Urban Warfare: Grappling With Asan Akbar's Descent 


When I hear pundits discuss the rationale of preemptive war, I think of the logic of the drive-by shooting. Both are about payback and the notion that you'd best do unto others before they do it to you. Forbearance, coalition and patience are tiresome compared to the cathartic energy of a shotgun blast from a moving car, or a big-ass war in a convenient Third World country.

At first I wasn't sure that I knew Asan Akbar, the Army sergeant who last week attacked his commanding officers, killing two with a grenade. Akbar attended Locke High School in South-Central Los Angeles in 1988, and I taught there for five years during the same period. I had hundreds of students in that time and knew many more, but his yearbook photo jogged my memory. Yes, he was that well-spoken, neatly dressed, intelligent young man.

I didn't know him very well, but I knew he had the respect of his teachers and his peers. That meant a lot at Locke High, where failure for black male students is epidemic. Akbar and those like him, the college-bound, had overcome such difficult odds that it was impossible not to feel deep admiration for their achievements. What these students contend with isn't just monumentally difficult but overwhelmingly so: In the years I taught there, I had five students shot, three killed. It wasn't just overt violence that these kids had to wrestle with, though. Psychological pressures took their toll as well. But at a school where nurses didn't even have Band-Aids, a school psychiatrist on hand to help with issues of mental health was too much to hope for. It's almost as if poor and working-class students of color don't become mentally ill.

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Often, kids I was sure had their heads on right would crack up. A student of mine, an intelligent, college-bound athlete who was a classmate of Akbar's, pretty much had a nervous breakdown during lunch. He began to rap for friends and stopped and dared anyone to make him continue. Then he began to cry uncontrollably until his mother came for him and took him to the hospital.

With luck, good teachers and the love of family and friends, young black men do make it through, but the values you learn at school and the values you learn on the street are so different that the tension between the two can make a young man despair.

I suspect part of the reason why Akbar did what he did, an act of violence as a protest against violence, can only be understood if you know where that intelligent young man came from. The world he came to maturity in is the world of "Killa" King/Drew Medical Center, where military surgeons receive their training on sucking cavity wounds. It's the world of Rampart, of the drive-by.

Kids like Akbar succeed because they somehow generate a countervailing force equal to the force that's exerted upon them. Somehow these kids don't get crushed by BET-inspired "bling-bling" consumerism, or Tupac-like gangster martyrdom. They can handle the vicious streets of Los Angeles, the gangbangers who want to get up on them. They see the teachers who know what they're up against and who want them to succeed. Then they go into the world, the mainstream world, the white world, hoping to make it. Some do. They learn to decompress, to chill, to make positive choices, prioritize (greet police with a smile and hands visible). But others just boil with rage. That countervailing pressure that kept them going in South-Central now explodes outward. Everyone is trying to get up on you, take advantage of you; white people are insidious and tricky. They seduce you with the promise of inclusion, but the reality is that they think you're standoffish, arrogant, the prototypical angry black man, and if you're a Muslim like Akbar, the pressure is doubled. I think, finally, Akbar came to believe that he was despised by his peers and superiors in the army. The reporters say he was difficult and moody, angry and unreachable, in other words, an angry black man. I've lost many friends very much like this, intelligent men of promise who exploded in rage and paid the price: incarceration, drug abuse, death.

Akbar was quoted as saying, "You want to invade our country, rape our women, kill our children," but his act of preemptive violence didn't do squat to prevent the invasion of Iraq. If he chose to conscientiously object, maybe he could have made a difference. What he did manage to do is to bring suspicion on Muslims in the armed services, because he couldn't channel the rage he felt. If it's proved that he did commit the fragging of his commanding officers, for me it'll fall into the category of the bitter logic of the drive-by.

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