Op-Ed – Gun Violence (Amsterdam News)

Op-Ed written by Max Smith from vantage point of Yasmin Breeden, mother of Dwayne Smith who was killed by gun violence
 
As a Black mother the news that thousands of Americans and Black civil rights leaders marched on the town of Jena, Louisiana, to protest the unequal treatment of six Black boys was especially welcome to me. I was happy to know that so many Americans were concerned about what happened to these young men and were willing to march to prevent an injustice. Although I couldn’t be there I thought it showed that the Black community and America will not tolerate unfair treatment.
 
But in the midst of my support I wondered where were those marchers when my only son was shot and killed two and a half weeks ago? More Black and Latino young men in the U.S. were killed by gun violence last year than have been killed in Iraq since the war started. Yet the only marches we ever hear about are the marches against police brutality and the marches for civil rights justice. Why isn’t anyone planning a nationwide march to put a stop to the violence ripping apart Black, Latino and low-income communities?
 
My son Dwayne was shot and killed by a shooter who witnesses described as a seventeen year-old Black boy. He was killed while dozens of people walked up and down the street going about their business. Dwayne was crossing an intersection in Flatbush, Brooklyn that stands across from a playground where small children, their mothers, teenagers and older people sit most afternoons and evenings. It was about 5:30 p.m. on a sunny day. He was a block away from the house and neighborhood where he’d grown up. The gunman walked up to my son and shot at him. The bullet grazed his face. Dwayne tried to run but the shooter pulled the trigger again, shooting him in the back of the head. He shot for a third time, the bullet ripping through Dwayne’s torso. My son died instantly. He was executed. He didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to his six-year old son or to his only sister. He didn’t have a chance to do anything. He was 24 years old. A week earlier he’d walked up and down Eastern Parkway celebrating the Labor Day Carnival.
 
I was at work when this happened. A neighbor called me. She told me Dwayne had been shot. Before I had time to digest what she was saying, my cell phone rang again. It was a second neighbor. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this Yasmin but Dwayne has been killed. He’s lying in the street down the block from your building.” In that instant it felt as though my heart stopped beating. My mind refused to believe that my child had been taken from me. I rushed to see my son but the cab I was in kept getting stuck in traffic. I did not know then that the traffic jam was a result of the police blocking off the streets surrounding my son’s body.
 
When I reached the place where Dwayne had been shot there were crowds of people on all four corners of the sidewalk. Yellow police ribbon roped off the area. The police escorted me to a mobile where the detectives waited. I asked to see my son and they pointed out his body to me. He was lying in the middle of the street on the ground where he had fallen. A white sheet covered him. I wanted to go to him but was told by the police that I could not lift the sheet to look at my son’s face because they did not want me to disturb the crime scene. So though my child’s body lay in the street until nearly 10 p.m. that evening it was not until 12 p.m. the next day when I visited the morgue that I was allowed to see his face and identify his body. Yes, it was my child. My son was dead and I would never again see him smile, hear his voice or feel him hug me. The truth of that still hasn’t sunken in completely.
 
For days after his murder it seemed as though the whole neighborhood went quiet. People gathered in groups talking and whispering. A makeshift memorial was set up on the sidewalk. Dwayne’s friends wrote of their love for him and people left candles and flowers. More than two hundred people turned out for his Wake. Young and old came to offer me their condolences. “This has got to stop,” people kept saying.
 
When I heard those words I nodded in agreement but the truth is I wasn’t listening. I felt numb and powerless. All I knew was that my son had been taken from me and there was nothing I could do to bring him back.
 
Dwayne has been buried a week now and I find myself getting angry. Angry because my son is dead and the boy who killed him is still out there. Angry because the person who killed him was just a child himself, and had no business with a gun much less killing somebody. Angry because so many other Black and Latino young men will die today and tomorrow and the community will continue to stand by and do and say nothing to demand an end to these killings.
 
When I talk to young people they tell me that the cause of the violence is the easy accessibility of guns on the street and the growing influence of street gangs. They tell me that a lot of young people succumb to the glamour of the street gang, and the power, fast money and sense of safety that goes with it. The younger they are, the more impressionable and the more viciously and rashly they’ll act in order to earn their street cred. These same young people tell me that purchasing a gun is as easy as sending a kid to the candy store. They say sometimes that is exactly how it’s done. Send a young person to one of the guys hanging out on the corner and let them know what it is that you’re seeking. They act as the middlemen purchasing the gun for you and you pay them in turn. That is what I have been told.
 
Although my son was killed in the middle of rush hour, and many people were on the street at the time that it happened, police still do not know who killed him or why they did it. People are afraid to say anything because they’re afraid of what happens to people accused of being ‘snitches’, the street term for informers. The police tell me they suspect Dwayne’s murder was either the result of an ongoing dispute or because earlier this year they’d pulled him in for questioning about a group with whom he was familiar and the group’s members may have believed he informed on them.
 
My son had a good heart and a lot of love but he wasn’t perfect. He’d made some mistakes when he was younger and because of them he’d been incarcerated. But he’d been out since last November and he was trying to turn his life around and move forward. He’d registered with Fortune Society, a group that works to help ex-offenders re-enter society. Dwayne wanted to do better for his six-year old son to prevent the child from making the same mistakes that he had made when he was younger.
 
As I write this I fear that many will say Dwayne’s death was a result of him reaping what he sewed, and they’ll dismiss his story. But there are many other young people who are being killed as well and who have no history of juvenile offenses or trouble with the law. They are innocent bystanders who were unfortunate enough to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. Much like the children at Virginia Tech or Columbine.
 
I have asked myself about my responsibility for the way Dwayne’s life turned out. ‘”Is it possible that I failed him? What could I have done differently?” I know that I did the best I could to raise my child. Perhaps my best was not enough when it came to saving him from the dangers tugging at him on the streets of Brooklyn.
 
Whatever mistakes he or I may have made I know that Dwayne did not deserve to have his life taken from him. To be shot down like an animal by a young boy, who for whatever reason placed no value on the life of another human being.
 
I want to know when does it stop? I wonder if the murders happening to Black and Latino young men were happening to white young men and children in other communities would the public response be different? Would there be a demand for the gun laws to change, and for more after-school programs and other extracurricular activities to keep these youths engaged and exposed to brighter options, instead of shepherding them towards a future that goes nowhere.
 
As to the Black politicians and civil rights leaders I ask, where were you at the time of my son’s death and funeral? Marching down in Jena, Louisiana? Marching at other times and other places because a white cop beat up a Black boy?
 
I understand that those marches are necessary and that without them we’ll make no progress. But the question I ask is when is the Black community going to march against the rampant Black-on-Black violence? When is the minority community going to march about the killing and murder of young Black and Latino boys at the hands of other young Black and Latino boys? When are other Americans going to care enough to get involved and demand more from our legislators and our president about getting the guns off the streets of our cities and creating more jobs and safer environments? When is there going to be a nationwide movement to end gun violence.
 
We all know that there are precipitating conditions. That the lack of jobs, inadequate schooling, lack of after-school activities, and sometimes inadequate parenting lays a breeding ground for young people becoming disaffected and losing their way. We recognize that society holds significant responsibility.
 
But we, the Black and Latino communities, hold as large a responsibility. That responsibility is to police ourselves and to hold our communities accountable for the things that we do. It is up to us to march and demand better, to teach our children that there are better choices for settling their differences than the violent Black-on-Black-on-brown-on-brown killing that has created a homicidal chain linking Black and Latino young men in death and murder and growing longer every day.
 
To the rest of the nation I say, Dwayne Smith was my son, but he was born at Kings County Hospital in Flatbush, Brooklyn and he was America’s son, also. Had the gunman missed his target any innocent passerby could have been maimed or killed. If you turn a blind eye to my son and the thousands of sons like him as they lay dying in the streets of my neighborhood, it may be only a matter of time before gun violence spreads and your mirror image lies dying in the midst of your street in your town, or somewhere far from your home in another neighborhood on the other side of our city.

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