A day in the Death of America (2)

7.49pm In a
wealthy suburb of
Las Vegas, three time zones away, Jason Moore, Lamar Brown and four
friends went to another friend’s house to drop off some jeans. The friend and
his family were all away, but Lamar knew the code to the garage door and let
them in. Once inside, they made themselves at home, logging on to a computer
and messing about with Lamar’s MySpace page. Lamar’s younger sister, Tatiana,
describes him affectionately as "a little shrimp always talking like a big
lobster". Jason is variously described by friends and family as
"cool", "chilled" and "really nice". He wanted to
be a rapper and certainly had attitude. He had recently been suspended from
school after he "cussed out" a PE teacher who "jumped up in his
face". Lamar, 18, and Jason, also 18, were foster brothers. Their mothers
had once been friends. But Lamar’s mother, Robin Stumps, had become Jason’s
legal guardian because of his own mother’s drug habit. "When you saw one,
you saw them both," she says. "They were so close."

But there, in
their friend’s house, something happened. No one will say what, but it ended
shortly before
eight o’clock when Lamar shot Jason in the chest with a 20-gauge shotgun,
according to the police report. "I didn’t know what happened," says
Curtis Perkins, one of the boys who was with them. "I heard a gunshot and
then suddenly everybody was just running out the house. I ran, too."

According to
the police report, Lamar threw the gun in the bushes, called 911 for Jason and
then got in a car with three of the friends and drove away. Later, he came to
the hospital to see how Jason was faring and was picked up by detectives. News
reports that night suggested Jason’s condition was critical but stable and
recovering. He was pronounced dead at
3.50am the next morning.

"He bled
to death," insists family friend Dee-Dee Lovato. "The bullet hit his
shoulder and missed his major arteries and organs. Lamar shot him, but he
didn’t have to die."

"Accidents
happen," says Jason’s brother, Genesis. "People should watch what
they do with guns and shit – they ain’t nothing to play with."

I met Jason’s
family the day that Seung-Hui Cho shot dead 32 of his fellow students at
Virginia Tech university before turning the gun on himself. On the way there, I
heard several callers to the local radio station ringing in to say the tragedy
could have been avoided if the students had been armed.

"If you’re
not a policeman, you don’t need a gun," says Robin Stumps. "I thought
I was the best black mother in the world. None of my kids were gang members.
None of them has a gun."

"I
do," says her eldest son from across the room. "Well, I know how to
get one."

Tatiana has
Jason’s name tattooed on her arm – it is just one way in which the young here
remember their dead. Stores in some areas do a good trade in Rest In Peace
T-shirts. Inner city walls are decorated with RIP murals. More recently, pages
on MySpace have transformed a social networking site into an electronic
graveyard, with friends posting testimony to the departed. Jason’s page bears a
picture of him and Lamar with their arms around each other’s shoulders, taken
just days before the shooting.

Lamar pleaded
guilty to involuntary manslaughter. Originally it was thought he would get five
years’ probation but, following the publicity surrounding the shooting, a young
woman came forward with an accusation of sexual assault against him that could
carry anything from 10 years to life in prison. According to his sister
Chenell, he now sits in Clark County Detention centre crying himself to sleep.
When it comes to sentencing, his mother will act as a character witness for
both him and Jason.

7.57pm Two and a half thousand miles east, in Hyattsville, Maryland, gunfire shattered the quiet of a new
housing development near the
Martin Luther King Highway. Korey Campbell, 17, had been shot in
the back just five minutes from his home. Korey was going places. Specifically,
the next day he was going back to Keystone,
Pennsylvania, where he was just two weeks from
graduating from Job Corps, a vocational training programme for young adults.
Korey had been doing well: three weeks earlier, his supervisor’s report had
described him as an "outstanding young man" with "excellent
leadership skills" – "Korey will be an asset to whomever and wherever
he takes employment."

"He was ready
for life," says his mother, Vonda Campbell. "The first thing he had
to do was learn to drive. But he was ready … He was ready." Vonda had
struggled to make sure her children made something of themselves. Her eldest
son got a basketball scholarship to attend
New Haven university.

Korey had come
back for Thanksgiving, and when he was shot he was walking home from a friend’s
house to pack for the next day’s trip. "A lot of women around here have
lost their children for no reason," Vonda says. "I would hold my
breath when Korey was back until he got on the bus for
Pennsylvania. I chose to send him away from this
area."

Korey was the
fourth person to be shot in the area – notorious for drug dealing, she says –
in the past four months. "They had a vigil right there after two previous
murders, but I never thought it would happen to me." She pulls out a small
black bag with some of Korey’s things in it, including some T-shirts and his
favourite chewing gum. She hands me a picture of him in his coffin. "I can’t
look at it," she says. "If his sister comes in, pretend it’s
something else. She can’t handle that at all." The prison where Korey’s
father is incarcerated would not let him out for the funeral.

The police have
not contacted Vonda in several months to tell her of any developments in the
case. "It feels like nobody cares," she says. "Like he was never
here. Just another black kid dead. But he was here. He was my child. He
existed."

The Campbells
live just 25 minutes’ drive from Washington DC – the nation’s capital and,
tellingly, the place where young people are by far the most likely to be shot
dead (more than 15 times more so than in New York state). It is also home to
the Supreme Court, which upholds the second amendment of the constitution
enshrining the right to bear arms. Back in the 18th century, this was a
revolutionary measure, crafted to protect the general population from
tyrannical government (notably
Britain). Nowadays, the citizenry are more
likely to shoot each other. Even the most strident supporters of gun control,
such as the Brady campaign, say they respect the second amendment. "We
don’t even want to get into the discussion," says Alicia Horton. "We
are not a gun-banning organisation. The number one preventative measure to stop
young people being killed by guns would be to reduce access to firearms.
Regardless of how they died, if young people couldn’t put their hands on a gun,
then other young people wouldn’t be shot." Most Americans seem to agree: a
Pew research poll shows that while public support for greater gun control has
waned over the past decade, the majority still back it.

But it does not
look likely to happen any time soon – the gun lobby can still rally sufficient
support to take gun control off the political agenda regardless of who’s in
power. Before the 2000 election, the National Rifle Association boasted that it
was so close to George Bush that it would be working "out of his
office". They have been pretty much true to their word. (The NRA turned
down repeated requests for comment for this article.) Just a few weeks before
these nine youngsters died, the Democrats won control of both Senate and House
of Representatives in the Congressional elections. John Conyers, who became the
Democratic chairman of the House judiciary committee, pledged he would not
"support or forward to the House any legislation to ban handguns".

9.45pm In Cherry Hill, Baltimore, 14-year-old Bernard Simon was sitting
on a friend’s porch, just around the corner from his home, when someone shot
him. At one end of the street where he lived, searchlights stand on 20ft poles;
at the other is a flashing neon-blue light, courtesy of Baltimore police, with
the message "24/7 Believe". No one on the small block where Bernard
was shot will admit to having even heard of him. His mother has moved away. The
only evidence that Bernard was ever there is some graffiti scrawled on a power
box: "Hez hooliganz. RIP Bernie."

Cherry
Hill
has the
feel of a South African township. With just a few ways in and out, it is easier
to contain than it is to police. Sitting on a promontory poking out into the
Potapsco River, it is not on the way to anywhere.
Outsiders have no reason to go there, and many of those who live there have no
reason to leave because they don’t have work. More than half of its 8,000
residents live in poverty.

"If you’re
in
Cherry Hill, then chances are it’s your
destination," says Cathy McClain, executive director of the Cherry Hill
Trust, a local group dedicated to revitalising the area.

Boarded-up
houses punctuate the estate. In what is left of the playpark opposite Bernard’s
former home stands half a slide with small steps leading to thin air. The night
before I arrived in town, somebody was shot dead. Gangs became rampant in the
80s; membership was based on where you lived. And if gang life is no longer
synonymous with the drugs trade as it once was, the dealing continues.

Bernard was a
member of the Up The Hill gang – not to be mistaken for the
Hillside gang. "I don’t know what you can do
to fix this," says McClain. "We just haven’t been successful in
persuading these kids to want to live beyond their teenage years. They don’t
seem to want to be grandparents. They’d rather live on on somebody’s T-shirt.
If they’re 21, then they’re old."

Bernard’s
assailant was never found. Indeed, not one of the four cases of teenagers
killed by unknown gunmen that Sunday has been solved.

10.15pm Less
than an hour after Bernard Simon was gunned down, a call came in to Super Crown
Pizza in suburban
Atlanta for a home delivery to the Huntingwood Pointe housing
complex two miles away. Super Crown has a list of addresses it won’t deliver
to. It’s not difficult to see why – pizza delivery is a dangerous business in
these parts. "A lot of my deliverymen have been robbed," says
Muhammad Iftkhar, a Pakistani immigrant who arrived in the
US 13 years ago. "They steal the
money, they steal the food, the car. One time they took all the man’s clothes
and car keys. The guy just walked back here in his underwear." Another
time, Muhammad had a pistol stuck in his mouth while the place was cleaned out.
The chefs work behind bulletproof glass. Muhammad won’t say whether or not he
keeps a gun in the shop. "My main concern is business," he says.
"I don’t want any kind of trouble."

It was Zaid
Mahmood’s turn to take the pizza. Zaid had risked his life to deliver pizzas
before: four months earlier, he had been beaten and had all his money and his
green card stolen.

Huntingwood
Pointe is one of several housing estates that sits back off a main road and is
enclosed on all other sides by trees – it was not on Super Crown’s no-go list.
Zaid delivered the pizza and was on his way back to his car when, according to
police reports, "he was approached by a group of three or four people who
demanded his money". They told him to lie on the ground and hand over his
car keys. Zaid stayed standing and handed over the keys. One of the boys,
14-year-old Kenyatta Calhoun, told Zaid to hand over his mobile phone. Zaid
allegedly put his hand into his pocket, as though he were going for his phone,
took out his gun and shot Kenyatta several times. Two of the boys, one of whom
had already got into Zaid’s car, ran away. Kenyatta lay dying under a tree.

Chikobi Bush,
19, says he heard the shots and ran out to see what was going on. "I saw
Kenyatta lying on the ground. He was breathing, but he couldn’t say
nothing." He describes Kenyatta as a "cool guy". "He used
to come out, sit around and talk to people." It’s
11 o’clock in the morning when I visit, and Chikobi
is doing just that himself, sitting and talking in one of the stairwells. One
of his friends struggles to recall Kenyatta.

"The short
nigga?"

"No, the
light-skinned guy."

"He got
shot? Shit!"

A lot of people
get shot around here, they say – "For drugs, gangs, girls …
anything."

When I ask
whether everyone has guns, they just laugh. "You knock on a door and ask,
‘Have you got a gun?’ and see if they don’t pull a pistol on your ass,"
says the friend and laughs some more.

What do they
need guns for?

"Protection,"
says Chikobi.

From whom?

"From
everybody."

A few months
earlier,
Georgia had passed a "stand your
ground" law that permitted state residents to use deadly force to respond
to threats in public places, with no duty to retreat. Zaid walked free.

And so
Thanksgiving Sunday ended in
Atlanta as it began in the Bronx – with robbery, death and the sound of
gunshot. No one would know from where the next day’s deaths would come. The
only certainty was that they would come.

On the morning
of November 27, a gunlovers’ website, glocktalk.com, ran a discussion thread
about Kenyatta’s death the night before.

The Fly wrote,
"I do love a cleaner gene pool."

Butcher asked,
"How many 14-year-old gangbangers are gonna be killed this week?"

Lcarreau
responded, "Not enough."

 

 

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