Fifteen years ago, an 11 year-old girl, Ryan Harris, was found dead in a vacant lot on the city’s south side. She’d been raped and strangled. A detective–all too eager to close the case–collared two neighborhood boys. After being bullied for hours and kept from their parents (who had no clue that their sons were being held for murder) they confessed to sexually assaulting the girl, killing her, and stealing her bike. Mass media hysteria soon followed, as talking heads everywhere rushed to vilify the children. Some even called for the death penalty.
Romarr Gipson was seven years old. His accomplice, eight.
A month later the police found the man who would eventually serve a life sentence for the murder. According to authorities, Floyd Durr had left traces of semen on her underwear, something seven and eight year-olds are incapable of doing, as most people who have passed a seventh-grade health class would know. The families of the boys filed a civil suit and were finally awarded $2 mil in Fall 2005.
In Spring 2006, Romarr, then 15, was arrested for aggravated battery with a firearm. He and his older stepbrother accosted two people in a parked car at a Citgo gas station and opened fire. He turned around and looked at the camera with a gun in his hand, one investigator told the Sun-Times. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to 52 years in prison in June 2012.
In Fall 2006, Steve Bogira’s Chicago Reader investigative report picked apart what was thought to be an open and shut case; interviews with a number of people on both sides–including Durr, who maintained his innocence–show a case fraught with more missteps and holes than your standard-issue Michael Bay movie. He casts enough doubt to go around, concluding that we may never really know who killed the fifth-grader.
But we do know what happened to Romarr Gipson, and all evidence points to a sequence of events occurring in an interrogation room that changed his life forever.
America has a gift for characterizing troubled children–particularly children of color–as cold, feral monsters. And each day, as thousands enter a justice system filled with dispassionate correction officials, apathetic public defenders, and judges who just want to get to the next case–they quickly transform into the boogeymen they’ve been made out to be. According to a number of studies, children held in jails are twice as likely to be assaulted, five times as likely to be sexually assaulted, and eight times more likely to commit suicide than youth held in juvenile facilities. And if they do survive life on the inside, chances are they will return for more serious offenses. They’re also more likely to be black or brown.
Project Nia Founder/Director Mariame Kaba has spent years on the front lines fighting to change toxic policies plaguing the juvenile justice system. “I said at the time that this would have a lasting impact on the children involved,” recalls Kaba. “Anti-black racism plays a role in how kids are punished. It’s so ingrained that it makes it impossible to see our children as human.”
“There’s an unwillingness [on the part of administrators] to read these reports that show how any contact you have with law enforcement is bad for future outcome, and it impacts everything from cognitive skills to school participation,” Kaba continues. “Incarceration should be a last resort.”
But, as a report released last year by the US Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights illustrates, it’s often the first course of action for school officials and law enforcement. And with more schools employing police officers as disciplinary tools, things are only going to get worse.
Actually, we might already be there.
“We’ve got to start conceptualizing violence as structural,” says Kaba, whose Chicago Freedom School educates teens on social justice issues. “It’s out there, and it’s being used against us all the time. Wanting the government to intervene to make our lives livable is somehow pathologized, and then it trickles down to the community where the conversation turns to respectability.”
And we hear a lot about respectability. A. Lot.
But, Kaba maintains, it will take a collective effort to save our kids, a movement of love, compassion and respect. “I want more opportunities for people to talk about structural oppression so that it has somewhere to go. That’s how you understand yourself as an agent, how you begin to realize you’re not alone in this world, and you use that knowledge to change the system.”