Op-Ed: In Tragic Death Of 12-Year-Old Brownsville Boy, Who Is To Blame?

We all got a little bruised up for our daring escapades as children; adults are there to prevent worse when we don't know better. (Source: sugarsnaptastic/Flickr)

BETWEEN THE LINES: In the aftermath of the death of the 12-year-old Brownsville boy who was crushed to death last Sunday when he got stuck in an ascending automatic parking lot gate, everyone’s been quick to point the finger in blame.

Some residents of the project where the incident occurred hold the management responsible due to the lack of recreational facilities on the property. Some criticized the mentality left over from the pop cultural craze known as Jackass, where daring — reckless seems more appropriate — people performed stupid and dangerous stunts just to get fleeting attention on Facebook or YouTube.

For those who may not know, Jackass was a popular MTV reality show for three seasons. It ended a decade ago, yet spawned three movies, a web site and a bunch of controversy, including condemnation by Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman after a teenager from his state got severely burned. MTV responded by programming the series after 10 p.m., when its youngest viewers were supposed to be fast asleep.

You can imagine how effective that was, knowing from personal experience that when youngsters, especially teenagers, are prohibited from participating in an activity, they routinely attempt to elude the ban.

This tragedy triggered a memory of a personal Jackass moment from my youth, which, thankfully, did not end in tragedy.

At 12, I was not the most daring among my pack of friends. I typically sat on the sidelines and watched them take chances, despite their attempts to get me to join in. However, one winter, I summoned the nerve to take part in a potentially dangerous activity.
On well-below freezing days, when the streets were covered with a sheet of ice, outdoor pursuits are limited, but when you’re filled with youthful energy, it’s still the preferred alternative to being inside.

Decades before Jackass, one stunt my peers and I witnessed many times, before attempting it, was hitching a ride by grabbing the rear bumper of an automobile and holding on as it moved slowly down an icy stretch of road. After hanging on for about a block, the “jackass” let go and the momentum took you to the nearest curb as the car went on its way.

One day, a group of friends were enacting this challenging feat along Avenue X, between Haring Street and Nostrand Avenue. After watching them do it without difficulty for about a half hour, I mustered the courage (or stupidity, I soon realized) to try it.

As a car made a left turn from Haring onto X, I saw my opportunity. I squatted down so the driver would not see me in the rearview mirror and grabbed the rear bumper, which in those days was ideal to hold on to that activity, but would not be as easy on today’s vehicles. My heart beat rapidly as I held on, but my fear abated when I found myself easily sliding. My confidence swelled as friends cheered, knowing this was my first time.

About halfway to Nostrand Avenue, I heard a car horn honking right behind me. I assumed it was a driver warning me about the dangerous activity. But, when I turned my head and saw the car was a Checker taxicab, my anxiety swiftly returned as I realized my father was behind the wheel.

I instantly let go of the bumper and skidded towards the curb. By the time I stopped, my father had pulled over, exited his cab and was walking towards me. By then, my friends, recognizing my father’s taxi, had scattered or were crouching behind parked cars.

My father, who rarely showed anger, calmly asked me if I was okay. Too scared to talk, I nodded. It was hard to tell whether he was mad or disappointed or both. Pointing to the general vicinity of our building, a block north, at Avenue W and Nostrand Avenue, he said, “Go home and stay in your room. Don’t tell your mother about this. I will.”

He stood there as I walked away. After a few steps, I turned and saw him glaring at me. I looked back once more before I entered the building, but he was gone.

Several hours later he came through our sixth-floor apartment door and I began to feel uneasy, afraid of the imminent confrontation.
He opened then closed the bedroom door and said, “Well, at least you did one smart thing today. Listening to me and staying in your room.”

I blankly looked at him and suddenly blurted, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t…”

“Sorry?” he interrupted. “You know, you could’ve been killed if you slipped off that bumper and another car hit you. Or gotten hurt if you skidded into a parked car. What were you thinking?”

It quickly struck me that my wellbeing was the primary reason he was so upset.

Like a parent does every now and then to teach a comparable lesson, he told me that when he was about my age he did something just as reckless, got injured and ended up with a large permanent scar on his lower back when he was hit by the grille of a trolley car.

My father never punished me, but after that day I only watched from the safety of the sidewalk whenever friends performed the car-hitching stunt.

In the immediate aftermath of a tragedy or accident, kneejerk reactions are not necessarily the best response. My father could have kicked my ass that day, but, instead, he made me realize how stupid I acted, which proved to be the correct message.

I read some insensitive comments on websites that blamed Yakim McDaniels, the 12-year-old, who reportedly was engaging in a game of chicken regularly played by local kids. Apparently, community youths challenged each other to see who could hold onto the rising gate the longest before jumping. A screaming McDaniels reportedly was unable to release himself before being crushed.

For chrissakes, a child is dead in a tragic accident. Now is not the time for callousness.

On Monday, City Councilman Charles Barron, whose district includes the location, joined the chorus of angry tenants and also blamed the tragedy on the scarcity of recreational space and equipment for the community’s youth to play.

The New York Post reported that “for months” Barron warned the property’s co-owners, including ex-New York Mets first baseman Mo Vaughn, about the need to add more facilities for the youngsters. Vaughn agreed that the company would pay for the child’s funeral.

However, did the so-called responsible adults in the community, who told reporters they regularly saw the youths “playing chicken,” ever admonish the kids when they saw them engaging in the activity?

It seems that after a needless tragedy, such as this one, everyone is quick to blame someone else before placing the burden of responsibility on their own shoulders.

The daring of reckless youths is understandable, but the failure of adults, who admitted they stood by and watched the youths take part in a dangerous activity but did not stop it, is unforgivable.

From time to time, in tragedies like this, there’s usually plenty of blame to go around.

Neil S. Friedman is a veteran reporter and photographer, and spent 15 years as an editor for a Brooklyn weekly newspaper. He also did public relations work for Showtime, The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. Friedman contributes a weekly column called “Between the Lines” on life, culture and politics in Sheepshead Bay.