Khalil Sumpter’s story is profoundly important as we consider these issues. Khalil, like many young men, committed a crime and was sent to prison. He was able to finish his high school education while there, but because of changes in the laws in the state of New York, access to higher education was denied him. He was able to learn a trade, becoming an accomplished cabinetmaker. On leaving prison he found himself in a new dilemma: prison, not skill, has been the deciding factor in his efforts to find employment. Although he is home in the technical sense of having been released from prison, he is not home in the more profound sense of being able to establish secure roots and a sense of belonging. Many young men of East New York are in a similar position. The current posture of society of permanently punishing those who have transgressed will multiply the effects of the violence epidemic for decades to come.
Those who avoided serious prison time still suffer from the peculiar conditioning to “stand on your own two.” While most of America operates on the principle “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” the youth of East New York operate on the basis of radical individualism. Much as they grew up in a fractured community, their sense of “I” operates to undermine the reformation of community, as well as the advancement of the self that can be accomplished only by interdependence.
Finally, an enormous number of these valiant young people were traumatized and like Khalil Sumpter suffer from trauma-related emotional disorders. One 1994 study of East New York junior high school students found that 50 percent had symptoms related to trauma.117 The numbers would surely be higher for those born earlier who had lived through more of the violence epidemic. One man we encountered on the streets of the neighborhood talked about the violence he had experienced, lifting his shirt to show his scars. Tears formed in his eyes at the memory of the hostile and violent experiences he had endured. Nothing of any significance has been done to address the emotional distress that those young people are carrying with them as they begin their adult lives.
Everyone we interviewed was asked to compare the Jefferson shootings with other incidents of school violence in suburban and rural communities in the United States. Most took the widely publicized events at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, as their reference point, concluding that the youth at Jefferson faced real danger, while those in Colorado did not. They inferred that the Jefferson shootings had some justification, while those elsewhere resulted from some form of mental instability. In essence, everyone aware of the situation in East New York emphasized that the