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District police try to keep the city safe from squirt guns.
It is a beautiful autumn day, full of unexpected sunshine and the shrieks of kids playing tag in the blocked-off street. A perfect day, in fact, for squirt guns. But 11-year-old Jarell Winston is preparing to hand over his neon-green-and-yellow Supersoaker XK 3000 to a volunteer, in exchange for a new basketball.
“He didn’t even want to come,” says his mother, Jennifer Winston. “He was all embarrassed that someone would see him.”
Soon enough, though, Jarell seems pleased with the trade. He inspects several offered balls in turn, pressing down on each one’s rough orange skin like a discerning shopper selecting a melon, and eyes the caged-in courts behind him. He also makes a quick plan to dig out any other forgotten toy he can find under his bed to cash in on this deal. Other mothers scurry to pay phones to tell friends of a related scheme: Raid the kids’ closets and do some surreptitious holiday shopping before the younguns have a chance to protest!
It’s Saturday, Oct. 21, and the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) is hosting D.C.’s first-ever Violent Toy Trade-In, held at a street fair at 13th and U Streets NW and at the 6th District Police Station, in the 100 block of 42nd Street NE. MPD Chief Charles Ramsey announced plans for the event at last May’s much-debated gun buyback, where officers collected more than 1,700 guns in various stages of disrepair and paid out $350,000 in federal and city funds for the haul.
Whereas the gun-buyback program relied on public funds, most of the replacement toys at today’s event were purchased with money privately donated to the MPD. One Common Unity, a loosely knit group of nonprofit organizations promoting “alternatives to violence through artistic-cultural expression,” is co-sponsoring the event, which also calls for a mass return of violent video games and music.
No one, however, turns up with Eminem CDs in handor any other CDs, apparently. Perhaps teens stopped at Flying Saucer Discs on 18th Street NW and found better trades for their passé Insane Clown Posse albums than the coloring books and puzzles offered by the MPD. Nine-year-old Kristopher Stiph has certainly brought a shrewd business sense to the trade-in table. “Well, I never liked this thing, anyway,” he explains, gesturing toward a discarded robot. “But I love yo-yos, so this is a good trade.”
The neighborhood is so far safer by about 25 Supersoakers and affiliated knockoffs, nine pink plastic round-tipped swords, six assorted futuristic-style guns with spacey sound effects (including the much-feared Exeedraft Special Valiant Maximum Firebomb), and one old-school slingshot with molded finger grips.
This arsenal reflects the judgment of the One Common Unity volunteers, who must make on-the-spot calls about what constitutes a violent toy. An inspection of the cardboard box of contraband reveals some questionable picks: one 5-inch tall, half-inch wide red plastic novelty hammer and one Transformer action figure (admittedly, a bad-guy Decepticon) featuring an outsized cannon between his legs.
Among the items offered in return for these instruments of terror are Washington Wizards tickets donated by the team. There are mixed opinions on the value of this barter. “It oughta be a violent crime to make me sit through a Wizards game!” one man shouts. Among the younger set, the White House-shaped coin banks prove as unpopular as the school supplies, mainly a selection of paper folders and crayons. But the Pocahontas coloring books and baby dolls in frilly white dressesyour choice of pink or brown plastic skinare wildly popular.
At one point, a kicking spat breaks out between two boys over the last pack of Uno cards. Also available in return for any nasty CDs and toys is a bright-red copy of acclaimed lesbian poet Sapphire’s novel Push. Princess, the book’s teenage protagonist, is an illiterate inner-city girl who is violently raped and beaten over the course of her short life. It’s for the older kids, a volunteer reassures.
Ramsey admits that defining a toy or CD as violent is a somewhat sketchy process. “Some CDs may be labeled with a parental advisory sticker but may not necessarily be violent,” he explains in a telephone interview. “They may instead be sexually explicit. So that would be up to the volunteers to decide. We would also not accept just any toy. We would not, for instance, accept a Barbie doll as being violent.”
When a young girl does approach the trade-in table with a Barbie, she is turned away. “I know it was disappointing. I could see it in her eyes. But I refused the Barbie on the basis of it not inflicting bodily harmoutside of promoting anorexia and bulimia, I mean,” says Sharon Salley, a volunteer for One Common Unity. “I have my own issues with Barbie, but there’s a point here we’re trying to make.”
The point, says One Common Unity board member Taariq David, 24, is to send a public message about “the love of life.” “It says in the Bhagavad-Gita that violence is anything that is not for the promotion of life,” he says, twisting a shoulder-length dreadlock and squinting in the October sun.
A tall man with a wide, earnest smile, David stands in front of the “Circle of Life,” a ring of slogans and designs scratched on the street in multicolored chalk. It reads, in part, “Love all, respect all.” David’s group approached the MPD in August about co-sponsoring the event. “We also hope that we can be a liaison to the youth in the streets,” he says. “There is a suspicion of the police among kids. They are seen as the enemy.”
Today’s event makes for some strange bedfellows. Among the 15 or so nonprofits and amalgamated political causes represented at the fair at 13th and U, a group called the Movement offers educational material on police brutality and warns of abuses by the “prison-industrial complex.” Another vendor hawks T-shirts promoting the work of local graffiti artists. The few uniformed police officers present seem unfazed by this clash of perspectives. They lean against their cruisers, ankles crossed, staring into space.
The fate of the contraband toys also languishes in a gray area between ideologies. Ramsey maintains that the collected toys will be “destroyed,” to keep them from other children. One Common Unity organizer Matthew Payne, however, says that the toys and CDs will be made into a “peace model” sculpture by area students, to be presented to the Wizards as a show of thanks.
Jennifer Winston has brought her sons, Jarell and Darius, to the trade-in because she worries that their weaponlike playthings may also act as violent teaching aids. Fatima Conth, who is 10 years old, agrees that the fear of violence creeps into the lives of kids her age. But she’s not worried about what the toys teach; she’s concerned with the immediate threat they pose. “Toys can be dangerous,” she says gravely. “Like my Ninja sword someone could fall on it and stab themselves.”
Collecting plastic Ninja swords from 10-year-old girls is not exactly what Ramsey envisioned when he proposed the program. Rap music and violent video games have raised concerns among police nationwide, and he says he hoped the trade-in would help get such offensive material off the streets. “I talk to kids up at the Oak Hill [youth-detention] facility, and they tell you that the kids smoke blunts laced with PCP and they listen to the violent rap music to get into that sort of mind-set, to psych themselves out before they commit violent crimes,” says Ramsey. “A lot of kids are affected by the violent music they listen to and violent video games they play.
“We hope that the toy trade-in will be part of a systemic approach to reducing youth violence,” Ramsey adds. “We are saying that if you as a parent want to make a statement about your values, here is your opportunity.”
Civil libertarians suggest that the police department should focus on other approaches to the problem of youth violence. “If the department wants to decrease youth violence, then there are a lot more ways to achieve the goal,” says Mary Jane DeFrank, executive director of the National Capital Area Office of the American Civil Liberties Union. “There are other things that can be done, like teaching mediation and conflict resolution in schools. It’s just easier to pay out than to do the hard job of addressing the root causes of violence.”
But several MPD youth programs, according to Ramsey, have “fallen by the wayside” over the last decade for lack of interest. The MPD’s Youth Advisory Council, proposed last year and to be made up of kids from various areas of the city, has yet to materialize. The Bigs in Blue police mentoring program started strong several years ago but has since petered out.
Leaning against a brick wall near the basketball courts, David breaks into a freestyle flow about misguided masculine posturing and the fear and anger that provide rich soil for the roots of violence. “We have got to stop using words like ‘bitch’ and ‘ho’ as terms of endearment. Sexism is violence,” he explains after winding up the rap. Perhaps, he reflects, the guidelines for today’s trade-in are not too wide, but too narrow. David hopes that any future city-funded toy exchanges will find police impounding an even broader spectrum of potentially dangerous material. “The way I see it, there are positive messages and there are negative messages,” he says. “If we do this again, maybe it will be a ‘negative toy trade-in’ instead.” CP