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Death Sentence

Sunday, the major defense of Kyle Rittenhouse I saw on social media, at least from people I know, centered on the character of those who attacked him, who were written off as "thugs" based on their past activities. This is not the first time I came across such an argument. It was used to defend the officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, as well as George Zimmerman following his deadly shooting of Trayvon Martin.

As someone who spent twenty years coaching and running youth sports programs in Brooklyn, sometimes involving young people who were deemed uncontrollable and un-coachable, I always found those arguments deeply problematic. Some of the "thugs" I coached not only became some of our youth organization's best players, they emerged as true leaders who went on to success in school and in future careers.

Snuffing out another human life leaves no room for the evolutionary process that so many young people go through, even after they have gotten in trouble.

The idea that young people who get in trouble are destined to a life of destruction, and therefore deserve to die when they get in altercations with those wielding deadly force, contradicts everything I have learned and experienced as a teacher, coach and mentor.

Nothing epitomizes that more than the time I spend yesterday with Willie Estrada, a former gang leader from the Bronx (warlord of the Imperial Bachelor) who rose to prominence as a leader of a dance craze that brought peace to conflict-ridden communities, and went on to become a filmmaker, youth worker and published author.

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Having just read Willie's amazing book, "The Dancing Gangsters of the South Bronx: The Rise of the Latin Hustle," I was excited to spend time with him and I was not disappointed Willie, who radiates kindness, generosity and a love of life, brought joy and excitement to the gathering we met at. He is someone who I could easily see becoming a true friend, as well as a community partner.

And I could not helping thinking about what we would have missed, if Willie, who was involved in numerous altercations in his youth, some of them which he initiated, were killed by a police officer or another gang member. If that had been the case, would he have been mourned, or would he just have been written off as "another thug."

To me, the lesson here is the danger of using deadly force in street altercations when you have been entrusted with restoring order, as was the police officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, or assign yourself that role, as did George Zimmerman or Kyle Rittenhouse.

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Snuffing out another human life leaves no room for the evolutionary process that so many young people go through, even after they have gotten in trouble.

Glorifying that act is the sign of a mentality that elevates fear above hope and compassion.

Mark Naison