “If you by yourself unarmed and with a new pair of sneakers, don’t even wear them sneakers if you ain’t ready to fight for them.”102 Principal Carol Beck called Bentley’s shooting “mindless,”103 missing the very real fear that caused him to act as he did.
The chasm between the teenagers and the adults was evident in the gap in language. The young people interviewed were keenly aware of a breakdown in communication across the generations. By contrast, the adults usually focused on failing parents, rather than on the concept proposed by the young people that a whole generation had disconnected from another generation. Khalil Sumpter’s mother reflected that her son’s growing terror failed to make an impression on her because she couldn’t imagine the kinds of goings-on that he was describing.104
The confrontation-reputation system and the disconnection from the adult world worked synergistically to create enormous isolation for the young people. Young people we interviewed were emphatic that they had to resolve problems on their own. This was perhaps least understood of all the issues surrounding the two shootings. A number of adults insisted that the youth had adults to whom they could have turned. The youth strongly rejected that idea. One young man said it was preposterous. There was no way that, given the reality of East New York at that time, the shooters could have talked to anyone. He insisted emphatically that they did not have that option.105