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Videos glorifying guns under scrutiny as Ohio cities confront spike in shootings
Canton Repository - 8/31/2020
Agentris Dardie was charging his camera in the home he shared with his younger brother Ajonte on the evening of July 4. He had planned to drive to the Sheraton Suites in Cuyahoga Falls, where Ajonte was hosting a party, to film a music video.
Agentris had booked Room 001 for the production because it could accommodate a large crowd and offered a scenic balcony overlooking the Cuyahoga River.
The brothers, who are Akron natives, had been making rap music videos since 2016. They renewed their focus in the last year as 19-year-old Ajonte -- whose rapper name was Flont -- grew in popularity. Last fall, Flont's music video "Don't Play Wit Me," which Agentris produced, garnered more than 42,000 views on YouTube.
"This ain't the life I chose, it's the life I live," Ajonte raps in it over a rhythmic beat while holding a gun in his right hand in a room full of friends, some of whom are also pointing weapons or mimicking guns with their fingers at the camera.
Agentris never got to meet up with his brother. Instead, he received a call from a friend notifying him that Ajonte had been shot in the hallway of the hotel.
"I'd never have thought that would happen," Agentris, 24, said in an interview nearly two months after his brother's death.
"That was just a whole wrong place, wrong time, and that wasn't even his beef," he said, adding that his brother wasn't armed and didn't own a gun. As in other videos, the "Don't Play Wit Me" music video includes a disclaimer at the start stating that the guns are props.
In the aftermath of Ajonte's shooting death and a recent increase in gun violence -- the first eight months of 2020 saw more murders in Akron than all of 2019 -- Akron's leaders and elected officials have sounded alarms.
Their attention has recently shifted to videos circulating online that they say glorify gun violence. Such videos can seduce young people into making bad decisions if parents or guardians don't intervene and monitor young people's social media use, Akron Police Chief Kenneth Ball had said during a recent virtual town hall meeting.
"We need families to be more involved. We have videos and social media that have accelerated the growth of violence and especially gun violence," Ball said.
"It's glorified ... It is a definite signal that your loved one or your child is going to be either a victim or suspect when they are participating with these kinds of individuals.
"We need to handle it collectively and as an entire community."
Though community leaders and residents agree that violent imagery does not help, they pointed to deeper systemic issues, such as poverty, hopelessness, and a lack of conflict resolution skills, combined with easy access to guns, as some of the root causes of gun violence in Akron. Some say that the videos function as a form of self-expression for young people who come of age in neighborhoods where they may regularly witness violence, even if they don't partake in criminal activity.
"They're speaking their truth," said the Rev. Jaland Finney of Second Baptist Church. He echoed the importance of counseling at-risk youth for whom violent imagery may become normalized, especially if they aren't regularly exposed to positive experiences or images in their own homes or communities.
'Rapping about our normal daily life'
Neither he or his brother were part of a gang, but both had been touched by gun violence, Agentris said.
"We're just rapping about our normal daily life, basically ... We live around gangs. ... We just putting our life into the song, everything that we live and see everyday, " Agentris said.
In 2016, Ajonte's stepfather, Otis Clay, died from gunshot wounds after attempting to break up a dispute involving other people. The loss of his stepfather deeply affected Ajonte, his mother told the Beacon Journal.
"My brother was a good kid, straight As, never missed school or none of that," Agentris said, but he noted that his brother had been lured by street life in recent years.
Agentris defended the videos. Images of money, weapons and drugs are what people want to see and what is profitable. As a video producer, his job is to cater to his paying clients' wishes.
"It's really for entertainment. Like I said, that's what the world is giving out, that's what we see. ... People we listen to that's getting millions of views (are) doing the same thing," Agentris said.
But he acknowledged that children who may not have adults guiding them, explaining to them that the videos are not real, may want to emulate what they see.
"They see the rappers. They think you look hard... talking about sippin' wine and smoking weed, you got the girls and the money. ... they're going to think that's what they gotta do to get that lifestyle, you know. That lifestyle look cool when you ain't got nothing," he said.
"They ain't got nobody to tell them, like, you ain't gotta be that person," Agentris said.
In a study published in October 2019, Desmond Patton, a Columbia School of Social Work professor and director of SAFE Lab, a research initiative focused on examining ways youth of color navigate violence both online and in real life, looked at the social media use of Black youths who associate with gangs in Chicago.
Patton found that youths living in communities with high rates of violence use social media, such as Twitter and Facebook Live, to taunt and threaten their rivals. He said this could be a way to detect aggression but warned that youths may make these posts as a way to posture when they don't intend to actually carry out gun violence.
Patton said posting images of guns online "may influence online and offline conflict," but more research is needed into gun violence and social media as a way to identify conflicts and prevent violence.
He also warned of "careless interpretations" of gun images posted by Black youth, who are more susceptible to digital policing by law enforcement, even before a crime occurs. Patton cited the New York Police Department's controversial Operation Crew Cut efforts, which uses social media networks to identify and arrest so-called gang members -- nearly all of whom are men of color.
Rap video raises concerns
Akron Police Lt. Michael Miller said that Ball's remarks had been prompted by a video that Councilwoman Tara Mosley Samples saw on Facebook and forwarded to police. The video showed several young teens and young adults mimicking a rap video while waving guns.
Miller said juvenile detectives watched the video and determined there were no Akron teens in it, though there were a few from Canton. He said Akron detectives didn't forward the video to Canton police because they weren't sure if the weapons were real.
He said that's a challenge police face when they see videos and images like this on social media -- trying to determine what's real and what's fake.
That's why police need parents' help in policing their kids' social media accounts, Miller said.
Miller said there are hundreds of videos on Facebook, YouTube and other social media similar to the one Samples' asked them to review.
"It sensationalizes certain lifestyles -- glorifies violence and drugs," he said. "These platforms are being used in a negative way."
Miller, though, said he understands some kids may just be making videos or taking pictures for the fun of it. He said that's fine in the proper context. But, he added, these images and videos also could be warning signs of deeper issues.
Cuyahoga Falls Police Chief Jack Davis agrees that parents should be monitoring their children's social media -- not just for violent content but to check all the content. He said social media sites can be used for sexual abuse and grooming young people.
Davis said the Falls has recently seen an increase in guns seized in cars, though not the large number of shootings and shots-fire incidents that Akron has had. The exception was the July 4 shooting death of Ajonte Dardie.
Davis said detectives have people of interest in Dardie's death but haven't charged anyone. He said they have been frustrated by the lack of information from witnesses.
"People know what happened and just getting that information -- getting them to tell -- has not been easy," he said.
Davis said Dardie wasn't on the radar of police before he was killed. The Akron native had only lived in the Falls for about a year.
Davis said he doesn't know if Dardie could have been targeted because of his videos, some that dissed other rappers.
"I know his mom kind of believes his lifestyle contributed to it," Davis said. "Without us being able to get good interviews, I don't think I could say for sure."
Davis, though, said he's not a "blame the music" kind of guy. He recalls his own parents disliking the heavy metal he listened to as a kid, like AC/DC and Black Sabbath.
"I think music is a form of expression," he said. "I don't think you watch a violent video and become a violent person. Some people, though, can't differentiate."
However, he compared dissing someone in a music video to threatening someone on social media -- with both having the potential to escalate a dispute.
'Crying out for attention'
Ray Greene, executive director of the Freedom Bloc, believes the focus on social media in efforts to end gun violence is misguided.
He said violence is happening because of a lack of communication skills and resources, including mental health care, in communities where poverty and the trauma of living amid violence take their toll.
"That's why crime happens, that's why violence happens," he said.
The easy access to guns in recent years means that a minor conflict can rapidly escalate into a lethal encounter, Greene said.
Rev. Finney pointed to poverty and a lack of stability at home as factors that can lead people down a path of violence. Studies show that many men who end up incarcerated have absent fathers, because they are either dead or incarcerated. At the same time, single mothers working to support their families may not be home much. In some cases, mothers may struggle with drug addiction.
"There is no nurturing process ... So this young man becomes cold, and he's just out here. And he finds love ... out in the street among his friends," Finney said. "They're crying out for attention in self-destructive ways."
"You have to give these young men a voice. They have feelings, they have emotions."
Staff writer Malcolm X Abram contributed to this report.
Seyma Bayram is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Learn more at reportforamerica.org. Contact her at email@example.com or 330-996-3327 or on Twitter @SeymaBayram0. Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 330-996-3750.
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