by Marcus Harrison Green
(This article is co-published with The Seattle Times.)
Listening to Lynda Wolff, I want to roar at the world to remember her murdered son’s life. Four years ago, Latrel Williams was shot multiple times while returning to his Lakeridge home.
In the aftermath of his death, I spotted no signs at marches acknowledging his life, no public speeches given in his honor, and no politicians furiously spouting his name to earn social justice merits.
But Lynda still lost a son. Latrel Jr. (LJ) lost a father. And I lost a friend.
“It hits me probably every day, but I have to stay strong,” Lynda told me during a recent meetup.
Strength has come hard in recent weeks. Like most, I still struggle to process the mass shootings in Atlanta and in Boulder, Colorado, that robbed 18 people — and their loved ones — of their lives, and in the Atlanta case perpetuated the xenophobic violence menacing Asian Americans.
Rage and disgust should be our collective reflex in a nation where residents have slaughtered each other in record numbers, pandemic be damned.
But I struggle just as mightily with deaths over that period that took place mere miles from my home in South Seattle.
The same day as the Atlanta shooting, a young man walked into the offices of Community Passageways, a gang prevention nonprofit operating out of Emerald City Bible Fellowship in Rainier Beach, and shot and killed Omari Wallace in front of staff.
Four days later, Avery Wilcox Jr., a beloved barber who occasionally served as a substitute hair cutter for me and my brother, was found in Kent, dead of a gunshot wound in the driver’s seat of his car.
I never met Omari and I had not seen Avery in more than a year, but I wept at the news of their deaths.
Thoughts of Latrel immediately seized my mind. I flashed back to my high school friend persuading my scrawny and confidence-starved 17-year-old self to try out for the football team. I only ended up playing eight minutes that entire season, but it boosted my self-esteem.
What tugged at me most, though, was that these two people, their families and their communities would endure what inevitably greets the deaths of people killed in any American working-class area populated by Black people: indifference.
What would rightly be treated as a tragedy in an affluent area is viewed as a way of life elsewhere.
“I don’t know why people don’t value our lives. We’ve contributed so much and we’ve always bent over backwards to help this country, but it’s never recognized,” Lynda said.
No it is not. And even after a summer of unrest, protests, autonomous zones and pronouncements, I have to wonder what it will take for this recognition to take hold.
In the timespan between the murders of Latrel and Avery, how many more Black lives contributed to the statistic of homicide not only being the leading cause of death among Black boys and men ages 15 to 34 but outnumbering the next nine causes of death for this demographic combined?
How many more years were added to the estimated 1,239 years lost for every 100,000 Black men, and 218 years lost for every 100,000 Black women, according to sociologist Patrick Sharkey?
Most importantly, how much longer until we dismiss the notion that gun violence is a byproduct of Black culture as opposed to an inevitable result of deliberately racist policies still haunting us in our present day?
Research continues to reveal that poverty blended with the consequences of discriminatory policies such as redlining and disinvestment is what concentrates gun violence in an area.
Four of the five homicides in Seattle this year have taken place in its South End, an area historically subject to prejudicial discrimination and underinvestment.
“People didn’t trip and fall into these poor neighborhoods. How do we have a conversation that acknowledges how the war on drugs, redlining, and lack of resources impacted these communities,” said Derrick Wheeler-Smith, the director of the Zero Youth Detention program at King County Public Health.
That discussion must also emphasize social mobility for our youth.
“Let’s say there’s a young person whose identity is defined through their ability to hold and use a gun. That gun becomes their identity and their status. We can’t say ‘put the gun down’ without giving them a different identity,” said Chevonna Gaylor, a trauma therapist who counseled Community Passageways staff.
If there is no career, educational opportunity or support, it doesn’t matter how many times you tell someone they are brilliant and worthy. You have betrayed your disbelief in them.
“There’s a saying, ‘Put the gun down and pick up a plan,’” said Gaylor, adding that that plan has to be built by and for communities.
But it must also be funded adequately and sustainably — more than the meager, targeted programs that exist now.
Black lives are lost because we fail to sustainably invest in the communities that house them. Collectively, we can either choose to tolerate these deaths or we can try to reduce them with targeted resources that truly benefit the entire community.
As we deliberate, more and more die because of this inaction in our city and in our country.
The apathy we have shown our Averys and Latrels in death cannot persist in life.
Marcus Harrison Green is the publisher of the South Seattle Emerald. Growing up in South Seattle, he experienced firsthand the impact of one-dimensional stories on marginalized communities, which taught him the value of authentic narratives. After an unfulfilling stint in the investment world during his twenties, Marcus returned to his community with a newfound purpose of telling stories with nuance, complexity, and multidimensionality with the hope of advancing social change. This led him to become a writer and found the Emerald. He was named one of Seattle’s most influential people by Seattle Magazine in 2016 and was awarded 2020 Individual Human Rights Leader by the Seattle Human Rights Commission.
Featured Image: Illustration by Vladimir Verano.
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