The headline reads “Elderly Woman Beaten and Robbed.” How many captions of this nature do we see and dismiss? Normally I would not even pause to consider the victim or the perpetrator, that is not until the “Elderly Woman” moved from an anonymous victim to a friend, co-laborer, and teammate. Mrs. Gabriel is a kind-hearted resident of Fairfield Court. She cares for her grand children, serves on the tenant council and comes faithfully twice a week to serve on our Embrace Fairfield team; at least she did until a twisted, cruel person beat her, robbed her and stole her peace of mind.
It was not until this week, with the beating of this sweet elderly friend that I really realized the level of fear and oppression my friends live under. Every Tuesday and Thursday, my team and I drive into some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Richmond but it is easy to forget where we are. We arrive to see the smiling faces of women like Mrs. Gabriel. They are the saints, the remnant, who were left behind to pray and seek justice for their impoverished neighbors. Many of them have lived in these communities 30+ years and tell stories of how the projects used to be. How back in the day, children played on the streets and families cared for and supported one another. Now mothers who care about their children keep them locked inside, and neighbors avoid one another and isolate behind closed doors. The once peaceful communities are now controlled by drug dealers and their residents consumed by fear.
At the conclusions of our gatherings, my staff and I return to our safe havens in the suburbs, leaving behind our fragile friends in this crime infested battle zone. When I heard the news about Mrs. Gabriel, I was sad but the sadness quickly turned to anger, then outrage. This would never happen in my community, we would not stand for it! I was even more shocked when my friend Charles was surprised by my anger and said “What’s wrong with you, this kind of thing is normal. They target the elderly on the 1st of the month and follow them home from the store where they cash their social security check.” He said as if I should expect such things. He sees the beating of the elderly as “normal”. I suspect that Charles may have either known perpetrators of crimes of this nature or he could have even been the perpetrator back before he was freed from his 30 year addiction.
This event happened just a few days after I met a lovely man named Calvin. Calvin is trying to raise awareness of what he feels is an unjust sentence imposed on his nephew. His nephew was sentenced to 30 years in jail for possessing $350 of drugs. My first thought was “Would a white kid in the burbs receive a 30 year sentence for possessing $350 in drugs?” My heart went out to Calvin and the three small children who will grow up without a father. It seemed so unjust, so extreme, so over the top. But that was on Thursday and today is Sunday and a sweet little old lady is now in the hospital due to the madness of an addict. I now empathize with that judge…the madness must stop! We are at war and the enemy is drugs and those who are supporting the drug trade.
Drugs lie behind almost all of the suffering I have witnessed over the past five year. It is the number one contributor to homelessness, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, robberies, violence, and the utter insanity that plagues communities of intense poverty. I believe in being tough on crime and I understand zero tolerance and the determination of those we have charged with the responsibility of protecting citizens like Mrs. Gabriel. However, I am still haunted by the faces of the children at our inner city elementary schools, more than 25% of whom are growing up without parents due to incarceration. How do we keep Mrs. Gabriel safe and give these kids what they need; healthy parents?
In the past five years I have met some of the nicest addicts and have witnessed how their addiction leads them to do some very evil things. I hate the violence but I have come to see that when these individuals are not using substances, they really can be contributing members of society. They can be good mothers and fathers and most deeply love their families…that is when they are not on drugs. I have also seen how these loving, caring parents can become some of the most neglectful hurtful people when they fall prey to addiction. The war is not between us and them, most do not want to live the way they are living. The war is between them and the addiction that is stealing their lives and destroying our communities.
I have interviewed a number of former inmates and all of them have confirmed that all jail did for them was make them better criminals. They learned who the major players in the drug world were, where to get the best stuff, how to conceal the drugs better and built a network to keep themselves safe on the outside. Our jails are simply a school for criminals and we are turning out people with PHD’s in Criminal Behavior.
I write this post not because I have an answer but more out of utter frustration that no one seems to have a clue how to address this issue but worse is the fact that the vast majority of us do not even care to try. Mrs. Gabriel is “down there” and we are “out here”. It is not our problem. “Those people” need to figure it out. As a society, we have done some amazing things, found the cure for deadly diseases, achieved major advances in technology, but we cannot rid our community of drugs or prevent the suffering it causes. 30 year jail sentences are not the answer but neither is allowing my friends like Mrs. Gabriel to live in fear. There has to be a better way!