Mothers Weep

SPRINGFIELD MA (Jan. 24, 2005) – Valerie King Jackson can remember the trepidation with which her family waited for her 27-year-old son Tremayne King to be redeployed to Iraq last October. He was serving his country with the Army, but Springfield seemed much safer than the Middle East.

On a crisp day last September all of that changed. Her son, a father of five, became one of 17 people – most of them young black and Hispanic men – slain in Springfield last year.

And King Jackson joined a growing list of mothers left only with grief and dreams of what might have been.

If he had to die, she did not want him to die in Iraq, where bombs explode every day, rendering the victims unrecognizable.

In the end he died in his own home, stabbed to death by a man who says he acted in self defense.

“The person that I see I can definitely ID,” said King Jackson of her son.

But that’s small comfort. Her son, a twin with a sister, wasn’t supposed to die young in the first place. That he did fits a national pattern in which homicide remains a leading cause of death for young black men.

“This is where I grew up, this is where I wanted to raise my children and live in a house with a backyard,” King Jackson said. “He died and the other was arrested, that’s the only thing I know. In the meantime, I pray for everybody. You have to realize that you have to live beyond the pain.”

Sheila Shepard knows all about pain. She and her husband, John, crusaded against violence last year after both of their 19-year-old twin sons were shot to death just weeks apart. No one has come forward to identify the killer of one of their sons.

“I’m hurt by it,” said Sheila Shepard. “If you were standing there and you saw that boy do what he did. You’ve seen it with your own eyes. It has to haunt you when you sleep.”

For these families, the city they thought of as a cocoon of safety appears to have become a viper’s nest of killers.

Thugs barely old enough to drive roam Springfield streets with guns, knives and rage. Petty arguments end in murder.

Mothers weep as the city sleeps.

“Today’s generation wants this to be a Little New York, a Little Chicago, or wherever Snoop Dogg is from,” said King Jackson, an open and friendly woman who is a second-grade teacher at Mary O. Pottenger Elementary School.

For most people, homicide is something they find out about in the daily news. For others, it is part of their family history.

When Sheila Shepard’s second twin son was shot to death last July, Tasha Alston was so moved that she arranged a benefit concert in November and sang her heart out.

Like most people in the city last summer, Alston couldn’t imagine the family’s loss.

Then, just four days later, Alston’s 22-year-old cousin became the city’s 14th homicide victim. The reason police say he was gunned down on the day before Thanksgiving? A fight over marijuana.

A mother of four, Alston’s eldest son’s father, Tyron Raiford, was a shooting victim himself in 1995. Raiford, 20, was killed by a teenager at a fund raiser for a 20-year-old convicted murderer who received a life term

The year Raiford died, 28 others were killed in the city. Including Raiford, 12 were white, 11 were Hispanic and six were black.

Of the 17 people who lost their lives at the hands of others in Springfield last year, 14 were young black or Hispanic males between the ages of eight months and 27. And the majority of suspects are black or Hispanic, or both.

One victim, a 3-year-old boy, was raped and beaten to death by a 12-year-old boy, according to police. Another victim, 8 months old, was beaten to death by an 18-year-old man who said he couldn’t stand the infant’s incessant cries, police said. The suspect cried at his own arraignment.

A mute city

Rather than a massive community response, the killings sparked individual outrage and calls for change. A candlelight vigil for the homicide victims held last month drew just 75 in a city of 150,000. No city or area officials were present.

“The city has to respond,” said Chelan Brown, co-chairman of the community outreach group AWAKE (Alive With Awareness, Knowledge and Empowerment).

Alston agrees.

“The community needs to stand up,” she said. “People lose interest when it’s not about them. Then when death knocks on their door, they’re interested.”

In his state of the city address earlier this month, Mayor Charles V. Ryan said the killings should concern the entire city.

“The tragic and senseless loss of 16 of our citizens who were murdered in 2004 is a criminal offense against the victims, but also our whole society,” Ryan said days before a murder charge was lodged against the 12-year-old boy.

Police made arrests in 12 of the killings and are pursuing a suspect for a Dec. 22 homicide. Eight involved guns and the others hand-to-hand combat, including five stabbings and four beatings.

“Our problems are not limited to guns,” said Springfield Police Chief Paula C. Meara. “They extend to the gang culture; they extend to the drug culture.”

The motives for the crimes were varied, but many appeared to spring from impulsive violent outbursts by the alleged killers.

Cycle of violence

Why do killers kill? In some cases the accused themselves have witnessed violence as a child. The 18-year-old accused of killing the baby told investigators he was abused as a child and couldn’t stand to hear the 8-month-old crying. Corey Ramos, a 19-year-old convicted in 2003 of killing a Springfield school counselor, had witnessed abuse at home as a child, his lawyers said.

With the line separating assailant and victim razor thin in street fights, it often comes down to luck as to who winds up dead and who winds up behind bars.

After their 19-year-old sons were shot to death last year, John and Sheila Shepard tried to unite the city against the violence. Darnell was shot in May at a party attended by more than 100 people at a Springfield club, Daylan in July for walking in someone else’s presumed territory.

Some friends who came to memorial services for Darnell said they believe they know who killed him. They have offered condolences but no names.

A day doesn’t go by when Sheila Shepard doesn’t pray for a mute city to speak. Every week John Shepard calls the Hampden County District Attorney’s office to find out if the DA knows who killed his sons.

While the Shepards work to end the code of silence, some blacks and Latinos point the finger right back at the Police Department.

“We’re all experienced at being pulled over,” said Kenneth Downes, 40, a driver for the Springfield Girl’s Club who spends his own time reaching out to youths milling about at night. “The compound years of being disrespected by the Police Department creates distrust.”

There are four recent police misconduct complaints in the city, including two that have resulted in discipline for the officers and two that remain under investigation. One, involving police response to a school principal who said he was having a diabetic seizure, has prompted a federal civil rights lawsuit. The principal is black and the responding officers white.

But the problem can’t stay focused on the Police Department alone, said The Rev. Karen Rucks, executive director of the Greater Springfield Council of Churches. “All of us have to take responsibility. We can’t blame the police for watching somebody get beaten up.”

She was referring to four teenagers, one of whom is 14, accused of beating to death 18-year-old James K. Brown last April.

Altar of violence

Despite the tremendous toll of such violence, it permeates popular culture and even gets an equal place of honor at shrines to its victims.

At 132 Mill St., where Alston’s cousin Gregory “Mally” Holmes was killed in November, a shrine contained a Bobby Black CD titled “Donn’s Day,” showing him in three separate poses on the cover, a gun in each hand.

In “The Fire Next Time,” James Baldwin wrote of being black in a country where racism is the fire burning down the house. The embers of that fire appear to have stoked a youth subculture that glorifies violence, which in turn is incinerating the future of an entire generation.

A song about Death Row by Snoop Dogg has enough expletives to put vowels out of business. In it he disses young black men who are “supposed to be gangstas” but instead are just “snitches.”

The rap videos, Alston said, encourage youths to make bad choices: Glitter takes the place of hard work, sexual overtures for real relationships, provocative dancing for informed conversation. Women and girls are often referred to as whores or worse.

The altar of violence at which youths worship was among the subjects entertainer Bill Cosby despaired of in a controversial speech in May commemorating the desegregation of schools in this country. Cosby is just a messenger, but the community itself must solve its problems, some of those who work with youth say.

“Anywhere you go in the U.S. there’s going to be a hood,” said Downes, who works with a group called U-Turn Street Workers. “It’s how you raise your child. Bill Cosby is not our savior. The black savior in this town is mama and papa.”

Downes is not a pastor but several times a week he seeks out black youths in hopes of saving them. “I look for the kid that’s slipping through the cracks,” he said.

Recently he distributed sheets detailing the severe penalties that await those caught with illegal guns – up to 15 years for three convictions and one gun.

“We need foot soldiers. I’m a foot soldier for change,” said Downes, whose briefcase is a file cabinet of pamphlets announcing community events and the history of African-Americans.

“We’re in a war to save young people’s lives,” he said.

Despite concerns about how police interact with the black and Hispanic community, he said it is too easy to place all the blame on law enforcement.

“Cops are not social workers. The police are there to protect property and laws,” said Downes.

Like many others in this city, Downes said this country’s priorities are askew.

“Here we are rebuilding Iraq,” said Downes. “How about rebuilding this city?”

Downes also works with Andrew R. Keaton, director of a program called Brotherhood on the Move Inc. that counsels inner city youth in Greater Boston and Springfield. Keaton said young men’s ignorance of their rich African ancestry has resulted in a disrespect for themselves and others. His program teaches youth basic principles, such as respecting elders and women and the value of education.

Then there’s the work that starts at home.

“All of us have to look at how we are speaking to our children at home,” said Rucks. “People have to make changes: ‘Today I’m going to do something different in my family. I’m not going to jump in the ocean, but I’m going to take one step in the water. I’m going to speak well today.'”

Alston said her cousin’s killing points to how disrespect and humiliation can become triggers in small but lethal disputes.

“I never expected anything to happen to him,” said Alston. “These children are lost. There are some parents who need to do their jobs.”

Alston lives in West Springfield, a 60-second trip across the bridge over the Connecticut River from Springfield. But it is another world, she said.

Meanwhile, on the Springfield side, the Shepards and other families remain, waiting for a measure of justice to dampen just a bit of their searing grief.

After Daylan Shepard was shot to death on Wilbraham Avenue on July 10, police arrested two young men, step-brothers, already awaiting trial for alleged crimes ranging from illegal firearms to kidnapping.

Police said one, Porfirio Morales, shot Daylan Shepard repeatedly with a 9 mm gun. Why? Because Shepard was walking through Morales’ “neighborhood.”

At the arraignment, the mother of the slain and the mother of the accused locked eyes. Both deeply spiritual, church-going women, they spoke calmly, offering to pray for one another.

“She said she was sorry,” said Shepard, who in turn also expressed her sorrow to the mother of the men accused of killing one of her sons. “Now those boys are dead, in jail for the rest of their lives,” she said.

Just last week, a Post-Homicide Family Support Program held an open house in Springfield to aid loved ones of victims.

Echoing the Holyoke police chief, the Springfield police chief said a lenient criminal justice system is partly to blame for the cycle of violence.

“The existing laws are failing our children by releasing dangerous people right back to the community,” Meara said. “And making it more dangerous to be a witness.”

A bill before the state Legislature this year would fund protection for victims and witnesses, including armed protection and physical relocation, and allow stronger penalties for gun law violations. Brown’s AWAKE group is drafting a legislative bill that would increase community center programs and extend their hours as well as provide money for more community outreach.

“When we’re out there, we stop people from shooting other people,” she said.

Hopes and prayers

The Shepards, who have four other children, are still waiting to face the killer of Darnell. They are considering taking the unsolved case to the TV show “America’s Most Wanted.”

And Sheila Shepard is praying for strength.

“As a mother, when they’re alive, you always protect them. You always protect your children, and now that they’re gone, I still have to protect them, so I still have to stand up and I still have to speak. I have to get the strength to meet people and to be out there, to find justice.

“I can’t sit still. I look at the children that I have left – they’re the future. I don’t want them to be fearful of riding down the street or going to visit a friend or go to a party and that same thing happens.”

In parts of this city, mothers hope for what should be a guarantee, that their children come home safe. Some watch their children leave the courtroom in handcuffs, to be seen from now on through a glass partition at a prison. Some even less fortunate bury the victims in the city where they once learned to walk.

Sheila Shepard will do no such thing. She keeps her sons’ ashes in urns in her living room.

“I refuse to place them in Springfield soil. Springfield took them. Why would I bury them here? I can’t do that. I couldn’t do that as a mother,” she said, the resolve growing in her soft but firm voice.

“If I get up and leave, it’s like saying I don’t care. I do care. I care about what happened to my boys. I want to see justice. I want the people who did this to see me. Let them see that there’s a family there.”