Crime, poverty, and superhero citizens
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Matthew 5:9
I recently spent a week in New York City wandering around, visiting old friends. While there, I decided to catch a train to Harlem, the African-American cultural mecca. Unbeknownst to me, my subway ride would the most enlightening and inspiring event the entire week.
In true New York fashion, a battle over space on the subway platform bubbled over into a full-scale argument. A gentleman confronted another passenger, and what seemed like a simple disagreement quickly became much more. The men, from different ethnic backgrounds, became increasingly aggressive with one another and one lifted his shirt to flash a possible weapon. A middle-aged African-American woman stepped up to this gentleman and grabbed him by the arm. She said to him, "Don't do this brother. You know when the cops arrive, they'll shoot you first. You know that's what always happens. Step back so you can save your life and ours."
The gentleman pulled back, collected himself, and walked away.She immediately ran upstairs and outside of the subway. I walked up to her, thanked her, and asked her why she did it. “I saw the guy may have had a gun and I didn’t want to get hurt. I was concerned for myself and everyone else," she said. Motivated by self-interest or not, it takes a great deal of courage to play peacemaker. She momentarily set her own safety aside and decided to get involved. That day she was a true hero who most likely saved lives.
The causes of violence and subsequent solutions are not complicated. The man who was persuaded to walk away felt disrespected and without agency to prove his own value. He appeared neither wealthy, important, nor powerful. He had nothing to lose, making him a perfect potential victim or perpetrator of crime. According to the Bureau of Justice, there is a clear correlation between crime and poverty. Persons in poor households at or below the Federal Poverty Level (39.8 per 1,000) had more than double the rate of violent victimization as persons in high-income households (16.9 per 1,000). In a city like Chicago, known for its high levels of gang violence and murder, half of the residents are low-income or living in poverty.
The desperation, social isolation, and hopelessness of poverty make these statistics possible. With nearly 40 million Americans living below the poverty line, this issue is not isolated. It is all of our problem. Yet when ordinary people step forward and become agents of peace, we have a chance. When people move beyond their own sense of fear and work towards the greater good, we have a chance. When average citizens realize that we are all responsible for a safer and more equitable nation, we have a chance.
Aristotle wrote that poverty is the parent of crime. Consequently, solving poverty requires holistic solutions that are both institutional and individual. Not only must the government commit to this perspective, but also citizens. As we collectively work to promote peace in the face of conflict or help to root out poverty one person at a time, we change the future for us all. Individuals like the woman I met in Harlem can be a great catalyst for this change. As a nation we should empower, support, and learn from people like her.