Thursday, July 15, 2010

Dangerous Youth in DTSS

There was some violence in downtown Silver Spring Monday night, as reported in The Gazette, and there are several ways of looking at it:
Fifteen people were arrested Monday evening after a group of teenagers harassing pedestrians in downtown Silver Spring slammed one man to the ground, breaking his face and drawing the attention of several eyewitnesses.

The incident occurred just after 7 p.m. Monday on a Fenton Street sidewalk, near the intersection with Ellsworth Drive and just outside the perimeter of the newly opened Veterans Plaza. After late-afternoon showers gave way to sunshine, dozens of pedestrians milled about the downtown area, including a group of 15 men and women described as being in their late teens and early 20s, according to witnesses.

One man from that group was approaching random pedestrians as they walked by the outdoor eating area outside the Baja Fresh restaurant. About 15 different people were accosted by the man, who was standing inches from the victims' faces and "verbally harassing" and "making crazy sexual comments" to passersby, said Chris Wilhelm, a Silver Spring resident who was reading a book nearby.

"It was something building, like a volcano about to erupt," said T. Hill, a Takoma, D.C., resident who was parallel parking his car on Fenton Street at the time of the incident.

One middle-aged man tried to ignore the teens and walk past them, but as he walked toward the intersection of Fenton Street and Wayne Avenue, the teen who was accosting pedestrians slapped the man in the back of the head, Wilhelm said. When the man turned around and showed his frustration, at least one other member of the group punched or hit him in the side of the head, according to witnesses and Montgomery County Police.

The man fell, and his head slammed against the red brick sidewalk.

"The sound I heard was like a brain getting crushed," said Silver Spring resident Jane Gorbaty, who witnessed the incident as she was walking to the newly opened Silver Spring Civic Building for a meeting and immediately called 911.

Wilhelm said several witnesses rushed over to the victim—his friend began scuffling with one of the attackers—and the group fled toward Wayne Avenue.

Police arrived within 10 minutes, Hill said. The man suffered fractured facial bones and was in serious but non-life-threatening condition at Holy Cross Hospital, said Cpl. Dan Friz, a Montgomery County Police spokesman. He did not know if the man had been released from the hospital as of Tuesday morning.

Police arrested 15 people and three were charged with first-degree assault, although their identities are not yet available, Friz said. The other suspects were charged with disorderly conduct, Friz said.

The civic building and Veterans Plaza opened Thursday evening with much celebration, but the incident Monday forced Silver Spring Regional Services Center Director Reemberto Rodriguez to explain the security of the plaza to residents—about 30 of whom had gathered in the civic building for a scheduled Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board meeting.

The area of the sidewalk where Monday's assault occurred is public property, just between the county-owned Veterans Plaza and the Silver Plaza on Ellsworth Drive, which is a public street managed by a private company, Peterson Cos., with its own security team. 15 arrested following downtown Silver Spring assault

Later in the story you learn that there was also a violent incident outside the Majestic Theater Saturday night, and someone with a gun was arrested.

A few more details from The Gazette:
The same security that mans the civic building also patrols the plaza, Rodriguez said. The Silver Spring Regional Services Center recently moved its offices into the civic building. Security cameras mounted on the exterior of the building also overlook the plaza, Rodriguez said. One security guard was on duty Monday night, Rodriguez said.

Peterson security did respond to the incident but is not responsible for patrolling the Fenton Street sidewalk, said Jennifer Nettles, manager of Downtown Silver Spring for Peterson Cos. Downtown Silver Spring security cameras may have caught the incident, Nettles said.

Nettles said Monday's incident was the most violent near that intersection since March 2009, when a large fight broke out after a youth "Stop the Violence" concert.

It so happened that Monday evening I was sitting in my car in Rockville around seven, listening to WPFW as they reported on the opening of Silver Spring's new Civic Building a few nights earlier. Of course the "jazz and justice" radio station covered some controversial aspects of the situation. In particular, they interviewed a young activist who complained that young people's needs had been ignored in the planning. The interview was not entirely surprising and I didn't give it a lot of thought at the time, but it may be more interesting in retrospect, so I have transcribed it. It was a show called Spectrum Today:
At Thursday's grand opening of the Silver Spring Civic Building and Veterans Plaze, the mood was celebratory. One Montgomery County politician after another praised the completion of the long-planned twnety-two million-dollar project in downtown Silver Spring. But not everyone was celebrating. A number of students were there to protest the lack of desperately needed youth space in the new Civic Building.

Tiffany Spencer is twenty years old. She has spent more than four years working to get dedicated space for youth in downtown Silver Spring but youth groups and other nonprofits are still being shut out. Tiffany Spencer spoke with journalist Peter Tucker.
[Jubilant noises in the background, live music and crowds.]
TS: Well, the civic center, physically inside it looks great, the outside could be better. I think it's a waste of space. Ah, the inside does look great but they're lacking one of the most important things in downtown Silver Spring and that's a space for young people. Downtown Silver Spring - everybody that comes here are mostly young people. They spend their money here, they hang out here, they don't have anywhere else to go so they hang out in the street, which upsets the adults, because they feel like they're just loitering and not doing anything constructive, which is why they need a space and the Civic Building is the perfect place to have it, it's a public space, there's a lot of room. One company gets more than half the building for a dollar a year ...

PT: Which company is that?

TS: The Roundhouse Theater gets more than half the building for a dollar a year.

PT: Half the building for one dollar a year?

TS: A dollar a year. If you count it by square footage, a dollar a year. And they don't need that space. They have two other spaces in Silver Spring. But the youth groups and the other nonprofits in downtown Silver Spring that actually needs the space doesn't have it, and that's a problem.

PT: I didn't hear that from any of the politicians and they were all here, from Donna Edwards to Marc Elrich to Jamie Raskin, the County Executive Ike Leggett, all Montgomery County and Donna Edwards of old Montgomery County and Prince George's County politicians were here. They all said that it was a great civic space, no one raised any concerns about the lack of youth space.

TS: Because that's what they're, that's their job. That's what they're supposed to do. They don't want the rest of the community to know that. They do it in private. Let's have a meeting with these kids, let's try to calm them down, let's meet with them so they don't get rowdy. That's what they do, I mean that's their job, you can't get upset at them. But at some point someone needs to be honest with the rest of the community. I just don't know who that's gonna be.

PT: Valerie Ervin was also here, you were talking with her. She's the Councilwoman from right here.

TS: Oh yeah, Valerie Ervin has always supported us. She and a few other members of the Council have always been on our side. But you know, in their position it's really hard for them to do anything alone, they kind of need like a crowd of people to kind of back them up. But she's always supported us.

PT: Tiffany Spencer are the youth being ignored here? Is Roundhouse, is one theater company more important than all the youth who use, who access this area?

TS: Well I guess that's what the county is saying. I don't think so, but that's what the county is saying with this building and what they're doing here, that's what they're saying. Yeah.

PT: Any final thoughts you want to share?

TS: The youth of today are going to be the future of Silver Spring tomorrow. And if they're not being accepted now, they're not going to want to support Silver Spring in the future. That's all.

PT: I just have one more question. As I look over your shoulder at the building, we're standing outside here on this, this space which used to be youth space. There was Astroturf here. Now it's questionable, there was a question raised, you know, will there be skateboarders allowed here? Not so clear.

TS: Not so clear.

PT: And I look over your shoulder at the civic building there's a fancy arts gallery, it doesn't, I mean ...

TS: It doesn't symbolize community, does it? There's nothing community about this building. It's all, it looks like a building for profit, and this building is supposed to be for community. Nothing in here symbolizes community. The perfmances -- most of the performances today did not symbolize community. There's a great group, Impact Silver Spring, they did a community thing like a month ago where they had performers from all over the Silver Spring community, that performed. Not one of those performers were up there today. That doesn't symbolize community. That looked like a Roundhouse Theater performance, is what it looked like. Roundhouse Theater is part of the community but they're not the community.

PT: Tiffany Spencer, and yet this was built with public money.

TS: Yes, it was.

PT: Lots of public money, some twenty-plus million dollars of public money, and yet it's questionable how much the public has access to it.

TS: Correct, nobody knows. No one knows if you want to have a protest out here, do you have to pay to do that? If you want to have a birthday party, do you have to pay to do that? Nobody knows. If you want to have a meeting in here, how much will you have to pay to go to a meeting in a public building? Nobody knows. Because this is not a community building. [Laughs] So ...

PT: You're a student at Howard?

TS: Yes, I am. Student at Howard, I'll be a senior in the fall , hopefully graduating in May. Yep.

PT: You've met this fight for a long time to get space for youth in downtown Silver Spring.

TS: Yep. Four to five years. Every year, nothing's changed. So, we'll see. Five years from now, I don't know, maybe I'll still be interested. Who knows? I will no longer be a youth! And that's a problem.

PT: When the discussions for this building were going on four and five years ago, were there promises made that there would be space here?

TS: Initially, in 1998, the first conversation, the civic building will be open, with a media center. 1999, no media center. 2000, media center. 2001, no media center. 2002, media center. Just like that. And then I think in like 2007 is when they stopped and they said no media center, completely. So every year it's been changing. And we went to meetings and meetings and meeting and it changed and it changed. So, I don't know. I think, I don't think nothing's going to happen with this building.

PT: And so the youth are going to continue, right here's Ellsworth, Drive is it? And can you just describe what Ellsworth is like on a Friday evening?

TS: On a Friday? Ellsworth is crowded, of young people. Whether they're going to the movie theater, they're in the mall, or they're just hanging out on the street, sitting on the curb with their friends. That's what Ellsworth looks like on a Friday or a Saturday night. That's how it looks. I guess now they think the young people are going to come here and I feel like, if the young people come here that's also going to be a problem. So I don't know. But that's what Ellsworth looks like.

PT: So youth can hang out as long as they spend money, but ...

TS: Exactly, I think what's next is a financial protest.

PT: Explain that.

TS: Just stop spending money in downtown Silver Spring. Anyone under the age of twenty five, we should just organize and have everybody under the age of twenty five stop spending money in downtown Silver Spring. Let's see what downtown Silver Spring looks like after that.

PT: The youth spend a lot of money down here.

TS: Yes. You're here every day. You go to the movies, this is where you live, this is your community of course you spend a lot of money. And it's difficult to think that you spend all the money here, but then you're not really welcome here.

PT: I remember listening to Martin Luther King's speeches, that, "You can respect my dollar, you can respect my person," that seems appropriate here.

TS: Exactly. But I guess a lot of county people haven't heard that. Maybe that's something we should pass on to them.

Tiffany Spencer spoke with Peter Tucker. Spectrum Today, July 12, 2010 [Link will exist for two weeks]

This young activist is making a pretty good case that young people need a place to go. There's nothing inherently wrong with hanging out with your friends, even in public. Like a lot of things, if you legitimize it and sweep it into your system, you can work with it. It seems sensible to me that you could provide a place for young people to socialize and do things they enjoy, and they will want to take care of it and keep it going.

Our viewpoint in this country too often is to define people as us and them, and then to try to find ways to punish them. A handful of violent punks make life miserable, but the actual undeniable truth is that today's teenagers will be adults soon, they will be paying the bills and running for office and it is in the society's interest in general to use their youthful energy in a positive way, to get them started participating in the world around them rather than hoping to get away with something sometimes.

The blog Silver Spring, Singular posted something about the violence on the street Monday. Blogger Sligo has some editorializing about the incident, but the real action is in the comments.

One of the first, someone named "Anonymous," says this:
I'll start. I've been seeing packs of feral ghetto teenagers swarming all over downtown for about a week. They move in a straight line from the Metro to Ellsworth and Fenton. I've lived in the area for over three years, and I've never seen it this bad.

To state the obvious, the harassers and criminals in DTSS are all young and black. But the true commonality, I would wager, is that these people are NOT FROM SILVER SPRING. Based on the direction of their travels, they're clearly paying us a visit from DC and PG County. I have lots of black neighbors in SS, who are lovely people and want just as much as I do to hang out in our own neighborhood without this crap going on.

Is this the price we have to pay for having a nice, communal space in our neighborhood? Can we do anything to get rid of the problem businesses (Hello, billiards cafe...)? Can county police station a permanent presence at Fenton/Ellsworth and cite these people for loitering, disturbing the peace, etc., until the criminals get tired of SS and go away?

Any ideas? "While You Were Complaining About Skateboarders..." comments

Okay, I personally don't think it is racist to note that the "harrassers and criminals" are young and black, if they are. You want to understand the situation, you gotta call it what it is. Are they young and black? I don't go to downtown Silver Spring often enough to know what the vibes on the street are. But the important point is that the bad guys are not from Silver Spring.

This ties in with Tiffany Spencer's talk about community. Community doesn't mean "the business community," it means the people who live in the area. Her point was that the downtown area should take into account the actual people who live nearby. But this commenter seems sure that the hoodlums in downtown are coming in from some other place, DC or PG County, on the Metro.

So how do you make a good environment that your local kids will want to inhabit, while keeping people out who don't care about maintaining the neighborhood?

A little further down you have this person, named "Anonymous:"
I'd argue that the problem is two-fold, and not necessarily something that can be solved. First off, DTSS is right off a metro, so it's easy access. Second, you basically have an open air mall food court down there with a multi-plex in the center. Is it any wonder that you're going to end up with a bunch of adolescent trash hanging around? Considering that the restaurants are all fast-food or cheap chain joints, is it any wonder you're going to end up with a bunch of lower-income denizens frequenting the area? The place is custom-made to attract low-income teenagers to hang out and treat it as their turf. Sure, rich kids can suck and not all poor kids are trash, but ask any cop or high school teacher and they'll tell you violent behavior in teens is more prevalent from poor homes. That area of DTSS is particularly bad. Ironically you get less trash near McGinty's precisely because it's a bar with a mostly over-21 crowd who (in general) doesn't feel the need to act like teenage hood trash. Sadly, I agree with the original some point the place is going to have some shootings on a crowded night. God help whoever's down there when it happens. Me...I tend to avoid the whole damn area.

The comments at the site tend to go round and round on the same themes.

Somebody named "Anonymous" wrote:
Last night my wife and I were walking up Colesville from the Metro, and got harrassed by a group of teenagers sitting on the wall in front of the Sanz School. One of them stood directly in front of us, blocking our path - and when we cut around him, he bent down in front of me and pretended to, uh, show me some affection, with roars of approving laughter from his crew. (Thankfully that's all they did, though.) I called the police about it, and they were gone by the time I walked by a few minutes later. Wouldn't surprise me if the same group migrated up to the plaza and attacked this poor guy. Now I really wish I'd given the cops a better description.

See what you think of this comment by someone named "Anonymous:"
I disagree with the poster who said the downtown area is designed to attract the ghetto trash. There are *a few* business establishments that attract the thug element - McDonald's by the Metro, the billiards cafe, and the Majestic. Other than that, there are no problems. The gangbangers aren't hanging out in Border's; they're not coming here for Iranian or Lebanese food; they're not here for the Starbuck's. Unfortunately, they're here for the civic center open space, because they know they can hang out and do whatever they fuck want and no one will say anything to them.

There needs to be an armed police presence in DTSS every night.

There are a lot of comments there, I won't try to summarize or quote them all. You can see what the them is.

I'm not going to propose a solution to this hard problem. We were all kids once, I suppose there were some who never got into any trouble. When I was a teenager we used to hang out at the mall, and I remember one time the security guard came and rounded us all up and took us around the corner and said, "Listen, if I see any of you here again, I'm going to shoot you!" He solved his immediate problem, we did not go back to that mall. After that we hung out somewhere else, we weren't causing any trouble but we were unproductive and probably noisy, if there'd been a good place to go we would have gone there.

Adolescence is a hard time, life is magnified and amazing, you are full of yourself and insecure all at once. Grown-ups tell you what to do, but they obviously don't live by their own rules, so you have to figure out what it's okay to do and what's not okay, and a lot of screwed-up stuff happens between, say, twelve and twenty. That does not make young people criminals, even if they are annoying as hell, and it does not mean they can do anything without being held accountable. Youthful energy is a real thing, kids really do generate a lot of noise, a lot of chaos, it's not just rebellion, it's just how they are.

A community has to incorporate that energy. We need to allow young people the freedom to experience life in a safe environment, they are the life of the community. At the same time, someone needs to be responsible to prevent violence and mayhem. Our society simply does not have norms and traditions to smooth the transition to adulthood. A lot of money has been poured into downtown Silver Spring, it has the potential to be a great place to spend your time and money, but if people don't feel safe they won't go there. It is beautiful to have a place where young people feel comfortable socializing, it is not beautiful to have a place that allows rudeness and violence.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"(July 15) -- Oil from the sunken Deepwater Horizon well has reportedly stopped gushing into the Gulf of Mexico for the first time since the rig exploded in April and triggered the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

BP officials said the company's efforts to place a new cap over the busted well had succeeded with the closing of all valves on the new cap. Kent Wells, a vice president of the much-vilified British oil giant, told reporters the oil stopped flowing at 2:25 p.m. CDT."

OK, Obama, now get out there and start cleaning this mess up!

July 15, 2010 5:56 PM  

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