After a wave of violence in Compton that has claimed the life of three youth basketball players in the last four months, those who knew Semaj Miller, Millyon Colquitt, and Carl Lewis had thoughts on how to stem the tide. The victims, aging from 14 to 19 years old, were all unable to attend school in person due to the closures that have shut down most schools in Los Angeles County.
That’s just one issue in a complicated web of problems that has left many in Compton and Long Beach feeling hopeless. It’s an issue that has been prevalent in Compton this year but could just as easily be the story in Long Beach–last Friday night a car with two children in it was struck by gunfire, one of four shootings that police responded to on that one evening.
Tony Thomas is a Compton native who’s been coaching the Compton High basketball team for more than a decade. Thomas is an alum of the program and the school’s gymnasium is named after his father, Eddie Thomas.
Thomas is working with Compton High alum DeMar DeRozan, a four-time NBA All-Star, to try and find solutions. The first step, he said, is to establish some real mental health outreach for kids in the community.
“Carl needed a little help, all these kids need help,” said Thomas. “Some of them are so big that nobody wants to help them, they’re afraid instead. So DeMar and I want to start a non-profit to help kids with anger issues and other mental health problems.”
Thomas said there’s a deeper, more fundamental problem in Compton that’s a big part of why he’s lived in Long Beach his entire adult life.
“If you’re successful and from Long Beach you can still live in Long Beach,” he said. “If you’re from Compton and you’re successful you have to leave. There’s no Bixby Knolls. We don’t have that luxury. There’s three neighborhoods in Long Beach that DeMar could live, but none in Compton.”
The result is what Thomas calls a “Flintstone effect,” where 2:45 p.m. hits and all the teachers and other Compton High employees leave town, a far cry from the community feel he had growing up in the city where he’d routinely see 15-20 teachers at his basketball games. He’s hoping that everyone who works in the city and everyone who marched with the Black Lives Matter movement can get involved in any small way to help the youth of the community survive this deadly year.
“People have to get involved,” he said. “We don’t need you around full time just check in, contribute a little money or time once or twice a year. Don’t just march and then disappear. Kids are dying.”
An English teacher at Compton High for 20 years, Njemila Williams is hoping for a more immediate addressing of the situation. Williams has raised two kids in Long Beach, both of whom played basketball at Long Beach Poly, Compton’s rival, and she said she sees a huge difference between the communities in their expectations for kids.
“I was teaching a class when Carl was shot and one of my students heard it and messaged us in the chat,” she said. “Only later did I find out it was one of my son’s friends. Every kid in that class is traumatized from that. This is their age group, it affects them. They’re scared.”
She said that attitude is pervasive and damaging on every level. She pointed to one of the first news reports about Carl Lewis’ killing, where the on-site television reporter was smiling at the beginning of the report.
“He’s very nonchalant, just another story in Compton,” she said. “I’m like goddamn. That’s not how this would be told in a wealthy area.”
Williams said she hopes the city can pull together funding for a safe place for the kids to be during the school day until campuses re-open. Two of the shootings occurred at a time that the victims would have been in practice or school.
“These kids should have been in a safe place following their passion,” she said. “Right now they don’t have a safe place they don’t have access to the coaches that are so important in their lives. They need a safe place with good internet where they can go to class. But they don’t have that and a lot of them don’t have adults in their right mind supervising them. In my dream world until campuses re-open they’re picked up safely, they’re taken to a safe place for school.”
A former Long Beach State basketball player who runs the youth Real Run league in Lynwood, DeAnthony Langston has been working with Compton and Long Beach youth for decades. He was heartbroken at the recent loss of Lewis because of the amount of time he and others invested in trying to keep that fate from befalling him.
His perspective on fixing the situation isn’t just community-based like Thomas’ or immediate like Williams’, it’s a wider approach to trying to end the nonstop cycle of gun and gang violence in the community.
“If I was Jeff Bezos, I would revamp the public school system in the inner cities like it was Beverly Hills or Palos Verdes,” he said. “The problems of homelessness and poverty are self-sustaining. We need to create jobs that pay well and we need to educate these kids on how to handle money. I know guys that were tough guys when we were younger, but they got a job as a longshoreman or another union job, and guess what? They can take care of their family, so that’s what they’re doing.”
Langston pointed to his Long Beach State coach, Joe Harrington, as the first adult to discuss money management with him.
“He was the first one,” said Langston. “He told me in 1988, ‘Whatever you do, get a house, get some property.’ The first chance I had I spent every penny. I still have that house and it’s taken me through some rough times. But not everyone gets exposed to that viewpoint as a young person.”
He also pointed to gang sweeps that occurred decades ago as removing leadership that had previously prevented young people from being targets in gang violence.
“You lose leadership,” he said. “Now obviously you need the police and you need them trying to stop violence. But that vacuum of some kind of leadership has to be replaced with something. And we have to make it harder to get guns–the kids in Compton aren’t the ones making guns and they aren’t the ones making money off of them.”
His proposal for an immediate solution, along the lines of Thomas and Williams’ ideas, was for more investment in youth programs.
“When we were kids there were free programs all over the community in Southern California, you could do them for free all summer all day,” he said. “A ton of those programs have been cut, and the people suffer.”