Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives - Gary Younge (2016)

Chapter 9. GARY ANDERSON (18)

Newark, New Jersey

2:32 A.M. EST

DURING THE GREAT MIGRATION, WHEN AFRICAN AMERICANS fled penury and political repression in the South in search of jobs and dignity up north, they often left surreptitiously. If anyone saw them leave, their flight might alert a posse of vigilantes, or even the local sheriff, to prevent their departure. So oftentimes they just vanished—if not under cover of darkness then under a shroud of mystery, without explanation or announcement. They took what they could carry and left the rest where it stood, as though they might return at any minute.

“The Delta today is dotted with nearly spectral sharecropper cabins,” writes Nicholas Lemann in The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. “Their doors and windows gone, their interior walls lined with newspapers from the 1930’s and 1940’s that once served as insulation.”1 Much of Newark today has a similar feeling. Only it wasn’t people who led the charge but capital, leaving behind an urban landscape abandoned somewhere between postindustrial and postapocalyptic. Since the Industrial Revolution, Newark had been one of the nation’s manufacturing hubs. “The trunk you travel with is, nine times out of ten, of Newark manufacture,” wrote the New York Times in 1872, around the time of the Newark Industrial Exhibition. “The hat you wear was made there, the buttons on your coat, the shirt on your back, your brush, the tinware you use in your kitchen, the oil-cloth you walk on, the harness and bit you drive with, all owe to Newark their origin.”2

But with automation, suburbanization of industry, and then neoliberal globalization, Newark’s productive base went into inexorable decline. Those jobs that machines and then computers couldn’t do went primarily to the South, to suburbs, or abroad, where land and labor were cheaper, unions were weaker, and regulations more lax. They were the very same forces that destroyed the South Chicago neighborhood where Tyshon Anderson was shot. Only in this case they devastated an entire city, as they did cities like Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Gary. But, as Brad Tuttle points out in How Newark Became Newark: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American City,Newark was exceptional. “It stood out for the extraordinary speed, depth, and viciousness of its decline, and for the monumental difficulties the city faced while attempting to dig itself out from the hole.”3 And when capital fled, jobs and therefore workers were soon to follow. Between 1960 and 1990 Newark lost nearly one-third of its population.4

What remains is a hollow vessel of depleted, diminished, and decrepit public space where working communities once thrived. Entire housing projects that once provided homes for several thousand people are now bricked up and boarded off. Former factories now house pigeons and growing trees. Abandoned. Derelict. Neglected.

THE AREA IN NEWARK around the Kretchmer complex on Frelinghuysen Avenue, a warren of high-rise affordable-housing apartments not far from the airport, has just such a feel. On a warm day, life pours onto the common lawn area between the complex’s towers. Young men and women hang out, teenagers flirt, old folks sit and watch—time rich and financially poor. Opposite sits a McDonald’s between scrap-metal yards and mechanics’ garages. And just a short walk away, another whole complex stands uninhabited, windows that once offered a view of the cranes and freight on Newark Bay now stuffed with cinder blocks. This is by far the poorest place where anybody in this book died on November 23, 2013. According to the census, the median income in this tract is just $10,307—that’s less than half of what it was in the next-most impoverished area depicted in this book, which was in the part of Houston where Edwin Rajo was shot.

It was here, not long after midnight, that Gary Anderson, eighteen, and his girlfriend went to McDonald’s. Gary had been staying at his mother’s for the weekend while his father took his youngest brother, Tasheem, to a basketball tournament in Maryland. Gary’s father (also named Gary) had had sole custody of Gary Jr. since he was five. But in recent years Gary Jr. had started to get to know his mother again.

They had bonded, in part, over his hair. Although he’d worn it cropped for most of his life, his mom liked to braid it for him. Gary’s braids did not frame his face on each side like Tyshon’s did but hung back in light strings over his neck and shoulders, showcasing his high forehead and full-cheeked face. He was a big lad—stocky and tall. His father didn’t like the hairstyle but had let it go. “That was his world with his mother,” he says. “I keep saying to him, ‘You need to get to know your mama.’ So whatever they did they did. I kept telling him I didn’t like ’em and didn’t want him to have ’em. But it was something between him and his mother, so I just wanted to leave it alone.”

But his dad thinks Gary Jr. also liked to go to his mother’s because she kept him on a longer leash. At home, his son was always trying to push the boundaries, but Gary Sr. laid down the law. Junior had to be home by nine o’clock. “The problem with him is he always wanted to go to his friend’s house because he liked to sit on his friend’s porch,” said his dad. “His friends sit on the porch till, like, eleven, twelve o’clock at night. But I’d tell him, ‘You’ve got to be home by nine o’clock. Because I know how it is in the streets.’ He’d say, ‘I’m just sitting on the porch.’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t care. It’s late. The streets are not where you’re supposed to be.’ So that was the biggest issue I had with him. He just wanted to sit out on the porch with his friends.”

His mother, however, was less strict. “They have a complex, and they sit outside or on the balcony. I guess that’s what they do,” Gary Sr. says. “So that’s why he liked to go down there. Because he could stay out until ten, eleven o’clock and hang out on the balcony with his mother.”

The McDonald’s is just a short walk across the main road from Kretchmer. As Gary walked back to his mother’s apartment building at about one a.m. on November 24, three young men jumped out of a car and shot him. Family members say he was trying to protect his girlfriend. “He tried to shield her,” said his older sister, Linda Bradley. The police conceded this may well have been what happened. “There were some indications that he may have pushed another person out of the way,” Thomas Fennelly, the Essex County chief assistant prosecutor, told the Newark Star-Ledger.5

Either way, he fell in a shower of bullets and was rushed to University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead an hour and a half later.

“He don’t have a gun. He don’t have nothing,” says his dad. “They say it was a mistaken identity. But he never had a gun on him.” “Do you wish he had?” I asked. His father paused. “No, he still would have got killed.”

Gary’s fatal mistake that night was not that he was out late but that he was wearing a red hoodie. His father explains. “The day before there was a guy who had a red hoodie just like my son who killed somebody up the street. And that was one of their friends he shot. So they came back looking for him the next day, and my son had on a red hoodie. And they shot him.” The feud, some told the local media, was over an escalating turf war connected to the drug trade on Frelinghuysen Avenue.6

“This place is like the Wild West,” forty-seven-year-old Hassan Taylor, who was one of Gary’s mother’s neighbors, told the Star-Ledger. “It’s not a bad place to live. It’s just that these young people, they’ve just got this mind-frame that that’s the way it is.”7

According to Gary Sr., a few days after his son was killed, the boy in the red hoodie for whom the bullet was allegedly intended came up to Gary Jr.’s mother, hugged her, and apologized. “You know that was meant for me,” he said. On the night of the shooting, the police would not confirm whether the bullets that hit Gary had been intended for somebody else. “I can’t confirm that, other than to say the investigation is continuing at this time,” Fennelly told the Star-Ledger. “Whenever we have a crime we always look at whether it’s connected to another crime or a pattern.”8

Gary Sr. says the police think they know who killed his son. But the boy in the red hoodie—currently in jail on a drug charge—won’t say because it will implicate him in the other shooting. So six months after Gary’s death, the police had not charged anyone. “They can’t arrest him because they have no witness and they have no evidence, so [the suspect] can just say, ‘I didn’t do it.’ I don’t know who it is, and they won’t tell me because it’s an ongoing investigation. They’re hoping that by the time summer gets here somebody’s going to get tired and just tell,” explains his father. “Soon as it gets hot somebody’s going to tell, or one of these guns is going to pop up soon. Because they know who they looking for, so they’ve got people sitting and watching these people until they make a mistake.”

Gary Sr. expressed more confidence in the Newark Police Department—or indeed any part of the city’s polity—than others I spoke to. Although Chicago has relatively recently taken up the unenviable baton of murder capital of the country, Newark has failed to relinquish its reputation as a violent and dysfunctional city for the best part of forty years. During the seventies, Newsweek described it as “a classic example of urban disaster,” the New York Times Magazine referred to it as “a study in the evils, tensions, and frustrations that beset the central cities of America,” and Harper’s branded it “The Worst American City.” Other cities have vied for this tarnished mantle. DC, New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles have all been in the running at various times. But what makes Newark particular is that, despite several attempts, there has been no successful makeover since the problems took hold.9

Between 1954 and 2006, Newark had just four mayors. Three of them faced indictments on corruption charges either while they were in office or just after they’d left it. A city once known primarily for industry and manufacturing became infamous for decrepitude and kleptocracy. The Harper’s article pointed out that in a 1975 study of twenty-four major cities, Newark came in last in the percentage of high school graduates, college graduates, percentage of home ownership, acreage of public parks per resident, and amusement and recreation facilities per person. The study concluded, “The city of Newark stands without serious challenge as the worst of all. Newark is a city that desperately needs help.”10

Like Detroit, it soon became referred to not so much as a city but as a failed state—an incorporated entity so crippled with intractable social woes and political pathologies that it was incapable of supporting itself and protecting its citizens. Starbucks wouldn’t even set up there until 1999—the same year they came to China.

Newark’s political leadership effectively conceded its failures. “Our job is to pick up the garbage, sweep the streets, and provide some measure of police and fire protection, and we can barely do that,” said Kenneth Gibson, the one mayor in that half century who did not leave office in disgrace (though even he was later indicted for bribery and pleaded guilty to tax evasion).11

The problems start with the young. In 1992, more than half the thieves in the city who were caught were under seventeen. And the sense of hopelessness was pervasive: at one stage, Tuttle points out, the city bought 1,750 anti–car theft devices and raffled them off to residents. That seemed like a better bet than trying to police the city so the cars wouldn’t get stolen in the first place.12 In 2006, 60 percent of the city’s police officers worked only during the daytime. Its gang unit worked eight a.m. to four p.m. Monday through Friday—hardly rush hour for gang activity but a stark improvement on the narcotics unit which, despite the huge drug problem connected to the gang problem, simply did not exist.13

The court system, meanwhile, was a complete calamity. “Countless people showed up for court dates to discover their names were not listed in the computer,” writes Tuttle. “Police officers often never received messages requesting them to testify. Prosecutors were always pleasantly surprised when an officer actually appeared in court on the proper day. Well aware that the system was a mess, citizens accused of violations knew that their cases would likely be dismissed so long as they were willing to line up and wait all day to be called by the court.”14 Newark was the only jurisdiction covered in this book that failed to provide me with an autopsy or incident report for the victim, without a reason for withholding one. Despite my countless attempts to contact the appropriate city staff, they simply did not get back to me.

It was in this system that Gary Sr. placed his faith for finding his son’s killers. At the time of this writing, no one had been brought to justice.

Beyond mistaken identity, there was nothing Junior ever did that would explain his being attacked in such a manner, Gary Sr. said. “He was never in no trouble. He never got locked up. He never got in no trouble. He got in trouble at school for fighting and things. But that was it. Never had no stolen cars. Never had no guns. Nothing like that. Nothing. Never been in trouble with the police. Never.”

It is a tragic reflection of the state of affairs for low-income black parents that they have to explain why their children did not deserve to be shot, preempting the assumption that they are “unworthy” unless proved otherwise. Taylor, his mother’s neighbor, said Gary wasn’t like so many of the other kids who caused so much trouble around the complex. He was “a real nice cat, real respectful,” Taylor told the Newark Star-Ledger.15 “Some days, he would see me struggling and say, ‘What do you need? I’ll go get it for you,’” said Taylor, a former night supermarket manager who moved into Anderson’s building two years before Gary’s death after one of his legs was amputated.

Gary’s two greatest loves were fixing things and dogs. “He had his little friends around here. They ride bikes, played basketball, and hang out all the time. He played Xbox. First it was PlayStation. And then it was Xbox,” says his dad. “He had four friends he’d usually play with. That’s it. But mostly it was the bikes. They’d ride all the way up to the mountains. That’s what he did. He was good with his hands: fixing bikes, fixing computers. He fixed bikes all day. Eight, nine bikes a day and then go through the neighborhood, riding them around. . . . And he loved dogs. That was his thing. Actually he had an application that he filled out for the Humane Society to work there. So they were scheduling him for a blood test. Bikes and dogs, that was his favorite thing.”

But his father says just to live in Newark as a young black man is to tempt fate. “In Newark you have no choice but to worry about guns. That’s the biggest thing. It’s crazy. There are kids in the streets just walking around with guns just to have guns.” That’s why, he says, he was so strict with Gary. “He knows there’s no way in heck that he’s living in my house and is going to walk out the door after ten o’clock without me. I don’t even want to walk out my door. Sometime I get off work late and I have to come down at eleven o’clock. I’m walking down the street like this,” and he looks around himself warily. “Because people will just drive up on you and shoot you for no reason. So you have to be mindful of every place and thing that you do.”

The vulnerability such an atmosphere induces among the young was summed up in a poem a freshman student at Central High School wrote a few years before Gary was killed. The teacher wrote hope on the blackboard and gave the all-boy class a little while to think about the topic before each student penned a verse on it. A student named Tyler wrote:

We hope to live,

Live long enough to have kids

We hope to make it home every day

We hope we’re not the next target to get sprayed . . .

We hope never to end up in Newark’s dead pool

I hope, you hope, we all hope.16

I found Gary’s address on whitepages.com by matching the names in his online obituary to a group of names associated with a particular property. It was just around the corner from the church that had performed his funeral service. It seemed like that would be too great a coincidence for it not to be his home, although there was a good chance that, like so many other families who lost children that day, they had since moved. When I got to the address, the house looked derelict from the outside. It sat adjacent to another house, on a desolate block between a bricked-up factory and an empty lot. The curtains were drawn. It seemed as though it had been empty for some time.

The area was run down but it wasn’t menacing. While visiting, I struck up a conversation with a woman opposite Gary’s house who sat on her front stoop in the sun while studying for her nurse’s exam and babysitting her granddaughter. I didn’t knock at the house—I’d learned my lesson from Kenneth Mills-Tucker’s father that you should not cold call the bereaved. I left an envelope in the mailbox and moved on to the funeral parlor to see if they could help me find a family member.

I was sitting with the funeral director when a big fight broke out outside—a family feud caffeinated by grief. While the director went to sort it out, I got a call from Gary Sr. The home I’d seen a few minutes earlier wasn’t vacant at all. He’d been in it the whole time. He told me to come straight over.

This was the house Gary Jr. had grown up in—a cozy home with a huge flat-screen TV dominating the small living room. Next door was the house in which Gary Sr. had grown up and where his mother still lived. His mother—Gary Jr.’s grandmother—was a regular churchgoer at the St. Paul Sounds of Praise church around the corner, where I’d also left a note.

The dilapidated factory building adjacent used to be the grandmother’s place of work. It made cosmetics. “This used to be an okay area,” says Gary Sr. “You was able to afford different things. Kids were able to do different things. We had some of everything. All kinds of nationalities were in this neighborhood. White, Chinese, black, Hispanic. There was a factory, so everybody was working around here. So it wasn’t so bad. This was the quietest neighborhood. It was quiet. There was nothing going on.”

Why was he still there? “I think about moving all the time. I say to my mom, ‘Let’s pack up and move down south.’ But it’s hard because right now I’m working at the Prudential Center [an indoor multipurpose arena that is home to the New Jersey Devils ice hockey team], and the income doesn’t come in where I can just pack up and leave. And then there’s my mom. She’s still next door, and I’m not going to leave her in this crazy neighborhood by herself.”

That’s not to say everything was easy before. There have long been no-go areas around here. “From here there were only two places you couldn’t go,” he explains. “Avon Avenue and 16th Avenue. Those were the two worst areas. But everything in between was quiet. So you knew that so long as you stayed in this neighborhood, you were fine. But if you leave to go to Avon there’s nothing but gangs. You go to 16th there’s nothing but gangs. So you knew not to go into them areas. But stay right here. Go to the park right here, you were fine.”

Gary Sr. was just three years old in July 1967 when Newark erupted into a blazing inferno of popular insurrection. Rioting, which extended over several days, pitted the city’s black population against its mostly white law enforcement and the National Guard. Police ran amok. “If you have a gun,” Police Director Dominick Spina announced over the police radio at one stage, “Whether it’s a shoulder weapon or whether it is a handgun, use it.”17National Guardsmen came out of tanks to showers of bottles and other missiles thrown by local people.

For six days, the city was ablaze. When the week was out, twenty-six people (twenty-four blacks and two whites) were killed, more than eleven hundred were injured, and fourteen hundred were arrested. There were 350 acts of arson, there was roughly $10 million worth of damage, and the police used 13,326 rounds of ammunition.18 In response to the riots in Newark and elsewhere, Lyndon Johnson’s federal government produced the Kerner Report. “Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans,” it concluded. “What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”19

The report sold two million copies and was reportedly the best-selling federal report in American history. Gary Sr. thinks things have deteriorated since then. Today, he says, the space around his home where a parent might consider their child truly safe has shrunk to the house they live in. “It’s certainly not middle class no more,” he says.

IT SEEMS LIKE AN obvious but all too rarely acknowledged fact that gun violence, like most crimes, is intricately related to poverty. Since most poor people never shoot anybody and some rich people do, there is nothing automatic about this connection. But if you have a future to invest in, if you can afford lawyers to settle disputes, extracurricular programs to entertain your children, an expensive private education (or a house in a school zone that ensures a good public education), a private security system, a car to ferry your teenage children through their social lives, money to donate to political campaigns, a community that politicians believe is worth courting, a tax base that can pay for good parks, policing, and cultural events—if, in short, you can draw on the full pool of resources available to an American of means, then both the temptation and the threat of gun violence are severely diminished. That does not make you a better person; it simply makes you better equipped to be safe in a country where guns are in plentiful supply.

But unless you are a trust-fund baby, you don’t get any of that without work. And for a particular stratum of American society, the kind of stable work that pays a living wage is hard to find. New technology, free-trade agreements, deregulation, and laissez-faire economic orthodoxy have accelerated and deepened the trend toward less skilled work and more low-paid, low-skilled jobs in ways that couldn’t have been imagined back when Gary’s grandmother had her job in the factory. Since the 1970s, American wages have been stagnant,20 leaving median male earnings on a par with those of 1964 in real terms.21 In the 1970s, close to two-thirds of prime-age male workers with less than a high school education worked full-time, year-round, in eight of the ten years. During the 1980s, that share was down to half.22 In that decade, William Julius Wilson points out in When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, the jobs that were lost were in production, transportation, and laboring, while the new jobs created were in the clerical, sales, and service sectors.23

This reality has affected most areas of the country and most racial groups. You can see it in the depressed former mining towns of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky, former mill towns like Buffalo, and the autoparts manufacturers all around the Midwest. But it has affected African Americans more overwhelmingly than others for the simple reason that this dramatic shift coincided with their gaining civil rights and moving in ever greater numbers to the very cities and sectors that went on to decline.

“Just as attempts to provide blacks with a greater slice of the labor market pie began in earnest, the pie shrank,” writes Thomas Sugrue in The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. “Blacks made gains in occupations that became increasingly scarce in postwar decades. The combination of discrimination and profound changes in Detroit’s industrial base left a sizeable segment of the black population bereft of hope in the land of Canaan.”24

So as the new millennium approached, the secure, decent-paying jobs to which a significant portion of African American men once aspired in a city like Newark had simply gone. This was particularly devastating for the young. Between 1973 and 1987 the percentage of black men aged twenty to twenty-nine working in manufacturing plummeted from 37 percent to 20 percent.25 As exemplified by the abandoned factory next to Gary’s home, nothing but a shell of that former industrial capacity was left. And thanks to segregation—Newark was one of a handful of places that became even more segregated after the civil rights era26—these losses devastated entire communities and even whole cities.

One in three of Newark’s black residents lives in poverty; black unemployment in the city is more than twice the rate of white unemployment and five times the national average.27 And with each economic downturn, the impact of these trends—deindustrialization, segregation, poverty—intensified and became amplified.28

What does this have to do with Gary and guns? Well, first, when jobs are scarce, drug dealing becomes one of the few economic sectors available to those with a high school education or less.

In Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner describe the business model for a drug gang in the nineties, culled from research by then University of Chicago sociology student Sudhir Venkatesh. He spent several years researching one gang on the South Side, the Black Disciples, and was given access to its inner workings. “[The gang worked] an awful lot like most American businesses, actually, though perhaps none more so than McDonald’s,” writes Levitt. “In fact if you were to hold a McDonald’s organizational chart and a Black Disciples org chart side by side, you could hardly tell the difference.”29

Within the monthly costs the gang had to cover—this was in the nineties, during the height of the crack epidemic—2 percent was spent on weapons and more than 10 percent on “mercenary fighters.” If you stayed in the gang for four years, then you could reasonably expect to be arrested 5.9 times, incur nonfatal wounds or injuries 2.4 times, and sustain a one-in-four chance of being killed.

These were the kinds of odds that caught up with Tyshon, who died in Chicago just moments before Gary died in Newark. And in the absence of any concrete intelligence from the police, my guess is they are the same odds that sent Gary’s murderers (who were probably not that different from Tyshon’s) in pursuit of the boy in a red hoodie, later imprisoned on a drug charge.

Moreover, research by Professor Delbert S. Elliott, founding director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, in Boulder, Colorado, found a clear correlation between the inability to find work and the propensity toward violent behavior. Race and class differences related to violent offending are small during adolescence, he discovered, but disparities widen considerably going into adulthood, depending on the ability to find work. This occurs for two reasons. First, the absence of employment severely reduces the likelihood that people will get married, which is one of the key routes to more stable, less violent behavior. Second, growing up in poor, disorganized neighborhoods inhibits the normal evolution of adolescent development. Young people in such areas, Elliott found, tend to have lower levels of personal competence, self-efficacy, social skills, and self-discipline. “Many are not adequately prepared to enter the labor market even if jobs were available. They are, in some ways, trapped in an extended adolescence and continue to engage in adolescent behavior.”30

Gary’s adolescent transgressions were unremarkable. His father recalls how the reverend who performed his funeral service once saw him hanging out on the block and asked him what he was up to. Gary smart-mouthed him to the effect that it was none of his business. When the reverend told him he knew Gary’s grandmother, Gary said, “Well, you ain’t gonna tell her nothin’,” and walked away. The very next day Gary was on the porch with his grandmother when the reverend pulled up and told the grandmother what had happened. Gary got a slap right there and then, his father told me with a big laugh. “Since then, he was like, ‘How you doin’, preacher? How you doin’, sir?’”

He was thinking of leaving Newark and maybe heading south to start a new life in North Carolina with his older sister. She had been in town just a week before he died and told him he should go with her when she returned. But Gary thought it better to wait until graduation.

He was, his father said, a “typical teenager.” “He liked school to a certain extent. You know kids. They like school. But then when the teacher’s trying to teach them something they don’t want to be bothered. ‘I don’t want to be in school.’ He passed his classes. He did what he had to do.”

“Typical teenager” in Newark comes with some caveats, which by now are all too familiar. In Gary’s room, where his cat, Mocha, still lurks and his clothes still hang six months after his death, an RIP notice hangs in memory of one of his friends who was shot down.

It was his final year in school, and Gary Jr. had initially decided that he had no interest in marking the occasion. “He didn’t want to go to prom. He didn’t want to go to graduation. But as soon as he turned eighteen, he said, ‘Daddy, I want to go to the prom. I want to go to my graduation. So we need to get my stuff together.’ He had a little girlfriend. So I said alright. So at the time he was shot, he just talking about going to school and going to graduation.” His father felt that North Carolina might have provided opportunities Gary Jr. wouldn’t have had in Newark. “If that’s where he’s going to go and be successful, I had no problem. I told him that. Because Newark is crazy. Being a young black guy here. . . . It’s hard,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s hard here, trying to be young.”