Russell Morse

We Young People Get Our News Wherever We Can

jon stewartYO! EDITOR'S NOTE: A new poll shows young people are more likely to get their election coverage from "Saturday Night Live" than nightly newscasts. That's great, writes PNS contributor Russell Morse, 22, who says youth know they must search media far and wide to learn political truths in America today.

The primaries are in full swing. So far, Kerry is smiling, Dean is shooting Red Bull in his veins to prepare for next week and Lieberman has probably resigned himself to checking IDs at movie theaters for the rest of his political career. It's all very exciting. But there's one story that shouldn't go unmentioned in all the hoopla.

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press conducted a survey of young people to see where they're getting their election news. It turns out that only 23 percent get their updates from the nightly news, down from 39 percent in 2000. But here's the good news: 21 percent of young people ages 18 to 29 cited comedy shows like "Saturday Night Live" and Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" as their primary sources for campaign news. Twenty-one percent! That's, like, one in five 18 to 29-year-olds. I don't have my numbers in front of me, but I think that's a bigger percentage of young people than the ones who actually vote.

Needless to say, everyone is upset. Tom Brokaw was so busy denying the relevance of the study he almost missed the teleprompt reminder to swap out his bionic hip. And all over the TV, experts have been invited to talk about "what to do with our stupid kids." The only people who are happy about the study are the ones working at MTV news, who have done a lot recently to be taken more seriously.

I think people are taking this study the wrong way. It doesn't mean young people are stupid. It doesn't mean we don't care about politics. What it means -- and this is a good thing -- is that we're savvy enough to seek alternate news sources. We're the first generation to grow up with cable, and in the age of too much information we're one step behind the "microchip in your earlobe" generation. We know what's what. And we know that the local news isn't good for much more than sports scores and the five-day weather forecast. We also know that CNN is owned by the same people who own Batman and Eminem, so it's just entertainment. And boring. At least SNL is funny.

That TV news people are outraged about this whole thing just highlights the fact that they're out of touch. Even the politicians know how to get at young voters. Gov. Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy on Jay Leno. John Edwards announced his on Jon Stewart's show. Al Sharpton hosted "Saturday Night Live."

On my local newscast, the night before the New Hampshire primary, one correspondent remarked, "Somebody's gonna get voted off this island tomorrow." The anchor back in the studio responded, "Ha ha -- 'Survivor.' Thanks, Hank." How do you take that seriously? You don't.

I'm not saying that young people should only watch comedy shows to get accurate election coverage. But if young people are realizing they're not getting the information that they should be from the TV news, that's encouraging. People I know are turning to a number of alternate news outlets. The Internet is an obvious source for independent coverage. But there are others.

The other day, an 18-year-old with gold teeth was telling me about a story he read on Dick Cheney in The Socialist Worker. He said somebody had given him the paper at his community college, and even though he was skeptical, he read it. He told me, "I don't believe most of the stuff in there. But I read everything I get my hands on. That way, at least SOME of it will be true."

Russell Morse ( is an associate editor at YO! Youth Outlook ( a magazine by and about Bay Area youth, and a PNS project.

The Columbine Art Phenomenon

A scene from the movie "Elephant."

It's a long time since the last kid shot up his school. Close to three years, even. And it's been a busy three years -- new president, September 11, wars, everybody's broke. It's a different America today from the one that suburban boys were putting holes in. So I guess it's about time for some movies and books to start trickling out, fictionalizing the phenomenon that was the cafeteria shoot-em-up.

What do you know? In the past three months, two movies and two books came out which either use school shootings as a plot device or aim to explain the phenomenon. And they couldn't be more different from each other. We've got a zany farce, an art film, a mockumentary and (what could easily be) a Lifetime movie.

Let's start with the zany farce: DBC Pierre's parodic novel "Vernon God Little." The guy who wrote it is British and I guess he was so baffled by modern America that he decided to write a whole book clowning us. It's pretty funny. The title character is a 16-year-old kid who survives a school shooting, then gets scapegoated for the murders and has to fight a death penalty case in Texas. Now what could be more American than that?

I think the book does a better job explaining the energy behind school shootings than all those CNN child psychologists and Michael Moore combined. The book succeeds because it doesn't fall into the "I'm an expert" trap of trying to blame the violence on one thing. Instead, Pierre singles out the real culprit: the overwhelming insanity of millennium American life -- the richest time in the most prosperous country in the history of the world where everybody's fat (in the book, all the women are on the "Pritkin" diet), TV news media is off the hook with the scandal/murder/celebrity shit, kids are obsessed with basketball sneakers that could feed a dozen limbless Eritrean orphans for a month and every pre-teen boy has been "diagnosed" with some kind of condition. (Quick: What's another word for ADD? How about "being a freaking boy?" Tom Sawyer wasn't on Ritalin.) Pierre weaves all these factors and more into a seamless, insanely funny narrative which should be required reading in every high school right now. Oh, I forgot -- schools can't afford books any more.

vernon god little
DBC Pierre's parodic novel "Vernon God Little."

I guess while we're talking about books, I should mention the other one -- the Lifetime movie one. It's called "We Need to Talk about Kevin" and it's not very good. Or at least I didn't get it. It's about this lonely neurotic lady who writes letters to her ex-husband because she doesn't have anybody else to talk to. Oh yeah, and their son shot up his school and killed seven people. The only thing she can think about is herself, though. The whole book she's whining about "is it my fault?" and "everybody in town looks at me weird." Even though it's a good angle to take and a story I'd like to hear, the mom's perspective here was a little shallow and the shooting itself just becomes a platform for her to talk about guilt she had anyway.

"Elephant" is the art film, directed by Gus Van Sant ("My Own Private Idaho," "Good Will Hunting"). The whole movie (or most of it) takes place in a single day at a big suburban high school. Early in the movie, we look forward and see that this is the day that the school gets shot up. So we spend an hour and a half watching fresh faced kids float down hallways, giggling and crying and you can't help but wonder who's gonna die.

"Elephant" succeeds for the same reason that "Vernon God Little" succeeds: it doesn't try and tell you why it happened. It just happened. (Some slip-ups, though. There is a loooong scene of one of the future shooters playing a first-person shooter game and some clichéd bully scenes. And then, inexplicably, the two shooters -- both boys -- take a shower together and make out. There are a lot of ways to interpret that scene, but it's a pretty heavy statement to make with no explanation.) Other than that, though, the main thing I came away with was, "this is what high school is really like, so why didn't everybody go crazy and start shooting people?" "Elephant" makes high school look like high school, which is all at once boring, terrifying, fun and sick.

Then there's "Zero Day," which is the mockumentary. The idea behind it is: what if the Columbine kids kept a video diary in the days leading up to the shooting? The creepiest part is that the actors look just like the real kids and they're saying stuff you would expect them to say (Dude! Where's my pipe bomb?).

Having watched the movies and read the books, I'm in something of a stupor. The school shooting phenomenon has passed and if these examples are any reflection, still nobody knows what to think or say or do about it. It's like America said, "that was weird" and then made some abstract art blindfolded while listening to minimalist techno. And the whole idea of a movie about Columbine is mind-boggling. If you watch movies like "Basketball Diaries" and "Heathers," which both came out years before the shootings started, you can see scenes of schoolhouse carnage which are exactly like Columbine. And if you believe Joe Lieberman, that's why these kids did it -- violent entertainment. So a movie fictionalizing a school shooting committed by kids emulating a movie is art imitating life which imitated art. But forget the cliché. Art and life are in some crazy orgy where you can't tell whose foot that is or who's on top and there are fluids everywhere.

But "Vernon God Little" is a good book and you should rent "Elephant" when it comes out on video just to trip out.

Russell Morse is a senior writer for Youth Outlook.

The Killing Game

San Francisco's Mission District is a swath of palm trees, weathered Victorian houses and shops ablaze in tropical colors. On 24th Street, youngsters dressed in red lounge on the steps of McDonald’s, unmindful of wandering mariachis, Christians proselytizing in Spanish and old women selling roses and tamales. But on the back streets and alleys of this neighborhood, kids are dying.

The crime rate in California’s largest cities and counties is up 11 percent from last year. In San Francisco, a spike in gang violence in the past month, a dozen shootings, has led to six deaths. The victims are typically young -- 19, 21, 17 years old. Community workers say they've never seen anything like it. Mothers are afraid to let their sons leave the house.

But to the young people who live here, the drama is just a backdrop to a lifestyle that won't let them sleep. Here are the stories of three young men of the street who have made three different, fateful choices.

Animal Thug

"I'm an animal, bro... Animal Thug. That's me," he laughs, flashing twenty-dollar smiles at every girl who passes. Animal sits in Balompie's, a Salvadoran restaurant on 18th Street, eating chips and telling stories, stopping every few minutes to pop at a waitress who flirts back, giggling. He tells murder tales as if they were punch lines.

At 21, it's a wonder that Animal has made it this far. "I’ve been through a lot of sh--, man. I've been shot at hella times. I just come back at 'em -- pop back. We used to get in shootouts every day. Broad daylight, nighttime, whatever. There'd be hella people in the streets, throwing bottles at each other, shooting back and forth."

Animal is from 19th Street, with a well-known local crew of Sureños, a Mission gang. He has lived in the Mission most of his life and he got into the game early. The recent rise in shooting deaths barely registers with him. "It's been like this. It's nothing. You come around, you might get shot. That's just how it is."

But Animal knows the block is hot right now, especially for him. Not only is he a target for rivals, but the police know him -- he's a registered gang member. He’s already served time for attempted murder and he's still on probation. For now he’s given up selling drugs, but his pockets aren't hurting. "All my females pay me. I don't have to worry about money." He's considered moving to San Jose, to live with his girl and baby, but has a hard time seeing himself outside the Mission or tied to one woman.

His cell phone rings -- it does every few minutes. This call seems important, and he stands up to leave, blowing kisses to the waitress.

"A while back, some kid got shot by my house and people thought it was me. Someone told me they heard I was dead. I said, 'Yeah? I don't feel dead.' F--- it. Let them think that. Now I'm back. They call me Machiavelli."


Jose tried to live right, but the street was too strong. Now his older sister Gloria has to tell his story for him. Gloria’s little brother was killed two weeks ago. He was 21.

Gloria has been busy planning the funeral, helping her mom, begging the police for information and talking to Jose’s friends. "It's very painful." She pauses, glancing down. "There's nobody to blame. Even though he made bad choices, he wasn't a bad person."

Gloria and José's mom brought three kids to San Francisco from Nicaragua years ago, alone. She made a home for them in the Mission. They never knew their father.

When Gloria was 13 and Jose 10, their baby sister died from a brain tumor. That same year their grandmother, who lived with them, also passed. "Things weren't the same after that," Gloria remembers. "My mom started drinking a lot and kind of forgot about us. I was old enough to figure things out for myself, but I think José was kind of lost."

A few years later, José started at Mission High School. Soon he came home worried because some kids were pressuring him to join their gang. His mom tried to transfer him to another school, but the district said no. For a while, Jose wouldn't go to school because he was afraid. Eventually, he gave in to the pressure.

Jose wouldn't come home most nights because the block his family lived on was a rival gang’s turf. And then he got into drugs.

"It was really bad,” Gloria says. “He was gone for two or three months and we would drive around looking for him. My mom rode the bus looking for him. When we finally saw him again, he was so skinny -- oh my God. That's when we really tried to help him out, but there was only so much we could have done."

Eventually, he was arrested and spent some time in jail. When he got out, he went to go live with his brother in San Jose. Things got better. He gained his weight back, was spending a lot of time at home with his two kids, one 3 years old, the other 7 months.

"You could tell he was really starting to change. He was working out and everything and he was really excited not to have to worry about gang stuff. He would have the kids over at the house and play with them all day.” But one night, Gloria’s mother got a call from someone at the county hospital, which she couldn’t understand because she didn’t speak English. “Two minutes later,” Gloria says, “the police showed up at the door. 'Your son got shot. He's dead.'"

Gloria and her mother attend a vigil for Jose a few days later. José's friends from the gang are there, and everyone takes turns speaking. When José's mom gets up, she pleads with his friends not to seek retaliation: "My son is dead. I want you to live."


On a hot day Miguel, 19, is one of the guys you look for, whose bells bring summertime, sugar and ice. He's a paletero, one of many who walk the streets of the Mission pushing wheeled iceboxes filled with ice cream and popsicles, a buck a pop.

Miguel came from the coast of Oaxaca, Mexico. He's seen the district deteriorate. Walking the neighborhood every day, he meets all sorts of people and sees all that happens. He has chosen a path different from Animal Thug's and Jose's.

"I’ve been a paletero since I was 15," he says. There are lots of paleteros. They're all his friends, and rivals. "I’ve seen gang violence, sure. They fight, the cops come, they run. They've never robbed me or messed with me. Their violence is all about drugs; they have their turfs."

Miguel came here with an uncle. It took them 10 days, three days alone to cross the desert. "It was hot. The distance was never-ending. It was cold at night. There was only cactus, rocks, snakes -- desert stuff."

He misses Mexico. "But I came here to work, do right, send money home. It's not bad here. I make about $700 to $800 a month in the hot season. Bad days, about five bucks. Parks are the best. Music is important to me. I play the keyboards, you know. I sing corridos, cumbias, rancheas -- all kinds of Mexican music."

All he wants to do is "work, save money, go back home and live."

Russell Morse, 22, is associate editor of YO! Youth Outlook, a journal of youth life in the San Francisco Bay Area published by Pacific News Service. Josue Rojas, 21, is a graffiti artist and YO! staff writer and illustrator.

Who Wants to Be a Thousandaire?

A shabby blue, rusted-out Nissan Sentra from the Reagan era is streaming up 101 north carrying two young men who dub themselves "Millionaires in the Making." Otis, 19, and his partner Willis, 23, are driving to Sausalito to make a "drop" to some "rich kid dope fiends."

It's just one stop on what Otis calls "the paper route:" picking up and delivering methamphetamines all over the Bay Area, from Marin to Martinez. They claim to have once turned a $10,000 profit in a single day. But they have a larger vision: they're taking the money from the paper route and investing it in the stock and real estate market. The promise of profit gets them out of bed in the morning. As Otis put it, "If it don't make dollars, it don't make sense."

Money hunger is plaguing my generation. Though I can safely say that I would not employ such tactics, there's still a part of me that is restless and wonders, "If I don't make a million now, when will I?" The electrified atmosphere of the New Economy -- of wealth and cash and its consequential sense of urgency -- is driving some young people mad. Every day, there is another young millionaire who made their fortune in the tech world (their website gets bought out, they invent a product) which creates "dollar dementia" for those on the other side of the digital divide.

It's unclear whether the money itself or the drive to acquire it is trickling down from the top. But one thing is certain: if you grew up broke and you're not techno-savvy, you still want to be rich. What are your options? I talked to some friends of mine who are trying to build their fortunes in other arenas. It seems the attitude toward monetary gain is the same across the board whether the methods be traditional, unconventional or flat-out illegal. Dope dealers and dot commers, strippers and stock brokers share the same philosophy when it comes to the almighty dollar.

Growing Up Wanting
Otis explained that his obsession with fund raising has to do with growing up with nothing. He came of age in a run-down neighborhood full of "tweakers," or meth addicts, with a drug-addicted mother. Their family was dependent on government assistance, most of which went to support his mother's habit. His father was an alcoholic who rarely made an appearance, and Otis was left to provide for himself however he could.

"I remember seeing other kids wearing Jordans and having their own Nintendo," Otis lamented. "I wore the same dirty rags every day and my fridge was empty. Now, I practically got a cow in the freezer. " Otis noted that things have changed since elementary school in other ways, too. Now he sees people his age wearing designer suits and driving European luxury cars. But he keeps things in perspective. "This is America, man. Money is the great equalizer. If I'm wearing Versace and mashin' around in a [BMW] M3, nobody would ever know that I came up broke."

Climbing the Ladder
Sitting in a cluttered, musty living room, David, 18, is smoking cigarette after cigarette, lighting one off the other. He keeps his eyes in his lap and his head rests in his palms for most of our conversation. His eyes dart around and he whispers as he speaks as if what he's telling me is top secret.

David is taking a series of tests to be a certified Microsoft engineer. He's been told by his instructor (whose name he didn't want to give, as the "classes" might not be entirely legit) that once he passes the tests, he'll be guaranteed a job starting at a minimum of $60,000 a year. Apparently, Microsoft engineers are in demand.

He dropped out of community college in his second semester earlier this year to focus his energy on the tests and certification. He says he has no plans of going back to school, as he'll be "too busy making money."

David was born in Russia under communist rule and his family moved to the U.S. when he was eleven. Though he was young, he says he can still recall the initial shock of moving to a country where capital is everything. David says that his parents still tell him how grateful he should be to be living in a place where he's allowed to make as much money as his own drive will allow.

"Working with computers doesn't really interest me, but it allows me to make a lot of money," he said. "I don't really think I can be truly happy unless I have a lot of money. So, in a sense, this prospect is about my happiness as a person, my personal well-being."

Happiness is a pair of Gucci sandals
"For me, it's all about havin' thangs," said "Violet", a 19-year-old stripper at La Gals. "I think the happiest moment in my life was last year when I bought these little Gucci sandals. It was the first nice thing that I had bought with my own money. I swear, I almost started to cry when I was in line waiting to pay for them." Now, Violet claims to have over thirty pairs of designer shoes, several purses and a countless number of outfits. She's leasing an Infinity Q45, but has no place to sleep. She doesn't seem bothered by that. Nor does she seem bothered by her line of work.

"Ass is ass, you know? Sex and intimacy are two very different things. Sex is cash, it's like a form of currency...I don't feel degraded at all [by what I do] because I'm actually bettering myself--I'm making money. I feel like I'm getting over on these men who pay me to sit on their laps and bounce."

Refusing to Lose
The three didn't talk a lot about their plans for the future. There were, however, hints that money served as a fountain of youth. Any mention of raising a family or living a standard, suburban life was hurriedly doused with talk of wealth and possessions. "I'm not gonna sell myself short and just be on this earth makin' children", Otis scoffed. "I won't settle for less. I refuse to lose."

Violet echoed the children-as-obstacles sentiment. "The worst thing I think that could happen to me is that I would get pregnant. And I don't mean just 'cause I'm young or whatever. [Having a child] would just be something in the way of what I gotta do for me."

David shows signs of regret and reluctancy too. At one point while we were talking, he got solemn and furrowed his brow. He spoke about how he feels like he may have let his parents down by dropping out of school. But before he could finish the thought, he took a drag from his cigarette, scratched his near-bald head with the base of his palm and spoke slowly and intensely with a hint of masked misery. "I'm not patient person," he admitted. "I can't handle watching time pass me by. I want it all. And I want it now."


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