The disturbance caused by what Park Director Jackie Iovinelli referred to as a “flash mob” at the pool on June 14 did not approach the violence at our nation’s capital on Jan. 6, 2021, yet there are enough similarities to make many of us feel concern, especially because this kind of behavior has happened before in Forest Park — at Music Fest, in funeral processions, and at The Park.

When my neighbors hear reports of the incident, they often shake their heads and ask, “What’s wrong with our young people these days.”

Part of the answer, when they step back emotionally and think about it objectively, is that there is nothing wrong with most of our teenagers. Most of the kids I observe — at Roos and at the aquatic center, working at McDonald’s or attending class at Proviso East — are polite and respectful. They are just trying to make it in a challenging world and have a little fun while doing it.

So the (modified) question is: “What’s wrong with at least some of our young people these days?”

Another answer I often hear is, “There’s nothing wrong with our young people, including the so-called bad apples. What’s wrong is the environment in which they’re growing up. The answer is to change the system. When you change their environment you change individuals. Call it the liberal perspective.

Another answer goes like this: “Don’t blame a person’s circumstances. Blame the person’s character. The reality is that there are good people and bad people. The answer is to change the hearts and minds of individuals, one at a time. When you change individuals, you change the system. Call it a conservative point of view.

Tio Hardiman gave me yet another perspective on youth violence three days before the disturbance at our pool when he gave the keynote address at the monthly PTMAN (Proviso Township Ministerial Alliance Network) meeting.

Hardiman is the CEO of Interrupters, an organization that works on the West Side to “interrupt” violence before it starts, or escalates. 

What struck me about what he said was how non-ideological it was. During his 20-minute talk he didn’t, as far as I can recall, use the word racism once. 

He began by acknowledging that there is an “epidemic” of gun violence, and added that it has many causes, but he did not dwell on the causes. Instead he urged the audience of mainly Black ministers to deal with the present realities on the ground.

Then he talked about teams of Black youth purse-snatching and carjacking, Black men disrespecting Black women, and folks in the hood not taking responsibility for their brothers and sisters. He described a high level of trauma on the West Side. 

And he didn’t seem to care that some folks might accuse him of feeding into stereotypes about Black males. He seemed more concerned about being real. To quote a Black friend of mine who did youth mentoring on the West Side, “My kids are victims but my job is to get them to not think of themselves that way.”

From 20 or more years of experience with gang members, he described the “adrenaline rush” that can come when you shoot and kill someone. He talked about the need for revenge, about not having empathy for other human beings, and the need to join a gang in order to just survive. 

Noting that many critics blame the police for not doing anything to reduce crime, he pointed out that the police can only respond to crimes when they are happening or after they have been committed.

All of the above led Hardiman to conclude that the cure for the epidemic of Black on Black violence is in the hands of the Black community itself. 

Hardiman grew up in the Henry Horner projects and knows that growing up in poverty is hard, but his work with Interrupters involves dealing with immediate problems that arise on the streets every day. It’s hard work to talk down angry young men who might also be high.

Sure, providing more jobs might affect some of the underlying causes of violence, but until the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, what is needed, according to Hardiman, is unity in the Black community, tough love, changing the mindset (because it’s hard to change the circumstances), soul power and putting God first.

Hardiman earned a master’s degree in inner-city studies, but when you’re doing the work he does, often courage, commitment and pragmatic decision-making are more important than theory, and more important than political ideology. 

So what does this white boy who grew up in a small town in Wisconsin know about these problems? Not much, I admit, but what Hardiman said at the PTMAN meeting applies to whites as well. 

Stop complaining, blaming and excuse making — like political campaign ads are doing right now. 

And start “interrupting” in your own community.