A rash of shootings has cut deeply through Seattle’s black community, and left many struggling for answers.
The first killing that touched Leoma James happened in March.
Robert Robinson Jr. was the little brother of a close friend. He was 17, a Cleveland High senior, and gunned down in the middle of the afternoon on Beacon Hill. James, 20, drove back from Pullman, where she attends Washington State University, to be at the funeral.
In July, Reese Ali, 21, who had gone to school with James at St. Therese Catholic Academy, was found dead in an idling car in Renton. His death laid her low. “I couldn’t even go to the funeral,” she said.
A month later, a friend, 24-year-old Antonio Lamarr Jones, was fatally shot while walking his grandmother’s dog in the Central Area.
“Honestly, the thing that bothers me the most is that nobody has really had the opportunity to heal,” James said. “It’s been one death right after another.”
The Seattle Police Department confirms 2015 has been marked by an eruption of gunfire. By mid-August, the department had recorded 252 shots fired — a 30 percent increase over the same period last year. As of Friday, 11 people have died in Seattle, with more killed in surrounding areas, such as Renton, Kent and Skyway.
Most have been young black men. And so the trauma has hit especially hard among African Americans, some of whom, like James, are personally connected to several victims. They are caught in a state of perpetual grief and fear, wondering who will be next and, in turn, making adjustments, big and small, to their lives.
James, for instance, stayed in Pullman for the summer at the urging of her father, who felt it was unsafe for her to come back to Seattle. His point was made when James came home for the July Fourth holiday and went to a party on Westlake Avenue North that was punctuated by a shooting. Among a crowd of some 100 people, including a number of WSU students, “everyone hit the ground,” she said, and stayed there until police arrived.
On Aug. 25, police unveiled a strategy to deal with the violence, including daily internal briefings and weekly meetings with federal agencies and police departments in neighboring areas. But some of those most affected believe, as James put it: “We need to take it into our own hands to save our community.”
First, people have to acknowledge the carnage.
That was the point the college student’s father, a longtime activist named Charlie James, was making as he stood outside City Hall one recent Thursday with a “Black Lives Matter” banner. He began to affix pictures he had accumulated of local black men killed in the last two years. When he was done, 10 young men appeared on the banner — some mugging for the camera, some serious, some in T-shirts, one in a coat and tie. Robinson, the Cleveland student, wore a hoodie and smiled widely; behind him was the telltale blue background of a school photo.
On a piece of paper, Charlie James had written the names of 13 other young men whose photos he still hoped to get.
Only a handful of people turned up for what the activist, best known for his role in creating Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park, hoped would be a show of support for stopping the violence and an idea he was trumpeting to form a regional organization devoted to helping black youth. Among those who came, though, were people searching just as fervently for answers.
“I’ve never been to anything like this,” said Arianda Crosby, a nursing student at Lake Washington Institute of Technology. “I’m not interested in being an activist.” When the event showed up on her Facebook feed, though, she felt she had to come.
Two weeks before, Crosby’s cousin, Jones, had been killed. In the days afterward, as information poured in along with condolences, she and other family members realized the broader scope of the violence.
“I really don’t know what to do,” she said.
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Maybe, she thought, families like hers could reach out to other families that had lost someone, and perhaps in coming together they could stop the cycle of retaliation that seems to drive many of these murders. Young, angry youth won’t listen to the police, she reasoned, but they might listen to someone who was feeling the same pain that they were.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Charlie James, upon hearing it. “If we could all just get together, grieve together …”
The grief of Jones’ relatives is compounded by their puzzlement over what happened. The young man had just come from a shift at UPS, where he worked sorting packages on a conveyor belt. His grandmother, Carla Olson, who was also at the James event outside City Hall, recalled that before heading out with her dog, he showed her photos of himself bathing his two kittens.
“He was only gone 15 or 20 minutes,” Olson said. The dog came back alone and banged at the gate.
Jones was something of a late bloomer, Olson said. He left high school without the credits to graduate and took years to get his GED. Yet, she said, “He was just beginning to show signs of becoming a man.” He had settled into his UPS job, found an apartment in Kent with his best friend and began helping out Olson, who raised him, by walking her dog three times a week.
All the while, according to his grandmother, he had stayed out of trouble and away from gangs.
“We have no reason to believe he was involved in the gang lifestyle,” confirmed Assistant Police Chief Robert Merner. “I think he was shot because of where he was, rather than who he was.”
“Some gangs are actively involved in the area, and they go back and forth,” Merner elaborated. Sometimes gang members will go to an area looking to strike out at members of a rival gang — any members of a rival gang — and they end up shooting whomever is there.
To Jones’ family and friends, the seeming randomness of his slaying fed a feeling of terror.
“Now, I don’t let my kids out late,” said Maria Marshall, a family friend who also lives in the Central District. Even when she walks with her 14- and 9-year-olds, she’s careful to avoid spots that might be dangerous, like 26th Avenue and East Columbia Street, where Jones was shot.
Putting down the guns
Yet it’s hard to predict where violence will strike, said Will Baker, Jones’ best friend. “It happens in gas stations. It happens in church.” To his mind, there’s just one constant: the demographic profile of the victims, which matches his own.
“I feel like I’m a target,” he said.
Merner, however, stressed that Jones’ killing was an anomaly. Most shootings have been the result of beefs, whether over gang feuds, money disputes, romantic rivalries or personal slights. The larger question, he said, was how to stop some kid who’s mad from picking up a gun.
On the last day of August, Dominique Davis went to a scheduled bail hearing for two brothers accused of killing a close friend’s child: Lemaun Lancaster Jr., fatally shot in a Skyway parking lot in what Davis describes as a tussle gone bad.
Parents of the accused and victim were in the courtroom, faces drawn tight, but they came in vain. The hearing was postponed. So Davis went to his next appointment, with a gang member.
Samuel “P. Supremo” Morales was not involved in the killing. But Davis — a Rainier Beach-based personal trainer who coordinates King County’s 180 program, which allows youths charged with minor crimes to avoid prosecution if they participate in a daylong intervention — hopes Morales can help prevent other shootings.
“We want to get to the point where we can start grabbing the OGs” — original gangsters — “and get them to start talking to the younger guys,” Davis said. He wants the OGs to tell them to put down their guns, and to draw them into a youth employment program Davis wants to create.
The idea is in its earliest stages, but Morales, who heard about it earlier in the day at an initial meeting with Davis, is excited. “My mind was rattling the whole way here,” he said when he arrived at the appointed meeting place, the downtown library.
At a table on the top floor, he said Davis’ notion reminded him of what sometimes happened in prison, where the 33-year-old has spent much of his life on drug and gun charges. “When violence messed things up, and we’d be on lockdown, all the OGs would get together and sort things out.”
Morales’ arms and the top of his bald head are covered with tattoos of guns, shootings and the name of his gang, the United Lokos. A black bandanna, identifying him as gang affiliated, hangs out of his jeans. Davis characterizes him as two feet into the gang life and one toe out. Morales, who confesses to agonizing over whether to change, doesn’t argue.
But he says he’s trying. The day before, he said, he ran in to a young gang member who complained about having no suitable clothes to wear back to school. Morales figured the kid might do something bad to get them. So Morales offered to open up his own closet.
Davis thought he might be able to help, too. “Have that kid call me,” he said.