Six Black men carried a dove gray casket with silver fittings through a parking lot Friday afternoon and set it atop saw horses on the northwest corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and Rainier Avenue South.
The casket, borrowed from a mortuary in Kent, was a visceral symbol of the shooting deaths of young people of color that have devastated local families and communities this year as the COVID-19 pandemic has spawned an uptick in gun violence.
Organized by a collective of community-based programs that support youth and work to keep Black and brown kids out of the criminal justice system, the streetside event was held outside The Original Philly’s cheesesteak sandwich shop and drew a crowd of about 60 people, many of them teenagers and young adults.
The program for the event — called “Who’s Next? We Want to Live” — was printed to look like a program for a funeral service and noted that for young Black men, homicide is the leading cause of death.
Ajala Wilson-Daraja, Sudee Phavong, and Kam Sims — all members of a youth action team out of the Rainier Vista Boys & Girls Club — ticked off the names of friends who’ve been gunned down this year.
There was Conner Dassa-Holland, 18, who was fatally shot in Rainier Beach in May. More recently, 18-year-old Adriel Webb was killed in the Central District on July 20, and the next day, Jamezz Johnson, 19, was shot in the head while attending a memorial for Webb. He died at Harborview Medical Center.
“To me, right now in the community, people in my age group are numb. We feel like the city doesn’t care about us,” said Wilson-Daraja, 18.
Derrick Wheeler-Smith, director of King County’s Zero Youth Detention program that’s part of the Regional Approach Method (RAM) Collective, said during the event that someone’s Zip code is more a predictor of life expectancy than race. He and other speakers called on local governments to invest in poorer neighborhoods and ensure young people have access to housing, internships, jobs, educational opportunities and mental-health treatment.
While government money is being poured into combating the coronavirus pandemic, little is being done to fund the pandemic of gun violence, said Wheeler-Smith and others.
“Gun sales in America are at the highest they’ve ever been. Why is that? Because Americans don’t feel safe,” Wheeler-Smith said. “I can tell you we have young people walking around who don’t feel safe,” and so they’ve armed themselves for protection.
Of the 68 homicides in King County so far this year, 23 victims were young people ages 16 to 25 killed by gunfire, according to a Seattle Times database compiled with information from police, prosecutors and the King County Medical Examiner’s Office. Nine of the 23 were fatally shot in Seattle, where there have been 29 homicides so far this year, one more than in all of 2019.
Additionally, doctors at Harborview Medical Center treated 108 gunshot patients between May and July, and 19% of them were under age 19, with another 30% between the ages of 20 and 29, Dr. Eileen Bulger, the hospital’s chief of trauma, said earlier this month.
The site of Friday’s call to action was significant for a couple reasons. It’s a busy route during rush hour and marks the unofficial border between the Central District and the Rainier Valley, historically Black neighborhoods.
But more important, Willard Jimerson Jr. noted two of the cheesesteak restaurant’s former owners were fatally shot when the sandwich shop was at its previous location at 23rd Avenue and East Union Street: Troy Hackett, 38, was killed in 2003 about nine blocks from the restaurant, and five years later Hackett’s best friend and business partner, 32-year-old Degene “Safie” Dashasa, was fatally shot and a customer was wounded inside the business.
“We’re used to seeing Black death,” and so people are desensitized to those deaths, said Jimerson, the community facilitator for the county’s Zero Youth Detention program. He pointed to footage of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X being shot, the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles all the way up to the May death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
Jimerson sees Black-on-Black and brown-on-brown violence as byproducts of white supremacy. Blacks were brought to this country as slaves and “were introduced to some of the most horrific crimes known to humanity,” he said. “We’ve never been allowed to have equitable access to opportunity.”
Slavery produced the kind of generational trauma and institutionalized racism that’s led to adverse childhood experiences and in many case, internalized self hatred, Jimerson said.
“Epigenetics is real. Trauma changes your brain and how you see yourself,” he said, referring to chemical changes in the body that affect gene activity and expression that can be passed from parent to child.
Most Black Americans don’t know where there ancestors originally came from, and so are cut off from those cultures and traditions, Jimerson said.
“We don’t have anything we’re tied to historically,” he said. “We’re tied to the destructive patterns of the plantation.”