After two preteen boys killed five-year-old Eric Morse in 1994, dropping him from a 14th-floor window of the Ida B. Wells complex, the killers' identities were withheld from the press. But the court of media opinion had already devised a chilling label for them: the boys were "superpredators." Educator and writer Bill Ayers got a firsthand look at the two while observing and teaching at the Audy Home, and in his new book, A Kind and Just Parent: The Children of Juvenile Court, he describes what he saw. "The older boy tried hard in school, seemed protective of the younger one, fit into the routine. The younger boy seemed scared out of his mind--he interpreted every gesture as an attack or provocation, every glance as an unwanted intrusion--and he affected the stance the world seemed to demand of him: tough, out of control, menacing."
Ayers's experience at Audy convinced him that the debate over juvenile justice has been seriously undermined by such hysterical notions as the existence of superpredators. "Like the term 'underclass,' it's kind of an invented ideological term in search of some data," he says. "You hear it, you even hear yourself saying it, and it tends to take on a kind of commonsense understanding long before there's any evidence that there is such a thing. You wouldn't hear the term applied to white, middle-class kids who've committed crimes. It's a racially coded term that fits conveniently with stereotypes that are already largely in place--the stereotype of a child unlike any we've ever known, an out-of-control family that's beyond recovery and repair, people who don't need to be treated with the same level of respect and dignity that we'd show our own, even if our own were in trouble or had committed a crime."
Ayers's friend Frank Tobin, a former priest who's taught at Audy for 25 years, and Willie Baldwin ("Mr. B"), another longtime veteran of the home, enlisted Ayers, and as he got to know some of the boys preparing to do serious time for violent crimes, he realized that an important story was going unheard. "What's really missing in the dialogue about juvenile justice," he insists, "is the voices of the kids, the voices of the people who are actually in that institution. Like anything else, once the voices of actual people are there, it kind of changes the tenor of the discussion."
In his book Ayers presents chapter-length character studies of several boys in Mr. B's class while examining the larger issues surrounding our cities' troubled juvenile justice systems, systems that are overburdened, starved for resources, clogged with lawyers, and pressured by the public to mete out ever-more-draconian punishments. About 90 percent of the children in juvenile court are charged with nonviolent offenses--everything from truancy to shoplifting to selling drugs--but Mr. B's students were all "automatic transfers" or ATs, kids accused of crimes so serious they were being tried and sentenced as adults; almost half of them were violent offenders. Yet Ayers's book shows them to be anything but rabid superpredators. There's Jeff, who'd just turned 14 when the lieutenant of a street gang enlisted him to kill a rival drug dealer; in the safe, ordered world of Mr. B's class, he's goofy, eager, unable to sit still. There's Ito, a high-level Latin King who suffers through his mother's tearful visits, wonders how he can quit gangbanging once he's inside, and worries that he'll die in prison. There's Mario, whose reactions to their round-robin reading are reasonable and wise and who quietly cues the others when they get stuck on a word. Ayers says he doesn't want to imply "that what they did is easy or innocent or that they're these romantic little figures. They're not. But they are three-dimensional beings, they're creatures like you and me, and we don't drive policy very well when we see them as one-dimensional."
Ayers considers juvenile crime a community problem, intertwined with abuse, neglect, poverty, and addiction; in his opinion, smaller, community-based courts would be better equipped to deal with nonviolent offenses, to distribute social services, and to address on an individual basis the problems that cause crime. The other half of the solution, he says, is more funding for "front-end" programs--better schools, after-school activities, tutoring, counseling--rather than legislation like the Juvenile Crime Control Act of 1997, now making its way through Congress, which would distribute $1.5 billion in block grants for more prisons, judges, prosecutors, and public defenders while lowering to 13 the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults in the federal courts. "What we've created for these kids," says Ayers, "is a toxic environment, and the toxicity can be very easily identified: it's guns and it's drugs. The kids I talked to and met with would say quite articulately, 'I can get a gun in an hour. I can get a little packet of crack anytime. What I can't get is a bookstore, a school where I can take books home. I can't get a job.'"
Ayers scoffs at the movie cliche of the "heroic teacher" saving such children, but he was amazed by Tobin and Baldwin's ability to break down the emotional armor of their street-hardened students and begin to reconnect them to their futures. They did so by creating a calm, safe classroom setting, by challenging the students to take responsibility for their own actions, and by treating them with respect. As portrayed in Ayers's book, it seems a highly artificial environment--all their work might be undone by a week at Joliet. But at least they remain true to the notion that young offenders can be reformed. "You are more than a single act," Tobin tells his students, "and you have a life ahead of you that is more than that one bad act. Your job is to find a way to live beyond the worst thing you ever did."
Ayers will discuss A Kind and Just Parent at 7 PM this Tuesday at 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th St; call 773-684-1300.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bill Ayers photo by Randy Tunnell.