Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Resurrecting Jamiel’s Dream

Parents should never have to bury their kids. They should never have to stand at a bier gazing down at the body of their beloved, but Jamiel Sr. and Anita Shaw were unable to escape such a heartbreaking fate.

Yesterday, I went to the homegoing ceremony for their son, Jamiel. Affectionately known as “Jas,” the 17-year-old football star was gunned down last week three doors from his home. I don’t know the Shaws, and I’m not a friend of the family. I have never attended a funeral for a total stranger. I’m not like that nosy old lady who scans her newspaper’s obituary column and then enlists a gaggle of grannies to bumrush random burials. Jamiel’s death moved me. I wanted to stand in solidarity with his loved ones, as well as figure out how I could contribute to the healing of a city shattered by gang violence.

I slunk into the sanctuary of West Angeles Church of God in Christ, worrying that my outfit was a bit too bright for the somber occasion. Eric Clapton’s song “Tears in Heaven” played in the background as a montage of images — Jamiel as a baby being cradled by his grandfather, the chubby-cheeked toddler getting his first haircut, the pre-teen lovingly embracing his pops — rotated on the jumbo screens. Ushers shook tissue boxes at arriving mourners. Little boys strutted proudly in their too-big suits, blissfully unaware of the heartbreak on the program.

I walked up to the altar to view the body, right behind men wearing yellow gang intervention jackets. A teen behind me muttered, “I hate this shit!” From his angry outburst, I knew it wasn’t the first funeral he’d attended for a friend and probably wouldn’t be the last.

Jamiel lay in a blue casket draped with a white veil, a male sleeping beauty who would awaken with the kiss of a princess. He could have been anyone’s son, cousin, nephew, best friend. I couldn’t look at his face. I felt guilty. I focused instead on the interior of the coffin, which was inscribed with the hymn, “May the work I’ve done speak for me.” The words should have been a testament to a 70-year-old man, not a 17-year-old kid who looked forward to playing ball at Stanford or Rutgers.

Shortly after I took my seat, Jamiel’s family and friends filed in. His teammates — sporting cornrows and blowouts and fades — led the funeral procession in their blue-and-white football jerseys. Some wept openly. Others were mean-muggin as if on the field staring down an invincible foe. Next in line was the family, also wearing suits and dresses in Jamiel’s school colors. I lost track of his mom and dad in the bleak parade, but I caught their reactions on the overhead screen. Jamiel’s mother, Sgt. Anita Mae Shaw, was in Iraq on her second tour of duty when she received the phone call that her son was dead. Now she joined his father at the lip of the casket and his 9-year-old brother, Thomas. His parents viewed the body for a long time, shaking their heads in disbelief. Jamiel Sr. pressed a black handkerchief to his eyes frequently.

I’ve often wondered how families hold on to their faith when it seems as though they’re staring at the very nape of the Almighty. But even through her tears, Sgt. Shaw sang along with the soloists, or raised her hand, testifying, as they belted out “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and “Walk around Heaven”:

One of these mornings
It won’t be long
You’ll look for me
And I’ll be gone

I’m going to a place
Where I’ll have nothing to do
But just walk around
All day

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa addressed the 300 or 400 mourners in the cathedral and preached a message of forgiveness.

“Jamiel would tell us to remember him with our actions,” he said. "I think he'd tell us that we can't give in to fear, that we must stand up to it."

He recalled how he initially crossed paths with the teen. Shortly after his election, Mayor Villaraigosa planted a tree in the Shaws’ neighborhood to signify the growth and revitalization he envisioned for the city. In a twist of fate that is darkly poetic, when Jamiel was shot, his body fell a few feet away from the tree.

Jamiel Shaw Sr. rose to pay tribute to his son, apologizing in advance if he broke down on the dais. He denounced the idea that interracial hatred played a part in his son’s death, pointing out that Jas had many Hispanic friends and classmates.

“Jamiel was above black and brown,” he said, instructing the cameraperson to pan the football team, a patchwork of brown and black faces. “If blacks and Latinos come together, you know how powerful that will be?”

The elder Shaw pointed to a picture of Jamiel on the stage. The teen had taken the photo but died before it was developed. It showed Jamiel in his blue-and-white #4 jersey, holding a football, confidently pointing at the camera. This same image, I would later learn, was emblazoned on flyers beneath the ominous caption, “Do You Know Who Killed Me?”

“He’s pointing to us, and he’s saying, 'It’s up to you,'” Jamiel’s father said, his voice breaking. “It’s up to each one of us to make a difference so we can walk in our communities.”

Although the football star never realized his father’s “18-year plan” to ultimately go to college by staying in school and off drugs, Jamiel Sr. wants to continue that dream for other teens by establishing a foundation in his son’s name.

The eulogy was delivered by Dr. Hozell C. Francis, who is also Jamiel’s uncle. Dressed in a red-and-white robe, the pastor spoke fondly of baptizing his nephew, of the young adult who was always respectful to his elders, who attended church every Sunday and led his team in prayer before their games. But anger punctuated his conversational tone.

“We’ve got to do better than this!” he said, voice thundering through the sanctuary. He paused to note the irony of Sgt. Shaw flying home from Iraq to bury her son. “Here is a mother fighting terrorism on foreign soil, and lo and behold, street terrorism is right here.”

Even though Pastor Francis admitted that he couldn’t make sense of Jamiel’s murder, he didn’t want the young man’s death to be in vain. He encouraged the mourners, particularly the younger generation, to embrace the scripture Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Although it seems like hope was sealed up in a baby blue casket and laid to rest at Inglewood Park Cemetery, I do believe there is another plan. There has to be. Parents should not have to bury their babies. Just two days after Jamiel’s murder, 6-year-old Lavarea Elvy was shot by alleged gang members while riding in his parents’ SUV. He remains in critical condition with a bullet lodged in his head. Thirteen-year-old Anthony Ezquiel Escobar wasn’t so lucky. Two days after Lavarea’s shooting, Anthony walked into his neighbor’s yard to pick lemons and was later found with a gunshot wound to the head. He died with the fruit still clenched in his fists. His killers, alleged gangbangers, are still at large.

After the funeral, I received a text that one of Jamiel's killers was in police custody. Ironically, the Shaws were burying their son while the man accused of murdering him faced the death penalty. The arrest won’t bring Jamiel back, but it sends a message to gangbangers that terrorizing our kids won’t be tolerated. As Jamiel Sr. says, every child should be able to walk in his neighborhood without fear.

As I type this, Jamiel’s “Do You Know Who Killed Me?” flyer is propped up beside my laptop. And all I can think about is a gifted teen lying in a pool of blood beneath the tree that symbolized so much hope. We can’t raise Jas from the dead, but we can work to resurrect his dream.

To donate to the Foundation for Jamiel Shaw II, contact the USC Federal Credit Union, University Park Campus, 1025 W 34th Street, King Hall, 2nd Floor MC 2280, Los Angeles, CA 90089. Phone: (213) 821-7100 and fax: (213) 821-7151.

If you have any information regarding the murder of Jamiel A. Shaw II, please contact the Los Angeles Police Department. The toll-free number is (877) LAWFULL. A reward is being offered.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Fear of a Brown Planet, Part Dos

Reading my city’s homicide blog has become a guilty pleasure for me, like collecting Coach bags and surfing for Internet porn. The listings, compiled weekly from the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, are classified according to race and method of murder. Occasionally, the blog provides a snapshot of the victim’s life so as not to reduce him or her to just another faceless statistic. While I sympathize with the families of the departed, I still feel like a Peeping Tom gazing into other people’s pain.

I came across an entry a few days ago that shattered the window of my cyber voyeurism: the murder of 17-year-old Jamiel Shaw. Shaw was a high school MVP who was wooed by Stanford and Rutgers mere days before his death. His story had all the elements of an urban tragedy: a promising football star shot down right before he made it out of the hood, a killing that occurred three doors from his house, a mother on her second tour of duty in Iraq returning home to bury her son. Yet, one detail of this horrific crime infuriated me more than any other: Shaw’s assailants were Hispanic.

It’s hypocritical of me to ruminate on the interracial aspect of this murder because statistics show that 90 percent of black victims are killed by fellow blacks. Would I be as angry if Shaw were a garden-variety gangbanger caught in a hail of Crips gunfire, or if he were a Latino honor student ambushed by black thugs? Sadly, I wouldn’t. Maybe I have bought into the media hype of “ethnic cleansing" in Los Angeles, from the senseless killing of 14-year-old Cheryl Green — a black eighth grader who was gunned down by Hispanic gang members as she played with her friends — to Latino gangs like Florencia 13 and the Avenues who were involved in several high-profile racially motivated homicides. When I’m driving through certain areas of L.A. lined with bodegas y laundromats, I have an illogical fear of being targeted for my skin color. Sometimes I feel like the proverbial white woman who clutches her purse as a black guy walks past her on the sidewalk.

Maybe I’m guilty of racial fealty. Maybe I privilege the preservation and superiority of my own tribe above all others, and Shaw’s death — the good black kid on the road to success — deducts points from the ethnic scoreboard. Maybe I’ve allowed myself to get caught up in a wave of anti-Hispanic hysteria, which pushes the narrative that Latinos are hostile to African-Americans, won’t vote for a black presidential candidate and are taking all the good jobs.

Whatever the case, I've allowed my emotions to get the best of me. Right after I read about the running back’s violent death, I fired off an e-mail to Antonio Villaraigosa, the Latino mayor of Los Angeles. The angry missive began by accusing him of stumping across the country for Hillary Clinton to drum up Hispanic support for her campaign while black-and-brown conflict was escalating in his own backyard, and ended with the assumption that if a rash of black-on-brown crime occurred in Los Angeles, he’d be holding bilingual press conferences weekly. The e-mail was vitriolic, racist and a bit premature. As I sheepishly noted hours after hitting the send button, Mayor Villaraigosa attended a candlelight vigil for Shaw and said his murder may be prosecuted as a hate crime.

I don’t want to become that angry black chick with fears of a brown planet. I don't want to be that dysfunctional diva who panics at the sight of every newly erected bilingual billboard, who reduces every Hispanic – regardless of country of origin – to Mexican, who contemplates calling the cops on the homeowners across the street for blasting merengue from an ancient radio on their back porch, but who tolerates the deafening bass of My Chemical Romance emanating from the apartment of the college students next door, who fears driving south of Wilshire or east of Vermont, and who allows self-imposed perimeters to not only block out “aliens,” but to fence herself in.

Even in the midst of his anguish, Jamiel Shaw Sr. didn’t view his son as the casualty of a brewing race war. "I don't see it as black and brown," he said during an interview. "I see it as a gang problem."

I could take some notes from the elder Shaw and examine my own prejudices. Instead of viewing every injustice through a brown-and-black lens, I need to determine what I can do to promote tolerance and healing.

As of this writing, the homicide blog is featuring a snapshot of Antwan Cole, a 19-year-old black male who “loved people” and “was going places.” The former football player, who had dreams of becoming a sports commentator, was shot at a bus stop after his evening shift. Instead of scanning the ten or eleven paragraphs of his memorial to see if his assailants were Spanish-speaking, I can honor Cole’s life — as well as Shaw’s — by focusing on his legacy.

To donate to the Foundation for Jamiel Shaw II, contact the USC Federal Credit Union, University Park Campus, 1025 W 34th Street, King Hall, 2nd Floor MC 2280, Los Angeles, CA 90089. Phone: (213) 821-7100 and fax: (213) 821-7151.

If you have any information regarding the murder of Jamiel A. Shaw II, please contact the Los Angeles Police Department. The toll-free number is (877) LAWFULL. A reward is being offered.