On a warm Friday night in June of this year, The Untouchables male youth organization of Alexandria hosted, what could possibly be, its first annual Lock-In. The young Untouchables and several mentors spent the night at the Charles Houston Recreation Center. The chosen theme for this event was "Inspiring Greatness."
While many of our black youth are marginalized by society, this evening served as an attempt to demonstrate the importance of community, respect and love: “Lock-In,” as opposed to “Lock-Up” or “Lock Out.” The event promptly started at 7 p.m. with a simple dinner of sandwiches, chips, juices and water, thanks to Safeway grocery store of King Street.
The Untouchables co-founder(s) — Theodore Jones, Sr. and James Moore III — opened the evening with a prayer and blessing. A few of the young men even left their school dance early because they understood the importance of congregating with their brothers.
This was the first lesson the young Untouchables would learn that night — making mature decisions over succumbing to boyhood desires. Then there were many more valuable lessons taught by several men raised in Alexandria. These men included: Super Bowl Champion and former NFL coach Keith Burns, Councilman and Battalion Chief Willie Bailey,
Officer Benny Evans, and Officer John Ellis. About 20 young men, ages 5 - 16, sat eagerly watching the evening unfold.
Mr. Burns and Councilman Bailey took the floor first. At more than 6 feet in height and over 200 lbs, yet with the utmost humility, Mr. Burns elaborated on the concept of what "success" really is and how to actually "achieve success." How can a professional athlete have longevity in his career without the eagerness to study and grow? Each year or season, there are recruiters seeking a specimen that is stronger, faster, quicker and hungrier than the last. He explained to the young men how studying an NFL playbook reminded him of studying in school. "It’s like a textbook,"
he said. "If you don’t have the attentiveness to read and study your class books, then how can you expect to progress as a student?" It is this "attentiveness" that shows the passion to grow.
He remarked on how in the NFL he would read his playbook front to back, no skimming, no skipping pages. He was eager to know everything about every play that would be demonstrated.
How else would a player be ready when it’s his turn to take the field? Mr. Burns also expressed how he didn’t meet his father until he was nearly 30 years old. However, he was fortunate enough to have other positive men in his life who served as his role models.
Like Mr. Burns, Councilman Bailey also expressed the need to always remember where you came from and those who helped you along the way. He grew up in Del Ray and has always served Alexandria in several different positions. He commented on how excuses could have kept him from achieving success and the importance of always striving for better, for yourself and for those around you.
The next pair of speakers worked the room like a tag-team duo. They appeared to be the perfect formula for a misfit team: a youthfully matured black American man, short in height but solid in stature paired with a much younger, broad-chested, tall, white American "country boy." The former of the two grabbed the floor first. He dressed in all blue, from head to toe. His short sleeves revealed tattoos on both forearms. He wore his baseball cap low like a gangster. The first questions he asked were, “Who in here has ever been bullied?” and “Who in here has ever been a bully?” Several of the young men raised their hands on the first question and a few even raised their hands on the second question. “I was always the bully,” he continued. He began to speak about what it means to be a dominant person and using that dominance to control people. I thought, “Great! Most times people speak on what it’s like to be bullied but very seldom do we hear the testimony of the other side. This will be great for the young men.” The man continued to talk about how many different types of guns he had shot and how connected in the streets he is. The testimony was getting really good until the man demonstrated the ultimate form of disrespect; his phone began to ring in his pocket. Not only did he not turn it off or ignore it, he answered quickly, telling the young men and everyone else in the room to “hold on a sec.” He then said that he would have to leave but would return and gestured for the other man, Officer John Ellis, to go ahead and take over.
As a teacher and a mentor, I thought how rude and inconsiderate; as a spectator, I thought, well, he just told us how connected in the streets he is so it makes sense.
Officer Ellis took the floor. He stood just as big as Mr. Burns in his t-shirt, shorts and flip flops, as if he had just gotten up off the couch and decided to go outside for a nice walk. Officer Ellis grew up in Tennessee but lives in the Andrew Atkins Public Housing block of Old Town. How else to help better the community than to be a part of the community? He talked about the big issue of the day — police brutality against black Americans. When spat upon, called inhumane names and very often having his life threatened, Officer Ellis’ response is, "How did this person allow their life to reach such a low level?" One of the mentors raised his hand and asked about Mr. Ellis’ partner. "Yes, he’s supposed to be coming tonight." Right then there was a knock on the door and in came another police officer. This police officer was completely dressed in his blues — handcuffs, bullet proof vest and all. It took most of the room some time to realize that this was the same "gang banger" who had just abruptly left the room. Jaws dropped. "What! He’s a cop!" some of the young men laughed in amazement.
"So let me finish telling my story," Officer Evans continued. All of the guns he had previously told the young men that he had fired were from the four years he spent in the U.S. Marine Corps.
He explained how because of his height he had become a dominant person. People always told him he was too short to do things but he refused to let that be an impediment.
He was even told he was too short to be a police officer. "Would any of you have picked me out to be a cop when I was up here at first?" he asked the young men. "It’s a small word [and] that’s a big issue — perception. Perception is not what you see, it’s what you believe." Are all police
officers bad? Are all black people with dreadlocks bad? Officer Evans went on to explain that, "What people see is not always accurate." It is not against the law to wear all blue, nor is it against the law to have tattoos or dreadlocks. For many citizens, our beliefs are constructed by societal conditioning. Babies are not born with the awareness of race. That awareness comes from the culture of that baby’s society. If the culture of the society is unrighteous how can we expect to raise righteous children?
After the speakers, the young men were refreshed with probably everyone’s favorite food – pizza! Sending out a huge thank you to Nick Roman of Fairlington Pizza. The rest of the night continued with hours of music, basketball and laser tag in the gymnasium.
Sometime after midnight the word passed that the all-time legend, Muhammad Ali had died. The group stopped all activity to form a prayer circle in the middle of the gym. Around 3:30 a.m. the sleeping bags, blankets and pillows began to scatter over the floor.
As men of The Untouchables we feel it is our obligation to keep our young men from being marginalized by society. The unethical methods of the prison and school system is nothing new to any of us but these methods still maintain our young men as second-class citizens. In prisons we are “locked up” and in schools we are “locked out.” Let’s place our youth at the forefront where they should be. Forget the conditioned perceptions we are used to and let’s move forward with empowerment and the achievement of greatness.
The writer is a mentor with The Untouchables. He became a member in 1991 when he was 9 years old. Find The Untouchables at 703-746-5460, on Facebook (search Untouchables), or www.TheUntouchables88.org. The group meets regularly at Charles Houston Recreation Center, 901 Wythe St. on Thursdays, 4:30-5:30 p.m.