Opinion: In the Senseless Killing of a Cat, a Portal on the Lives of Poor Kids

Mark Weber | June 4, 2014 | Opinion
Why is it easier to grieve for a cat than for Paterson's vulnerable children?

Mark Weber
Quattro the cat is trying to tell us something. Do we have the courage to listen?

Quattro is Paterson’s latest and, sadly, most disturbing claim to fame. The stray was the victim of a truly horrific attack by a trio of boys, ages 6, 10, and 12, earlier this month. The three were charged with third-degree animal cruelty after throwing rocks and a brick at Quattro, inflicting injuries that eventually led to the cat’s death.

It’s unusual to charge a child so young with a crime; according to a report in the Bergen Record, the Passaic County prosecutor who made the decision to bring charges said the six-year-old will be the youngest criminal defendant she can recall.

The reasons for bringing charges, according to the authorities, are twofold: first, to underscore the seriousness of the offense for the boys’ families and the community; second, to quickly secure counseling and other rehabilitative services for the accused.

Frankly, I find that second reason more than a little disturbing. Is our justice system only capable of offering rehabilitation to young children if we label them as criminals? Do kids really need to sink so low before we care to help them?

Animal-rights groups applauded the decision to charge the boys; their attention to this case has turned it into a national story. Certainly, you don’t have to be a cat lover (full disclosure: I’ve got two in my family) to understand the outpouring of sympathy for Quattro.

And whether we are motivated by a need for justice, compassion, or some mixture of the two, no one would disagree that the children who perpetrated this act and their families need some sort of intervention.

All that said: I haven’t seen any discussion within the coverage of this awful story about the context of these boys’ lives, and how it may have had something to do with their actions. And that leads me to wonder: why are we so quick to condemn a six-year-old, and so slow to think about how he came to commit such a repulsive act?

Paterson, like so many other poor cities across this country, only seems to draw the nation’s attention when it hosts a particularly heinous crime. In this case, the age of the accused, coupled with the story of Quattro’s heroic rescue by the two older boys who stopped the attack, makes for compelling reading.

What’s less compelling, apparently, is the story of the city and the school where the attack took place. School No. 4 (Quattro was named after the school by his rescuers) has one of the most economically disadvantaged student populations in one of the poorest cities in America.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data for 2012, nearly 40 percent of Paterson’s children live in poverty. Unemployment is about 15 percent, nearly double the statewide average. Paterson also has the eighth-highest violent crime rate in the state, just behind Newark.

NJ Department of Education data shows that 91 percent of School No. 4’s (also known as Napier Academy) students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch; even for Paterson, that’s very high. Over 15 percent of Napier’s students are classified for special education services, and 9 percent are Limited English Proficient.

Given all of these disadvantages — and given the regular intoning from the Christie administration and education “reformers” about the importance of education in combating poverty — you’d think Paterson would be the recipient of all sorts of state aid to help its education system.

But the Silk City’s schools, like all the other former Abbott districts, have taken a hit in these past few years. According to the Education Law Center, Paterson’s schools have been underfunded by over $100 million dollars over the past five years, compared to what they should be getting under the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA).

In other words: even as we mourn the senseless death of a cat, the children of Paterson are being passed by. They live in a world of fear, crime, drugs, and economic inequity. Their deprivation is undeniable, and yet it is allowed to continue unabated.

We only care to turn our gaze toward Paterson when a cat is killed. We only stop to think about this city when its youngest citizens commit a crime so awful it shocks us out of our torpor . . . but after the shock dissipates, we quickly shift our focus away.

Heaven forbid we put aside our righteous indignation at the admittedly terrible actions of a trio of young boys and dare to ask ourselves if maybe we are also guilty of impassively accepting the suffering of innocents. And that maybe, just maybe, the cold detachment of these boys to the suffering of this poor animal is a reflection of our own detachment from the suffering of Paterson’s children.

Undeniably, the depraved indifference of these children is not solely to be found in our poorest communities. Elliot Rodger, Adam Lanza, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold . . . by all accounts, none ever went to bed hungry. And it’s certainly wrong to think that a lack of empathy is ubiquitous among the disenfranchised: remember, two of Paterson’s children intervened and saved Quattro.

But is it not possible that America’s children, both affluent and poor, are hearing the same message? Could it be that all of our nation’s kids are affected by the policies and attitudes that allow us to casually tolerate the deep poverty that afflicts so many of Paterson’s children while we simultaneously celebrate the excesses of the super wealthy?

It’s a mistake to think that our suburban kids don’t understand that they live lives of relative privilege (even if they don’t fully comprehend the extent of that privilege — then again, how many of us really do?). Our young people are well aware that they live in an increasingly unequal society: a society that, far too often, judges its citizens not on the content of their character but on the color of their cash.

We should not, then, be surprised when children act out in ways that betray an attitude of indifference toward the sanctity of life. In a way, it’s only logical: why would a child, rich or poor, ever believe that a stray cat should be cherished and loved when they both live in a society where millions children — not cats, but children — are allowed to live in squalor and deprivation?

Our policies of indifference toward the suffering of our youngest citizens, coupled with our bizarre celebration of the excesses of extreme wealth, are not without consequences — for all of our kids. Even as we harden ourselves against the misery of the most vulnerable among us, we are hardening the hearts and the minds of our own children. They are simply following our example; our aloofness is their immorality. They are a reflection our own indifference.

Quattro the cat is trying to tell us something. But the boys who tragically, horribly killed him are also trying to tell us something. Their lives, and the lives of millions of poor, disenfranchised, downtrodden children are stories that cry out to be heard.

Do we have the courage to listen?

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