I’m standing in a Central Area parking lot, staring down at a death memorial spray-painted on the pavement — “RIP BRANDON,” it reads — when a woman walks across the lettering, sees me and stops.
“You lose something?” she asks.
Her heels come to rest on the deceased’s name. It’s already one of the sadder memorials I’ve seen, because it’s right next to a Dumpster and someone misspelled the name as BRANDAN, only to later write in an “O” in a different color.
“A guy was shot here,” I say. “I’m trying to find out who he was.”
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The woman looks down. She steps off the dead man’s name. After a moment she turns and goes in the 23rd and Jackson Starbucks to get a coffee.
A 50s-ish African-American man is nearby, watching me, so I ask him: Did you know him?
No, he says, then adds: “Another young black male.”
This is said with great resignation, and it turns out to be true. The dead man’s name was Brandon L. Williams. He was 29 and had a long criminal history. Police say he got in an argument in the crowded Starbucks parking lot and pulled a gun. He allegedly pointed the gun at a security guard, who shot him.
This happened at 7 p.m. at one of the Central Area’s more bustling corners. Most afternoons it’s packed with school kids because a middle school — my daughter’s middle school — is a block away. At the time of the shooting, a crowd of bus riders was boarding 20 feet away and some dived onto the floor of the bus.
This was the sixth shooting, and the third homicide, in this neighborhood in the past two months. Several are suspected to be gang-related, part of an escalating war. Two of the shootings occurred across the street from the middle school. Another happened a few blocks distant, when a man wearing a ski mask killed 19-year-old K’Breyan Clark as he sat in a car in a driveway.
At the time of Clark’s killing, my son’s baseball team was practicing nearby at Judkins Park. In the commotion and hail of sirens, we wondered if we should pull the kids off the field and get out of there. We stayed. We learned later that someone had been executed, shot repeatedly at close range, while the boys shagged fly balls in the park.
We continue to practice there every week. Going on as if nothing remarkable happened.
I read a science-fiction book recently called “The City and The City,” by China Miéville. It’s about two cities that somehow occupy the same physical space. The residents of one are barred from interacting with residents of the other. So they learn to “unsee” one another, even as they walk the same streets or play in the same parks.
This is how the Central Area feels these days. There’s the city of gang murders, and the city of Little League parents briefly fretting about it. There’s the city of RIP BRANDON spray-painted on stained pavement, and the city of the woman walking across the name in heels to get some coffee.
The two cities can’t see one another. Or won’t see.
Last year, a bullet fired in one city crossed over and hit someone in the other — a dad of two, Justin Ferrari, who was killed at the wheel of his minivan.
For a time after that, there was talk about how to try to be more like one city. Meetings were held. When the shooting died down in the second half of the year, there was a sense of relief and of progress.
But the shooting is back. The Seattle Times asked a gang specialist what is going on, and he described a parallel world of power alliances, grievances and generational feuding that, among other things, led one friend to shoot another in broad daylight at a busy Central Area intersection as part of a gang loyalty test.
None of this has gotten much attention. Unlike last year, the bullets have all stayed in the other city.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org