In September 2019, a woman from Denver called and asked me if the name Marlin Dixon rang a bell.
When I told her no, her next question was if I remembered the Charlie Young Jr. beating case.
Of course, I remembered.
In 2002, Young got into an altercation with a group of teenagers on the city’s north side. He sucker-punched one of the kids, knocking out a tooth. The teens chased him, picking up more people drawn to the excitement. They found Young, dragged him out of a house, and beat him mercilessly, busting open his head. Young died a couple of days later.
It all came back to me. Even in the roughest neighborhoods, it was considered shocking, an eruption of violence unlike anything that had preceded it.
The caller, Vicki Conte, wanted me to know that the 14-year-old who young punched in the mouth was still incarcerated. Marlin Dixon was in the 17th year of an 18-year prison sentence, by far the harshest of the group.
Conte also told me Dixon had a daughter who was just an infant when he was arrested.
“I know you help people and I worry about him when he is released. Milwaukee has changed and I worry that if he doesn’t have the support, he will end up back in prison,” Conte told me.
Conte was the victim’s advocate for the Milwaukee District Attorney’s Office in 2002. She was in court day after day to support Fannie Young, the mother of Charlie Young Jr.
But she found herself feeling sympathy toward many of the youths, especially Dixon, who already had a baby and received what Conte considered an inadequate defense.
“Most of these kids grew up around violence and crime. Their families were barely making it, and while they made a terrible mistake, I felt conflicted,” she said.
In 2017, haunted by what might have happened to Dixon, she reached out to him. He responded. Now she was expanding that relationship to include me.
She gave me Dixon’s address at Waupun and I sent him a letter. Over the next year, we exchanged more letters, and then phone calls.
In my first letter to Dixon, I sent him several names of organizations who work with former inmates. And then I had a lot of questions.
What has prison been like for you?
Do you have a support system set up upon your release?
How is the relationship with your daughter?
Do you ever talk to any of the other youths who were involved in the incident?
Dixon sent back a six-page letter.
He shared how difficult it was to maintain relationships with people on the outside. He saw many people from his old neighborhood cycle through prison but had no contact with the others involved in the beating. He told me he grew up surrounded by violence.
“Growing up in traumatic environments, like living with a violent drug addict Dad, living in a run down hood, and eventually me living in a prison, could have spelled out the road to perdition. I learned that in life struggling and suffering is inevitable , but to be miserable about it is a choice and I choose to rise above my trauma by keeping my joy and enjoying my life no matter the circumstances.”
He admitted the idea of freedom was scary.
“Although I consider myself to be strong, I have my fears and anxiety about becoming a free man and maybe that’s a good thing. … I fear letting myself and others down in a serious way and what brings about my fear is my time on paper (his 22 years of supervision after release) knowing my life can be snatched from me if I’m not always perfect. ”
In a subsequent letter, I sent Dixon a book of poetry by Milwaukee author, speaker and educator Kwabena Antoine Nixon. Nixon’s father was shot to death when he was 11; Dixon’s father was stabbed to death when he was 13. It’s a tragedy all too common among Black boys. Today, Nixon works with youths, mostly Black and brown boys, getting them to talk about the trauma they have endured.
As his time behind bars wound down, Dixon told me his release day was Sept. 22, 2020, and he asked if I would come up.
I told him I wouldn’t miss it.
Incarceration has hit the Dixon family hard. Two of Marlin’s brothers served time, as did his father.
“It stops here,” Dixon said. “We have given too many years to the prison system. We have to be the ones to break this cycle.”
Longtime Milwaukee educator Howard Fuller recalled the language used at the time of the young killing for Black boys coming into the court system. There was a lot of talk about “Black-on-Black crime,” and some youths were labeled superpredators and considered a lost cause with little to no moral fibre.
The term was coined in the early 1990s by John Dilulio, a Princeton professor and criminologist. “The superpredator is a young, juvenile criminal, who is so impulsive, so remorseless, that he can kill, rape, maim, without giving it a second thought,” he said in 1996. He advocated locking kids up.
Dilulio’s position came at a time when juvenile crime — not incarceration — was actually falling across the nation.
Fuller recalled talking to community leaders about investing in children of color, especially Black boys living in poverty.
If you treat children with no value when they are 2, 3 and 4 years old, and don’t support them and give them love, you don’t want to see them when they turn 14, 15 and 16, Fuller said.
“Imagine what would have happened if we would have reached these kids when they were younger,” Fuller said, referring to the mob that killed Young.
Today, too many people still live in inhumane conditions, he said, “so their response is inhumane. We put them in conditions human beings should not be living in, and so they are not going to respond as caring, loving people.”
Notably, Dilulio reversed his position, telling The New York Times in 2001 that we need “caring, responsible adults to wrap their arms around these kids.” But by then his work had taken root in American thought.
“I’m sorry for any unintended consequences,” he said of his earlier work.
Last October, I took Dixon to a Project RETURN dinner at Marquette University and introduced him to many people who worked with those who have been released from prison. The organization’s mission is to “help men and women make a positive, permanent return to community, family and friends.”
Project RETURN provides assistance with employment, housing and counseling.
Dixon gathered business cards, and several of the men invited him to join their different groups.
In the time I’ve known Dixon, I find him to be an honest and open young man. He’s well-read. He’s competitive. He never turns down a challenge on a basketball or handball court. His upbeat attitude should serve him well as he continues to adjust to being free.
Out nearly two years now, Dixon has another 20 years of extended supervision to serve until he is completely “off paper.” He will be 54 years old.
“What I did was wrong,” he told me. “I truly apologize to the young family and I will continue to do what I can to try to make up for what I did.”
Beyond catching up with Marlin Dixon and one of the most notorious cases in Milwaukee history, the intent of this series is to raise questions about how far we have come — and, frankly, not come — in dealing with young people growing up in what we now understand to be traumatic circumstances.
“Almost every day we hear about a young person being shot or hurt or exposed to violence and trauma, and I’m just trying to understand, man, what’s going on and how we can change it,” Fuller told me. “Our youth are crying out for help and no one is listening to them. I don’t think enough of us care enough about what happens to our young people.”
If Fuller is right — and I think he is — I fear that it’s only a matter of time before another Charlie Young Jr. case happens again.