What will save Atlantic City’s youth?
Updated: Mar 12
Another teenager is dead. Naimah Bell was supposed to be getting ready for her sophomore year of high school. It’s not supposed to happen this way. A beautiful 15-year-old full of life isn’t supposed to wind up dead on a left-behind mattress in a vacated home. Was it intentional or gun play gone wrong? That remains unclear. But the bigger question is what is causing the source of gun violence to grow younger and younger in the city? Atlantic City has seen seven fatal shootings in as many months. Six of the victims have been 21 or younger. Three were teenagers, two of them girls. Cecy Robles, 18, was shot in her own home with her infant son upstairs. Quran Bazemore held on to life for nine days before the 16-year-old’s death made a 15-year-old boy in juvenile detention an accused murderer. Bell only got to complete one year of high school before she wound up dead.
Clockwise from top left: Katusca Robles, 18; Lamir King, 21; Naimah Bell, 15; Quran Bazemore, 16; Ky’Lee Haynes, 20, and Jordan Reaves, 21.
The blame game is deep. “There’s nothing for these kids to do,” some insist, as if boredom is an excuse for violence. “Where are their parents?” “Where’s the mayor?” “Where are the police?” But are these even the right questions? People keep asking “Who’s giving these babies guns?” Maybe the better question is, “What makes a kid feel he (or she) needs one?” “I’d rather be judged by 12 than carried by six,” goes the old street adage. Translation: I’d rather get arrested and tried by a jury than caught without protection and end up with my nearest and dearest carrying my casket. But that’s not all the city is dealing with now. Leaders, parents and police are left trying to figure out a demographic that often doesn’t even understand itself: teenagers. Violence, guns and loss is added to the normal teenage mix of hormones and that limbo between wanting the freedom of adulthood and the protection of childhood. But there is nothing protecting these kids from each other. If we can’t figure out what’s causing it, how do we stop it? Every generation of teen has developed their own language in an effort to keep the adults out. Now add beefs handled not with words and fists, but guns into the equation. How is that expected to play out? Sneaking out at night has become a deadly game. There are people stepping forward, trying to lead the community out of this dark place. Unfortunately, good intentions don’t always bring success. These kids need to be brought in to the conversation. They may not feel safe in the streets, so they need to have a safe place to talk about what’s really going on without judgment or worry that they will be outed to others. We need to stop talking about them and start talking to them. But it can’t just be anyone. The people trying to help now mean well, but kids aren’t going to trust someone who doesn’t look like them or who hasn’t been through what they have. These kids need people who have been there. They especially need men who know what it’s like to grow up having friends die. Who know the anger of wanting revenge. Those who know what brings someone to want to pick up a gun. People who will offer their own ugly stories instead of something they learned in a book. It might mean going to people not normally considered “leaders.” It might mean people who have put a bad past behind them might have to open themselves up to those memories and acknowledge a person they used to be. It won’t be easy. It won’t be comfortable. But is there too big a price to pay to save these kids?