Bus case points to sad truth about us

The Baltimore Sun

Many words have been spilled on the bus beating case in which a group of middle school students attacked a fellow passenger and nearly blinded her, and Circuit Judge David W. Young has heard just about all of them - in the courtroom as he presided over it, of course, but also in e-mails, on the phone and even on the street, where passers-by would accost him.

By the time the long-running case headed to conclusion with sentencing on Wednesday, it was hard to believe there was anything left to say about this ugly incident. Oh, but there was - and cutting through the verbal thicket was Young himself who, rather than simply sentencing the ringleader of the beating, addressed the rest of us as well.

"Something is wrong," Young said simply at one point during an often moving soliloquy.

He was speaking not so much from the bench but from the heart, and a sorrowful one at that. He was speaking about a city that he loves, and the pain of watching it rip itself apart in hatred.

So often, notorious crimes like the bus beating get gnawed on endlessly, but to little avail. Everyone has an opinion, few have insight. The perps get demonized, the victims get pitied - although they often come in for some demonization as well - and then it all goes away, until the next incident that draws yet more sound and fury.

The amazing thing about Young's remarks was that he tried to place the bus beating in a larger context - of kids running untethered from the usual family and community structures, of the deep chasms, be they racial, ethnic or gender, that leave us hateful, fearful or intolerant of one another, of a social fabric too tattered to serve as a safety net.

"One of my favorite movie lines is where Jack Nicholson says, 'You can't handle the truth,'" he said. "And I just think in many ways, we are ignoring the truth that's as plain as the noses on our faces."

If you care about Baltimore, you should read the transcript of what Young said that we're running today. No, don't just read it, clip it out of the paper or print it on your computer and put it in your pocket. Or stick it in the frame of your mirror, forward it to someone, do something other than just let it pass unheard.

Young offered a personal take on a city he's adopted as his own, having moved to Baltimore 37 years ago from Hagerstown to attend UMBC.

"Growing up in Hagerstown, I didn't see a lot of things," he said.

But where you might expect to hear the usual litany of urban pathologies - the crime, the poverty - Young spoke glowingly of seeing doctors and lawyers who weren't white. It was a revelation to this product of a small town and segregated schools.

"I saw the city of Baltimore," Young said wistfully. "I thought I was in heaven."

I wonder if the teenagers arrayed before him, awaiting his judgment, ever saw Baltimore that way. Did they see the hope, or did the reality of their often broken neighborhoods, schools and families cloud such vision? Could they ever imagine, as Young must have at a certain point, being the judge rather than the judged?

Young didn't refer to this on Wednesday, but he is not someone who came from wealth or privilege. In an obituary of his mother, which ran in The Sun two years ago, the judge said his parents both worked multiple jobs so that their six children could get a decent education. His family was moved into public housing, he told The Sun's Frederick K. Rasmussen, because it was among the most decent housing available to blacks at the time. His mother used to clean attorneys' offices, and as a child Young sometimes accompanied her, reading law books while she tidied up.

The bus case surely troubled him - he spoke of how it reduced him to tears and sleepless nights - as it has many. It's the racial aspect - the attackers are black, the victim is white - but I think it's also the shock of so violent an act in so public a space.

To me, good public transportation is one of the things that makes a great city great. When I take the el in Chicago or the subway in New York, I feel like I'm coursing through the very arteries of a city. Public transit connects far-flung parts of town, and by extension, its residents.

It's one of the few times you're thrown together, shoulder to shoulder, and occasionally armpit to nose, with your fellow citizens - for better or worse. And most of the time, it's for the better: We're all in the same boat, or bus, together and there's this implicit agreement that it's better if we all get along, share the space and make it to our stops without hassle.

Which is one of the many reasons why a suit that two lawyers in the case are threatening to file is so boneheaded. The lawyers, who represent two of the kids whose cases were dismissed, are charging that the city schools and the MTA are endangering children by transporting them to and from school on public buses that also pick up adults.

"These buses, they stop and pick up everyday citizens," Jay Ortis said. "We don't know who these citizens are riding the bus with our children."

It's beyond obvious to note what a strange argument this is, given that it was children who attacked the alien citizen who got aboard "their" bus. It's not the mix of adults and kids in a single bus that is the problem - it's the inability to see that it's everybody's bus. And if you can't handle a simple bus ride - let alone that truth that Judge Young referred to - how are you ever going to get anywhere else?


Circuit Judge Young's Remarks

Baltimore Circuit Judge David W. Young sentenced 15-year-old Nakita McDaniels for attacking Sarah Kreager aboard a city bus. He made the following statement in court Wednesday.

I came to Baltimore 37 years ago from Hagerstown to attend UMBC. Growing up in Hagerstown, I didn't see a lot of things. I didn't see lawyers of color. I didn't see women attorneys or doctors, doctors of color. The first six years of my life I went to segregated schools.

Not withstanding all of that, when I got to UMBC and I saw the city of Baltimore, and I said this the other day, I thought I was in heaven, and I literally decided that I was going to make Baltimore my home.

In 1985, I became a judge. I've done thousands of cases. I can't think of more than three or four in 23 years that have reduced me to tears like this case. And when I say this case reduced me to tears, it reduced me to tears.

I just wonder what has gone so wrong, so wrong, in our families, in our communities, in our churches and schools. It's been painful for me. I didn't get more than three hours' sleep. I didn't want this case. I didn't get more than three hours' sleep for a couple of months. ...

My staff will tell you I got literally dozens of phone calls. I got phone calls from people who said they're only picking on these kids because they're black. I got phone calls from people who said, "You'd know they did it if you've ever ridden a bus in this city." I've had people literally come up to me on the street, and I've had to walk away from them.

I only point that out because this case grabbed the attention of our community. I got e-mails from our state and, sadly enough, from our nation. And Nakita is not responsible for that. We are as a community.

Something is wrong. The good Lord has a way of revealing the truth, and I don't even know what movie it's from, but one of my favorite movie lines is where Jack Nicholson says, "You can't handle the truth." And I just think in many ways, we are ignoring the truth that's as plain as the noses on our faces.

A house divided cannot stand. And our house is divided. Our city is divided. Our country is divided. Nobody likes anybody. It scares me.

Men are angry at women. Women are angry at men. Blacks don't like whites; whites don't like blacks. Latinos. We're homophobic. We're ethnocentric. We're moving to the right in terms of our intolerance. ...

And so what this case represents to me was - and I don't doubt that Nakita is an intelligent young woman - but what it points out to me is the crying need for early intervention. I reviewed the psychological report. I reviewed the court file. I reviewed the report in her prior case. This young and gifted young lady has needed help for a long time and not gotten it.

On Dec. 4, caution went out the window, compassion went out the window, and reason went out the window. You know. And so, it's, it's sad to me.

It's also sad to me - and the reason I ordered DJS to staff her case - is because I've been in juvenile [court] nine of the last 12 years of my life. And one thing I am certain, if we don't intervene, it doesn't get better. It gets worse.

I've done homicide cases as a juvenile judge. I've done attempted murder cases. And I've not dealt with many people - juvenile or adult - who I am convinced given the proper provocation would kill. I don't say that lightly.

I actually wept when I heard the testimony of Mrs. King. When she yelled, "That's not a dog. That's a person. And you're going to kill her." I believe, but for Miss King, this case would have been much more tragic. I just really believe it. I believe the pack mentality kicked in.

And the person who could have led them in staying on the bus - led them in doing the right thing, who, according to her counselor, being vice president of student government - chose to lead her troops in another direction.

There are many types of leaders. I'm not going to call them by name, but there are leaders for positive and for good. And there are those leaders who choose to use their leadership abilities to do wrong.

But I do know this. In my heart, in my belief and in my experience, unless and until Nakita gets in touch with what is making Nakita explosive and angry, the next person who argues with her may be a homicide victim.

And that to me is born out in the evaluation, where she says, "If I fight somebody, I really try to hurt them." And the doctor says, "She does not fight often. But when she does, it's as if a switch gets turned on. She loses control." The 10 or 12 homicide cases I've done, that's what happened.

She has had the benefit of prior probation. I do not think probation is in order, nor do I think community-based placement is in order.

Nakita McDaniels, this court having found your facts sustained in Case No. ... this court now finds you delinquent. This court also finds that it is in your best interest to commit you to a secure residential placement outside of the community.

Find the judge's complete statement at baltimoresun.com/busattack

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