Ubiñas: Generation 'Crash Test Dummy'

Rasheed Smith sits outside his house and talks about the term "Crash Test Dummy."

KEMBA HEPPARD was back in his old West Philadelphia neighborhood near 50th and Reno when a young man approached.

Heppard, 32, recognized him as one of the kids from the block, back when Heppard, his mother and two siblings shared a row home near the guy's grandmother, the same block where Heppard was shot nine times as a teenager.

The guy was one of many boys in his neighborhood who got caught up with the older drug dealers.

Now here he was, still on the lookout. Except today he was on the lookout for something else, too. He'd heard Heppard was doing well. Nice car, a wife. And a SEPTA cop now, too. Crazy.

Could he help him find a job, he asked Heppard. He wanted to get off the streets.

Heppard got on the phone and asked a friend about openings at a Family Dollar Store. They had some, but not for someone with the guy's record.

Heppard gave him his number and told him to stay in touch. Another name to add to a list Heppard keeps, which includes Heppard's brother, of boys who got caught up with the older guys and paid a heavy price before they reached puberty.

"A perfect example of a crash test dummy," he said later.


'Generation Crash Dummy'

Truth be told, Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. asked people gathered at a recent hearing on youth violence if we'd ever heard the term "crash test dummy" used to describe boys doing the dirty work for older guys who want to be disconnected from the activities that are getting the younger ones shot or sent to jail. No one had, not in that way anyway. Pennsylvania has an army of crash test dummies, with more people sentenced to life in prison as juveniles than any state in the country.

Heppard hadn't heard the term before we talked either, and neither did many others I asked, though it's used plenty on social media. Here's just one of the many tweets I found using it: "Bunch of crash dummy n-----s out here following behind one another, if they ain't in jail they get knocked off."

The behavior and its consequences are nothing new. The stakes just seem higher. During the youth violence hearing, Joel Fein, the director of the Violence Prevention Initiative at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said CHOP's emergency room doctors treated more than 400 juvenile gunshot victims in 2015.

In his book, "Living the Drama: Community, Conflict, and Culture Among Inner-City Boys," David Hardy, a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, describes it as "cross-cohort socialization." And the consequences, he said, extend beyond crime to education, work and relationships and contraception.

"To pin it on these older guys who are in a sense not that far from being the younger guys we're concerned about seems to miss the point," he said of the term he found overly provocative.

Oh, there are other names, depending on the involvement and motivation - young bulls, soldiers, puppets, followers, you get the idea. But that term - crash dummy - and all that it implies got under my skin and stayed there.

What did it say about these kids and their future if they were viewed as disposable? What does it say about us that there are children so undervalued that someone came up with such an offensive term to describe them?

No wonder we're still wringing our hands over how to stop the epidemic of youth violence. No wonder boys (and girls) are following, by choice or circumstance, their older counterparts - sometimes related, sometimes by just by a few years - into jail cells or the grave.

We spend a lot of time debating and discussing generations past and present, from Baby Boomers to Gen Xers to Millennials. But what of a sub-generation under the radar, and under siege?


'Reaching age 20 a milestone'

Like many of the people I talked to about the term, Officer Heppard's 29-year-old brother Derrick Heppard, took exception to the term, even if his older brother says he fits the description. When he was first arrested for selling drugs at 11, he considered himself a protégé of the older drug dealers.

"I thought I'd get a couple of months," he said of his first sentence. "I got two years." He's been out for two years for his most recent six-year stint in prison.

"I just wanted to take care of myself," he said. His mother, who has since died, was sick and couldn't work. His father was a gunshot victim, as was Kemba's father, who was killed in a drive-by in Camden in 1989 when Kemba was 6 years old.

It's a story I hear over and over again in Philadelphia. Outside Myers Recreation Center in Southwest Philly, a few 13- and 14-year-olds talked to me about navigating landmines in their Southwest neighborhood where peers celebrate reaching age 20 as a major milestone. Often, it is.

"I got friends who used to do good in school and their brothers start doing stuff on the streets and then they follow their brothers and they just wind up just like them," said Lateef Haddad, 13.

For Rasheed Smith, 23, the influence was all around him, in his home and his neighborhood. When Smith got out of prison after six years in 2012, he was a participant with Philadelphia CeaseFire-Cure Violence, a violence intervention program that works with high-risk youths. Now he's one of their youngest violence mediators, trying to reach kids.

"Whatever we call them if we don't do something, we're going to lose them," he said. "If we don't step up now and really help them and not just sell them dreams ... because a lot of young guys, man, they've been sold dreams their whole life."

In the two years that Derrick Heppard has been out of prison, he's seen very little change on the streets he used to run on, and is struggling to stay off of as he searches for a job to support his 5-year-old daughter.

The city is littered with crash test dummies, he said. "You have to think ... the guys that are really actually major drug dealers - you don't see them catching the shootings or petty drugs. They're not around there. That's why they have flunkies for. If they're getting locked up it's for something big. These kids, they just want to be down, a part of something."


'Streets stained with blood of children'

I hear that all that time. Kids with eighth-grade educations, with one parent, or no parent at home. They look out their front doors or down their blocks and form relationships borne of survival, sometimes one as basic as eating. A police officer recently told me about some kids who got arrested for stealing food from a pizza deliveryman. Their reason? They were hungry. At the corner store in Heppard's old neighborhood, on 50th and Parrish, Marvin Nunez, who lost three relatives at the store in a triple slaying during a 2012 robbery, said kids routinely come in and swipe chips from the shelves. He doesn't chase them. "I keep telling them to tell me if they're hungry. They don't have to steal." The men arrested for killing his relatives were about 30, both with records that date back to when they were juveniles.

At the hearing where Jones brought up the term "crash test dummy," a grieving mother appealed to the politicians. In March, Felicia Pendleton's 20-year-old son Jayvon Mitchell-Pendleton was shot by a 15-year-old with a shadow of a mustache in his mug shot, and a 20-year-old. It was too late to save her son from one of these so-called crash dummies, but maybe she could save her son's friends.

Did any of us in that room think that these guys want to be out there? she asked. Did we think if they had any other choice they'd choose that life?

At the corner of 50th and Reno, Officer Heppard pointed to the spot where he was shot when he was 17. He wondered if the faded red stain on the concrete was his blood from when someone pumped nine bullets into him. It could have been or it could have been the bloodshed of countless other boys shot since.

As we stood there talking, two women came by. One worked at the West Mill Creek Recreation Center around the corner, another, Wanda Logan, was running for state representative of the 190th legislative district.

They wanted to tell us about a meeting the parent association at James Rhoads Elementary School was having to talk about the almost nightly gun violence occurring in the area. Just that week someone had sprayed bullets near the school while the students were inside. No one was hurt, that time.

ubinas@phillynews.com

215-854-5943

@NotesFromHel