Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives - Gary Younge (2016)
Chapter 10. GUSTIN HINNANT (18)
Goldsboro, North Carolina
3:30 A.M. EST
THE TWENTY-FOUR-HOUR PERIOD IN WHICH THIS BOOK IS SET ends with a green 1996 Cadillac Sedan Deville rolling to a stop in somebody’s yard in the early hours of November 24 on the corner of Walnut and South Audubon in Goldsboro, North Carolina. It’s a quiet, verdant street where, in the fall, leaves are heaped in tiny piles, in a small town that many in North Carolina have not even heard of. When the police spotted the car, while answering another call, its doors were open and lights were on. The passengers had fled. The driver, eighteen-year-old Gustin Hinnant, was not so lucky. His body lay slumped back between the two front seats, his head hanging where the backseat passengers’ feet might be, dripping blood that collected in a pool on the floor. He’d been felled by a single bullet that had pierced the rear window and hit the back of his head.
Gustin’s slender, long face was as dark and smooth as melted chocolate, a gloss finish in a picture that might have been Photoshopped but for the hint of peach fuzz (his autopsy mentions a “faint beard and mustache present”). Not quite angelic-looking, perhaps, but both youthful and playful. “In his physique he was a small-statured guy,” says Daina Taylor, a family friend who’d known Gustin (pronounced Justin) since he was a small child. “He was what we’d call light in the butt . . . not meaty. So the only thing he had going for him was that”—she opens and closes her hand as though she were operating a puppet. “Yapping with the hands.”
“He was slim,” says his father, Greg, who raised Gustin by himself for most of his life. “His body was cut a little from doing weights and pushups. Muscular, but still no big guy . . . petite.”
Young enough that his favorite movies, according to Facebook, were Happy Feet and Toy Story and that his favorite hobby at home was to sit in his room quietly and draw pictures. Old enough that just a few days before he died he changed his Facebook cover photo from a graffiti-emblazoned wall to a sprawling array of high-caliber bullets.
Old enough to spend the night with girls. Young enough that they would usually get caught climbing through his window. “A couple of young women did it,” says Greg, shaking his head. “And every time they come through I’ve caught ’em. I tell ’em, ‘You welcome in my house through my front door anytime you want to. But you come in through that window, you ain’t welcome in my house. Don’t let Gustin talk you into coming through that window.’” Too young to respect the considerable leeway he was given by Greg’s working hours (his dad was on the night shift at Walmart). “‘Listen, ‘bro. I work at night. You know my days off. Don’t be hardheaded,’” Greg had told him.
“On more than one occasion, his father came home and there were girls in the house,” adds Daina, barely stifling a smile. “Now if you know that your father gets home at seven a.m., kick them girls out at five or six. Don’t defy him fully. Everybody’s falling asleep on each other naked and stuff. Check yourself. You want to be a man. This is part of being a man.”
Old enough to be making plans for a proper career, even if there was some discrepancy among those who knew him about what that career would be. According to Greg, he wanted to be a physiotherapist for elite sports players. “They throw their knee out or something, he wanted to be that guy who would bring them back to the level where they could go back to work,” he explained. But he told Daina he wanted to go to Wake Technical Community College and train to work for a cable company. Hardy, a friend from school, says he wanted to be “an entrepreneur.”
But Gustin was still too young to let go of his dream of becoming a rapper one day. He spent a lot of time on the computer working on Virtual DJ applications and had started a record label, called Green Team, with his friends. The one song I heard online, performed with someone called T. Quail, was not bad. Mellow, rhythmic, and cut under with some soul. The lyrics are basic. “Keeps telling niggas to fall in line / You can say that you’re better / but we know that that ain’t true / all we hear nowadays is disses / that’s what rappers do.” Also, “You see money and you gotta get it / You see money and you gotta spend it.” It’s not brilliant. But compared to the other amateur rap that’s out there, it’s certainly respectable.
Old enough to seek his kicks in forbidden places. For a few months, Gustin had been sneaking out of his bedroom window as soon as Greg left for work and heading to Slocumb Street, which Greg considered a hangout for ne’er do wells. Gustin’s room was at the back of the house (a roadside cottage opposite an industrial park) that backed up to a wooded area which, on many an evening, served as Gustin’s escape route. “He’d go out that window, walk round that fence, and go down that dirt road to where the action’s at,” explains Greg.
Gustin was too young to realize he was swimming in shark-infested waters and way out of his depth. One of the boys he used to spend time with on Slocumb Street is now in jail for shooting two boys, says Greg, who grew up in the Bronx. “I said, ‘Gustin, man, you ain’t ready for those boys over there on Slocumb Street, man. You gonna end up getting yourself killed. You ain’t grown up like I did. You don’t have that killer instinct in you because you don’t have to survive like we had to survive. You got a mother and father to buy you stuff.’”
Daina, who lives on Slocumb Street, was worried the message wasn’t getting through. Raised in Queens, New York, she is, in her own way, a community organizer. As well as running her own company doing residential and commercial janitorial work, she is also director of a charitable organization that helps ex-convicts avoid reoffending. In the old days people called her “the book lady.” “I would ask children what they were interested in and then get books shipped from different publishing companies based on what the child’s interest was,” she explains. “Anything that would make them read. My focus was on the children who didn’t know how to read. But Gustin did not need remedial help.” She would also check report cards, and those who got good grades would get a couple of dollars or a trip to McDonald’s. Gustin always got a treat.
“I was afraid for him,” she says. “I know the streets. I grew up in the streets. And Gustin didn’t strike me as being street material.” If anything, says Daina, he was “a little nerdy”—a very bright honor-roll student who liked to play Words with Friends in chemistry class. “Even when he was hanging out with them boys, he kept his grades up,” says Greg. He would have been the first person in his family to graduate from high school. The green Cadillac was originally intended as a graduation present. “Greg always bragged about his children’s accomplishments, especially when it came to the report cards,” says Daina.
THERE’S A REASON WHY car insurers charge higher premiums for young drivers, and why young offenders are—or at least should be—treated with more leniency in the criminal justice system. Adolescence is a stage in life with its own dynamic. Teenagers have the capacity to perform as adults—they can produce children, drive cars, and kill people—without the life experience to always put those abilities to good use. They are more likely to take risks and less likely to understand what those risks entail. They are experimenting not only with substances (alcohol and drugs) but also with relationships (sexual, familial, social) and lifestyles. They are working out what kind of person they want to be, and in that process they are about as likely to make sound judgments as the elderly are to make rash ones.
This is not simply a social and cultural process—a period when young people figure things out and have fun before settling down. It’s a physiological one. And its primary driver is not hormonal—though of course hormones have a lot to do with it. At that age our brains are actually changing.
“The brain is a collection of cells that communicate with one another using chemicals called neurotransmitters,” explains Daniel Siegel in Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. “During adolescence there is an increase in the activity of the neural circuits utilizing dopamine, a neurotransmitter central in creating our drive for reward. Starting in early adolescence and peaking midway through, this enhanced dopamine release causes adolescents to gravitate toward thrilling experiences and exhilarating sensations.”1
This dopamine rush, explains Siegel, a psychotherapist and clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, has three distinct consequences: a tendency toward impulsivity, addiction, and hyperrationality. The latter, he explains, can lead to a greater propensity to take risks. “[Hyperrationality] is how we think in literal, concrete terms. We examine just the facts of a situation and don’t see the big picture; we miss the setting or context in which those facts occur. With such literal thinking, as adolescents we can place more weight on the calculated benefits of an action than on the potential risks of that action.”2
Add to this combustible cocktail a brain that is more prone to novelty seeking, heightened emotional intensity, creative exploration, and peer-group socializing, and you have the recipe for the most volatile, vulnerable, exciting, and challenging period of most people’s lives. “While most measurable aspects of our lives are improving during adolescence,” writes Siegel, “such as physical strength, immune function, resistance to heat and cold, and the speed and agility of how we respond, we are three times more likely to suffer serious injury or death during this time than we were in childhood or than we will be in adulthood. This increase in risk is not ‘by chance’—scientists believe it comes from the innate changes in how the brain develops during this period.”3
Such behavior is arguably not only natural but necessary. A bid to break through the borders of childhood and strike out on our own as apprentice adults involves facing fears and assessing danger. Notwithstanding the perils, if we didn’t go through this stage then we might be ill-equipped to mature at all.
“A similarly lowered risk threshold—indeed, a new pleasure in risk taking—likely propels nearly grown birds out of nests, hyenas out of communal dens, dolphins, elephants, horses, and otters into peer groups, and human teens into malls and college dorms,” write Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers in Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing. “As we’ve seen, having a brain that makes you feel less afraid enables, perhaps encourages, encounters with threats and competitors that are crucial to your safety and success. The biology of decreased fear, greater interest in novelty, and impulsivity serves a purpose across species. In fact, it could be the only thing more dangerous than taking risks in adolescence is not taking them.”4
Greg had another term for all of this. He called it hardheaded. No matter how often he warned Gustin, his son just wouldn’t listen. “I told him, ‘I’m fifty-seven years old, man. I’ve been living longer than you, dude. I can tell you what I been through in fifty-something years in ten minutes if you’d listen. You gonna go through the same thing.’”
Greg, who thanks to his roguish good looks can still carry off denim jacket and trousers with white sneakers, really did have some stories to tell. “I used to tell him stuff we used to do. You know, I sold drugs. I gangbanged a little bit. But yo, man. You see me now. I go to work every day. I knew that that life weren’t nothing.”
Gustin was Greg’s eldest son. He has several children from different “baby mamas” and is clearly a devoted father—quick to bring out pictures from holidays and home—but he’s not exactly a doting one. When I ask him how many children he has, he stumbles. “I got . . . let me see,” he says, listing them to himself quietly while counting on his fingers. “I got . . . three girls . . . and four boys.” Then he pauses. Something’s amiss. He recites their names to his fingers once more, as though doing his multiplication tables. He forgot one. “I have five boys and three girls,” he insists. The youngest, whom I saw after day care one day, is just two.
His warnings to Gustin came from bitter experience. About twenty years ago, Greg was shot by some “random dudes” he hung out with in Goldsboro. “You don’t know these niggas like I know them,” he told Gustin. “’Cos they shot me. I got shot messing with these same cats. Just hangin’ in the street with them boys. Gettin’ high a little bit, and they tried to rob me. They shot me in both of my legs. . . . I had to hide in some bushes. But I got away. I thought they were my friends. But then jealousy set in. We started makin’ a little money. They tried to rob me. Then they shot me.’”
Pointing first to his left leg and then his right, he says, “I got a long scar right here. I got a bullet hole in this leg. And a bullet hole back here where they bust my vein open. Shot me in both of my legs. I limped back to my apartment, and my baby’s mama called the rescue car for me.”
Gustin would generally dismiss these warnings as the chidings of a fretful old man out of touch with the mood of the moment. “Oh Dad, you scared, man. You old school. This is our time now. That stuff is old.” (Whenever Greg imitates Gustin as an adolescent, his voice drops half an octave and slows a couple of beats, dragging the syntax through the sentence with all the energy of a teenager hauling himself out of bed.)
GREG SEPARATED FROM GUSTIN’S mother, Melissa, when Gustin was about four. Gustin stayed with his mother for a while before he and his brother, also named Greg, moved back in with their father when they were around seven. But when Gustin reached his early teens, the boys bristled at the boundaries Greg was setting and moved back in with their mother in Raleigh. “Daddy too hard,” Greg said, mimicking the whiny voice of his boys when they were younger. “He won’t let us do this. He won’t let us do that.”
But life didn’t end up being too rosy at their mother’s either. After a short while, Melissa rang Greg to tell him it wasn’t working out. “She called me up to come and get ’em. I went to get ’em at the roller-skating rink because they were getting ready to talk back to her and stuff,” he explains. Gustin lived with his older sister for a brief period, but that didn’t go too well. “She drove him down here and dropped him off because her boyfriend didn’t want him staying with her no more. His sister’s boyfriend and Melissa’s boyfriend got mad with Gustin and put him out. So she brought him to me.”
Greg took them in but thought moving the boys to Goldsboro at that age was a bad idea. “I said, ‘Man, you shouldn’t have brought him down here. These little niggas down here don’t want nothin’. And they got these guns. And he’s gonna get in some mess.’”
Goldsboro (population thirty-seven thousand) sits halfway between Raleigh and the Atlantic coast, but it’s off the interstate and on the road to nowhere in particular, with a quaint downtown that is mostly closed by seven o’clock. Wikipedia lists twenty-nine notable people who have come from Goldsboro. Its most famous progeny include Chris Richardson, a contestant on the sixth season of American Idol, and Thomas Washington, a First World War admiral and hydrographer with the US Navy.
Being from New York, Greg finds attitudes in Goldsboro limiting and backward. “This is the dirty South right here,” he says. “These people round here twenty years behind the time. They still let white people keep them in slavery round here by Uncle Tomming. I say you don’t need to Uncle Tom no more. We got a black president. That’s over with. We equal with everybody.”
Daina says, “They didn’t care about him because he was black. He didn’t come from an affluent family. His mother and father weren’t pillars of the community.”
Jasmin, Greg’s twenty-eight-year-old girlfriend and mother to his youngest child, agrees. “They’d get at you about the dumbest stuff here,” says Jasmin, who grew up in California. “About the color of your car, your hair longer than theirs, your house smaller than them. It’s crazy. And that’s just the black people. We ain’t even talking about the white people. We don’t mess with them.”
Gustin had certainly had it with Goldsboro and planned to move to Raleigh the following Monday to live with his mother, who said she would let him have her apartment while he enrolled in community college. That was the plan, anyway. Greg approved. “I told him there ain’t no jobs around here. The only reason I’m still here is because I’m working at Walmart. If I didn’t work at Walmart I’d be working at Raleigh.”
Greg was an involved and engaged father. Every other Saturday, he took the boys to the Golden Touch barbershop. When the tax rebate came every year, he would share the spoils. Daina was impressed by the home-cooked meals he would make. “I mean from scratch. Like he’d make his own biscuits. Not pop and chips. Who does that?”
“They were like buddies,” says Jasmin. “They had their ups and downs, but they were like buddies.” Some of those downs were petty. One Thanksgiving, when Gustin could not have been more than thirteen, Greg took the kids to Daina’s house in a stinking mood. “He was flaming,” she says. “And I was like, ‘It’s Thanksgiving, what’s the problem?’ And he takes the scarf off Gustin’s neck and says, ‘That’s the problem.’ He had a hickey. The problem was the girl was eighteen, nineteen. Greg was livid.”
Every now and then, Gustin would “borrow” Greg’s cologne or the car without permission or a license. Over the summer, Greg had promised Gustin some sneakers but hadn’t been able to afford them, which Gustin felt was justification for calling him a “liar” and chastising him for going back on his word. The “yapping with his hands” would also stoke the embers of whatever strife was in the house. “He liked talkin’ back,” says Greg. “Normal eighteen-year-old stuff. ‘Clean up your room.’ ‘I ain’t gonna clean up no room.’ Wanting to sleep all day. ‘You need to cut the grass today.’ ‘Okay, I got it.’ Come back and the grass ain’t cut. Stuff like that. Simple stuff. Basic stuff.”
For his part, Gustin seemed to appreciate Greg, even if he felt he spread himself too thin. “My dad’s okay,” he told Daina. “He’s cool. He’s just got too many kids. He don’t even remember my last birthday.”
But over time, the “basic stuff” accumulated into more serious conflict. As well as the girls climbing in through the window, there were the boys hanging out at the house. It was bad enough that at times Gustin was running around in the streets, but increasingly he seemed to be bringing the streets home. At one point Greg threatened to deprive Gustin of his privacy completely. “You don’t pay no rent in here, bro, so I might just take the door off those hinges and you be like in the penitentiary. No door. Every time I walk past I can look in your room.”
“I didn’t do it,” he told me. “But I threatened to.”
Greg liked Gustin’s best friend, Britt, who went to the same school. Britt’s house, says Gustin’s friend Hardy, was the “hangspot” where friends would meet up. But Greg was increasingly worried about other company Gustin was keeping. He would return from work or from one of his baby mama’s houses to find people he didn’t know or didn’t trust or both just lounging about. “There’d be niggas laying in his room,” he says. “I’d say, ‘Who is this?’ Every day he’s bringing niggas in here and they spendin’ nights. I come home and go into his room and there’ll be a little boy sleeping over there. I’d be like, ‘Yo, man. What’s this? A motel or something?’”
These were the “Slocumb Street boys,” and Greg knew some were gang members, and he knew he didn’t want that for Gustin. “Every time he brought something in here that looked like it was from a gang, I’d open the door to that woodstove and burn it up. I’d tell him, ‘Don’t bring that mess up in my house, bro.’” He knew the signs, and clearly he could see that Gustin was tempted. “A couple of times he’d buy something red. I’d watch him for a little while and say, ‘You buying a lot of red every day, boy, so why you doing that? I know you ain’t in no gang.’ If I clean up and I see it, I throw it away.”
Like Toshiba, the mother of Stanley, who’d died almost exactly twenty-four hours earlier not far away in Charlotte, Greg felt that he’d tried everything, including setting clear boundaries and accommodating Gustin’s adolescent urges. Like Gary Sr., in Newark, Greg felt that Gustin may have been bristling at the tighter rein that comes with having just a man in the house. “You have a father who’s gonna let you do most of your stuff at the house, so you need to stay at the house. Don’t hang in them streets, man, because them boys got mothers who will let them do what they want to do. You got a father who ain’t gonna let you do what you want to do, so you have to figure out which way to go. It’s a different kind of love. You got rules.”
Greg felt some of those rules were being undermined by Gustin’s mother and sister. “My thing was if he wanted money he had to be working or in school,” says Greg. “But his mother and sister would spoil him to death. They would keep sending him money through Walmart MoneyGram. But I didn’t know. So he’s lying home all day like he ain’t got no money. And then at night, when I go to work, he jump up and he’s gone.”
At times, these tensions got physical. “I had to junk him up a couple of times,” says Greg. “He got to thinking he could try me. While he was running his mouth, I just ran up on him and whoop. Grabbed him by the neck and told him, ‘The fight is over, baby.’ No, no, no, it ain’t gonna be like that. One time I had to chase him with a baseball bat. He started cussing at me, man, and I said, ‘Man, I’m the last one you need to be disrespecting because, push comes to shove, I’m the nigga that got your back.’”
At one point, earlier in the fall, Greg kicked him out for two months and Gustin went to stay with Britt and his parents. In October, Daina reached out to Gustin. “I asked him if he had accepted Christ in his life,” she says. “The term they use here is saved. He said he’d given his life to Christ many years ago. And I said this is a time for you to renew your relationship. Because you need protection. You want to be a man. You’re not on the porch anymore. You’re out there in the street. You’re not at home. You’re with the big dogs. You need to be covered. And I’m really concerned now.”
She took him to her church one Sunday and introduced him to the men in the congregation and walked away to let them talk. She has no idea what they said. Afterward, she took him to Applebee’s for lunch to discuss his future and encourage him to reconcile with his dad.
She tried to get him to see things from Greg’s vantage point. “You’ve got to understand he’s trying to take care of the household and trying to make sure you have what you need. Sometimes there are disappointments. But that doesn’t mean that he’s bad. . . . When you’re responsible for someone else, because you bring them in this world, it doesn’t matter how or whatever or what you have, you do the best you can because as a parent you care. And until you’re a parent you’re not going to get it.”
For his part, Gustin had some sympathy for his father. As Greg remembers it, after staying for about six weeks at Britt’s, Gustin approached him. “Yo, Daddy, man,” he said. “Shit. I’m tired of sleeping on that mattress.” Greg told him to come on home if he was ready to respect his rules. “I said, ‘Look, man, when I come back from work, I don’t expect to see five or six niggas waiting in my house sleeping around smoking weed and stuff. I can smell it.’”
“I used to let Britt stay over here ’cos I knew Britt was his friend. Britt was his real friend. When he came back I told him, ‘Now Britt’s your real friend. When you got put out he took you in. That’s a friend. Where were the rest of them boys at?’”
Gustin consented. “Some children are a little bit more mature,” says Daina. “I knew that even if his father had his ways of doing things that I didn’t always agree with, there was love there.”
GUSTIN NEVER DID GRADUATE. Smart as he was, he wasn’t clever enough to stay out of trouble at school, even though he didn’t have long to go. In October, he’d been suspended for ten days after he and a friend were found in possession of stolen cell phones (the details of what they were doing with them and how he got them are sketchy, but no one denies he had them). When the suspension was over his friend went back to school; Gustin did not.
Daina intervened on his behalf to talk with the school administration about getting him back on track. She knew he could apply himself. He’d occasionally worked for her and had done well, with other employees saying he was a sharp lad. But as he approached the point when he should graduate, he was struggling to reach the finish line. Following his suspension he was reluctant to go back to school because he said he’d been bullied by a teacher. He opted for independent study at home instead, but to Daina’s immense frustration the school wouldn’t cooperate. “He needed two or three credits, and he would have finished those classes in January. ‘He’s right there at the door of graduation,’” she told the school administrators. “‘He’ll be the first in his family to graduate. How are you going to deny him this? At this stage. In this time.’ They kept saying, ‘We’ll get back with you. We’ll get back with you.’” But by the time they did, it was too late.
So Gustin was out of school and kicking his heels. “So I cut his allowance short,” says Greg. “Make him hungry.” He told Gustin, “I ain’t want to give you nothing when you ain’t working,” he told him. “Either you go to school or you work. Then you can get anything I get. And I ain’t got a lot. But I’ll work with you.” When Gustin announced his plans to move to Raleigh on Monday, Greg took this as a positive sign and decided to give him the Cadillac anyway.
“I think where Greg messed up is that he said Gustin had to graduate first before he gave him the car,” says Jasmin. “And then he just went ahead and gave it to him.”
“I sure did,” admits Greg. “I went against my word.” He warned Gustin, “Don’t go in the ’hood with that car. It ain’t about the fact that you better than nobody. Just ’cos you’re eighteen in a Cadillac, in this town some people gonna hate you for that.”
Daina thought it was a bad idea, period. “I wasn’t happy about the car. He’s eighteen years old. What the hell’s he doing with a Cadillac?” But the plan had been in the works for some time. Greg had too many kids to fit in the Cadillac and had already arranged to buy a white Suburban from a friend.
Without telling Gustin of his plans, Greg had occasionally let him drive the Cadillac to the barber’s or home from school while Greg was with him. Gustin got his driver’s license on Wednesday, November 20. Greg gave him the keys to the car on Thursday. “Okay,” he told him. “This is your car. You want it, you gonna have to work on it. I ain’t putting no more money into it. I’ll keep insurance on it. You have to buy gas.”
The car had been in the garage for a little while and needed some work. Greg was eager for Gustin to figure it out for himself. “It was leaking a little fluid. I knew what it was. But I wouldn’t tell him.” But Gustin was smart. He figured it out for himself, and—as Jaiden’s family mourned, as Kenneth planned his last night out as a teenager, and as Tyler and Brandon played video games—Gustin worked on his Cadillac all through Saturday until it was fixed. By the evening it was ready to roll.
“YOUTH IS ONLY BEING . . . like one of those malenky toys you viddy being sold in the streets,” says Alex, the fifteen-year-old protagonist of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange in the novel’s youth-specific language of Nadsat. “Like little chellovecks made out of tin and with a spring inside and then a winding handle on the outside and you wind it up grrr grrr grrr and off it itties, like walking, O my brothers. But it itties in a straight line and bangs straight into things bang bang and it cannot help what it is doing. Being young is like being like one of those malenky machines.”5
The thing is, it very much depends on what kind of path has been laid out for you as to what kind of thing you’re going to bang into and how much it will hurt.
For those who are privileged, the long-term consequences of rash moments can be minimal. When former president George W. Bush was questioned repeatedly on the campaign trail about his cocaine use and heavy drinking as a young man, he responded jokingly, “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.”6 There is a wry logic to such an answer, even if Bush hardly exemplifies its most important lesson: there’s only so much maturity one can expect from those who are not fully mature.
The Bullingdon Club, an all-male exclusive dining club at the University of Oxford, is notorious for throwing ostentatious banquets at which privileged students get very drunk and then often vandalize the restaurants in which they were eating before paying for the damage in full. Its members have included British prime minister David Cameron, chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne, and London mayor Boris Johnson—all Tories. “I don’t think an evening would have ended without a restaurant being trashed and being paid for in full, very often in cash,” wrote Johnson’s biographer, Andrew Gimson, of the club’s activities in the eighties. “A night in the cells would be regarded as being par for a Buller man and so would debagging anyone who really attracted the irritation of the Buller men.”7
Just two months after the day on which this book is set, pop star Justin Bieber was arrested at four a.m. for drunk driving and resisting arrest. He was driving sixty miles per hour in a thirty-miles-per-hour zone while drag racing against Def Jam rapper Khalil Sharieff after a day spent allegedly smoking marijuana, taking antidepressants, and drinking beer. The charges were later lowered to careless driving and resisting arrest after a plea deal in which Bieber agreed to attend twelve hours of anger-management counseling, attend a program that teaches about the impact of drunken driving on victims, and make a $50,000 donation to the organization Our Kids. The judge explained his lenient sentence thus: “Here is someone who is young. His whole life is ahead of him, and he just hopefully will get the message. He will grow up.”8
That was a good call. But without an expensive lawyer or powerful parents, few are likely to be treated so leniently. Gustin was, in many ways, a regular teenager. He smoked marijuana, but according to Greg, “he wasn’t no big druggy”; he liked a drink, “but he wasn’t no big drinker.” “He ain’t no angel, now,” says Greg. “Don’t get me wrong. He’s the average eighteen-year-old. He do what we do when we were eighteen.” But if you’re black and working class, “average” won’t cut it. A minor mishap, even one not of your making, could spell danger.
“I have grandchildren living in the suburbs,” says Daina. “I don’t want to say they’re sheltered. But their comings and goings are controlled. There’s a lack of resources in this town, and their home is not like Greg’s household—with a single father, working at night.” To be caught in even a minor transgression—like marijuana possession—could have major consequences that could leave you ensnared in the criminal justice system in a way that could impact you for the rest of your life and effectively deprive your citizenship rights.
“Once you’re labeled a felon,” writes Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, “The old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”9
The law is the law, and those who use cocaine or smash up property know it is illegal. But when the stakes are that high and the odds that skewed, poor people don’t have the luxury to learn from their mistakes. For working class youth, the great American myth of personal reinvention is elusive.10 For that, you need not only a good lawyer, but the resources for rehab, a new home in a new place away from the entanglements of your past, the chance of a new job, and the chance for new training and education. In the absence of those opportunities, you are less likely to recover from your mistakes than to repeat them.
“You all keep sending me to jail,” said twenty-four-year-old Baltimore gang leader Steven Loney at his sentencing hearing. He’d been convicted of racketeering after bribing prison guards to smuggle marijuana, tobacco, and prescription pills into the prison where he was serving time. Loney had a prolific criminal record, including conviction for an assault that involved a shooting. “Jail is making me worse. You all can’t tell that? I ain’t been on the streets. I been locked up my whole life. . . . They say I’ve been a substance abuser since I was seventeen. I’ve been locked up since I was nineteen years old, Your Honor. From nineteen to now, I’ve been home for a hundred and twenty days. The government never offer me no treatment. They never did nothing. They wonder why I still do stuff. You send me to the same problem. You sent me to Baltimore City Detention Center, where all that’s going on. And, obviously, I need help. Ain’t nobody can give me a chance to help me.”11 Loney was sentenced to nine years.
This book is the story of young people most of whom made bad decisions—some were killed, others did the killing. Some did nothing worse than make a poor choice in friends. One needn’t excuse a single thing they have done to understand that what distinguishes them from other, more fortunate youth isn’t an innate pathology but a brutalizing, unforgiving environment. Gustin’s friend Hardy is still in school, has a part-time job, and keeps his head down. But although he didn’t see Gustin’s death coming, he’s been surrounded by the possibility of it for what seems like most of his short life. “I know a couple people who been shot,” he tells me when I meet him at his home one evening after he finished work. “How many?” I ask. A long heavy pause. “All my life. Everywhere I go somebody got shot. I know a lot of people who got shot. A lot of people got killed. . . . I seen people get shot.” Hardy insists on this with a mixture of resignation and resentment—he knows it’s not right, and he knows there’s nothing he can do about it. It’s his life. He’s used to it. It seems as though it’s only when he has someone asking questions and has to articulate it that he recognizes the weight he’s been carrying so silently for so long.
ON THE EVENING OF November 23, Greg woke up from his nap in preparation for his night shift to find one of Gustin’s friends, one of those “Slocumb Street boys,” “Lord Henry” (not his real nickname), in the living room. Already Gustin was reneging on the bargain he’d struck on his return to his dad’s house and was using the place as a flophouse for unapproved company.
Before Greg could even get himself ready, Gustin and Lord Henry had left. Only this time Gustin didn’t need to sneak out and run through the fields in the back. He had the Cadillac that he’d been working on all day. The posse of two soon grew as they picked up a young woman and two other men. Gustin told his brother he was going to “hang with these dudes one last time” before leaving for Raleigh. What they did for most of the rest of the night is not clear. At some point they went to the Lighthouse, a convenience store and fried chicken outlet that had become a notorious flash point for violent confrontations in the area.
Greg called him around midnight from work. “Yo, what you doing?” he asked, knowing full well Gustin was already out of the house and, in all likelihood, up to no good. He could hear “a whole lot of confusion” in the background. Greg tried to talk him straight. “I thought you was going to Raleigh tomorrow. I didn’t give you that car to be riding these niggas around,” he said.
“Ah, Dad, you don’t understand, man,” said Gustin. “It’s cool, man.” He was supposed to pick up Hardy that night after their mutual friend TJ got off work. They were going to record a song. But he never called TJ. Just after eight the next morning, as Greg was driving home, he saw police cars on every corner of Ash Street, not too far from his house, but thought nothing of it. He’d tried to call Gustin a few more times in the early hours just to check on him but kept getting his voicemail. He thought little of that either. He went to his baby mama’s house to fix some breakfast. When he got home he found a note on the door telling him to dial a number and stay put.
“I thought, ‘Oh this boy got himself in some trouble.’” He called the number. Not long after, he saw two police cars drive up to the house, and at that moment he knew it was one of two things. “I knew right then, because they don’t send two police cars for something small, that either he killed somebody or he get killed.”
They had traced the green Cadillac on the corner of South Audubon and Walnut to Greg. They told him they thought his son had been shot and took him to the hospital. He called Daina from there. He was so distraught that for a little while she couldn’t understand what he was saying, and when she did finally figure it out she couldn’t believe it. “Finally he was able to get to a point where I could understand him say, ‘They killed my son.’”
“What are you talking about?” she asked.
“I’m with the detectives,” he said.
“No, they probably loaned the car to somebody else,” she said. “Not Gustin.”
“I’m at the hospital. They killed my son,” Greg repeated. He was screaming and crying.
“Who’s with you?” she asked. When Greg said he was there by himself, she jumped in the car and raced to the hospital. As she came through the door, the detectives were taking him to identify the body. “Then I just heard him scream from behind the door, and at that point I couldn’t deny it. His father’s scream confirmed everything.”
The autopsy (which mistakenly categorizes Gustin as Native American) describes in detailed technical language what happened when the bullet entered the back of his skull. “The wound track enters the left occipital tip of the brain and travels medially and upwards, causing extensive damage of the brain, leading to separation into three large pieces: the right hemisphere, the left hemisphere, and the cerebellum, separated at the midbrain.”
In short, a single bullet shattered his skull and split his brain in three. A diagram at the end makes it clearer, showing a jagged line running vertically through the center of his skull before fanning out horizontally at the top and the bottom—like a capital I.
Four days after Greg had gifted Gustin the Cadillac, it was not headed for Raleigh, as he’d hoped, but being towed back to the house. “If he’d made it to Monday, he’d a been out of here,” says Greg, wistfully. The car now sits in his garage. He let the air out of the tires and just left it there—his dream car now inseparable from his worst nightmare. Friends cleaned out the pool of blood on the passenger side but could not erase the memory. A year later, the various veins from the spider’s web of shattered glass still spread across the rear window, all coming back to the single bullet hole, the size of an adult thumb, in the top left corner. Greg walks around the vehicle, rubbing the dust off the top with his finger.
Gustin’s family and friends knew what had happened to him. But they didn’t know why. As Daina helped Greg plan the funeral, they struggled to understand what could have prompted the shooting. “We were racking our brains to think what the hell would Gustin do to somebody that they would want to take his life,” she says. “I know some kids who are really wild, that were given over to the street. With them I wasn’t surprised. But with Gustin everyone was shocked, to be honest.”
“Who did he hurt? We thought maybe it was girls. Somebody’s girlfriend. Or maybe he took something or stole something or mouthed off to the wrong person. We knew there was no way he was hated to that degree.”
Then one of Daina’s employees approached her with some inside information. The shooters weren’t after Gustin. They were after the employee’s nephew—Lord Henry, who was found at Wayne Memorial Hospital later the same night Gustin was shot, seeking treatment for minor injuries to his leg. “They’d been trying to shoot him all week,” explains Greg. “He get with Gustin, but he don’t tell Gustin they been trying to get him. So they see him at the Lighthouse. They see Lord Henry get in the car. So they follow the car. They try to shoot Lord Henry, and they miss him and hit Gustin in the back of the head and killed him.”
Had Gustin been a more seasoned hand at the wheel, the assailants wouldn’t have stood a chance, insists Greg, shaking his head at one of the many might-have-beens. “That car got a Northstar engine. I told his ma, ‘If he knew how to drive this Cadillac, all he had to do is punch it, and whoever was following him would have been way down the street somewhere. And the policeman would have seen that car flying.’ But he weren’t no experienced driver.”
Lord Henry was a Blood. Gustin’s shooter, they think, was a Crip. As small and “behind” as Goldsboro may be, it had grafted the big-city gang affiliations from Los Angeles onto its reputation as a small Southern outpost. Over the past few decades there has been a proliferation of gang activity in small towns prompted more by popular media, social media, and local tensions than by the actual expansion of big-city gangs. Instead of roaming South Central, gang members prowl the less forbidding but nonetheless potentially deadly avenues of Goldsboro, showcasing hardcore urban identities around tree-lined streets named Mulberry, Pineview, and Evergreen. Greg insists Gustin was unaffiliated. “The guys Gustin was hanging around with were Blood dudes. I said, ‘Dude, why would you hang out with them? You ain’t even in a gang. And you hangin’ out with them gang niggas.’ ’Cos I knew Lord Henry was a Blood. But Gustin wasn’t in the gang. That’s what I tried to tell the police. I told ’em, ‘He ain’t no gangbanger.’” The police weren’t convinced. They insisted that Gustin was known by other Bloods as Jersey.
When it comes to how Gustin’s memory might be maligned and distorted, this is where Greg draws the line. It’s a thin line. But for him it’s clearly an important one. “He may have hung out with those boys. But he weren’t no gangbanger. They kept trying to give him a gang name. I told ’em, ‘You can go in his room, and you can’t find nothing that says he ain’t no gangbanger.’ I’d go to court on that,” he says, before clapping his hands to each of the following words. “He. Wasn’t. In. No. Gang.”
Hardy didn’t see it coming. “That came out of nowhere,” he says. “He weren’t in no trouble like that.” He thinks Gustin’s vulnerability stemmed not so much from the fact that he identified with one gang as opposed to another but that he identified with people in different “cliques.” Hardy had warned him that because he was known to go to Eastern Wayne High School, he should stay away from the Slocumb Street boys because they drew from different gang territories. “I ain’t saying this caused him dying,” he points out. “But once you start hanging with them, it’s like you’re playing both sides.”
Daina had a similar sense, which may be why she thought he wasn’t “street material.” Smart as he was, he hadn’t figured out how the allegiances worked. “He was friends with the Bloods and the Crips. He was friends with everybody. At the funeral there were black people there, white people there, Hispanic people there. And they were weeping. And that’s not the norm in a city funeral. I’ve been to a lot of funerals of children who have died in the city, and you don’t see that.”
Greg insists the police know who did it, but they say they can’t do anything because nobody will testify against him. The shooter’s been heard bragging about it around town. And one night, while Greg was working at Walmart, the alleged shooter stood right next to him and was selling somebody a cell phone. “This dude called his name,” he said. “I looked at him. But I kept working. I’m from the city. I know how to look at somebody and turn my head. So I looked at him and turned my head and kept on working.”
Greg believes—just as Willie Brightmon did about his son Samuel in Dallas—that because Gustin is black, the police aren’t taking his death seriously. “I haven’t heard nothing from them,” Greg says. “I haven’t heard nothing from the police since two months after the funeral. Nobody contact me. Nobody said nothing. They just say it’s under investigation. We can’t get nobody to testify. They just think it’s another black kid. This is the dirty South right here. This is Goldsboro. Like I said, these people round here twenty years behind time.”
OF THE TEN GUN deaths that took place in the twenty-four hours profiled in this book, Gustin’s was the fifth in which the police have not yet definitively identified the shooter. (At the time of this writing, the killers of Kenneth, Samuel, Tyshon, and Gary have not been called to account.) Of the rest, two of the alleged shooters—Demontre Rice, who shot Stanley, and Balam Gonzalez, who is believed to have shot Pedro—are in prison. Brandon spent ten days in a junior detention facility for accidentally shooting Tyler, and his father, Jerry, spent a year in jail for felony violations and corruption of a minor. Camilla, who accidentally shot Edwin, was not charged with his death. Danny Thornton, who shot Jaiden, was killed in a shoot-out.
According to an analysis by Scripps Howard News Service, of the more than half million homicides committed between 1980 and 2008, a killer was identified 67 percent of the time when the victim was black or Hispanic and 78 percent of the time when the victim was white.12 The discrepancy, say detectives, is based on the circumstances of the death. When the assailant and the victim are strangers, homicides are much more difficult to solve. That is most likely to be the case in killings relating to gangs or drugs, and African Americans and Latinos are more likely to be killed in circumstances relating to those things, they say.
Whether the police would have solved these shootings if everything else had been equal but the victims had been white is unknowable. Everything else isn’t equal. And because the myriad inequalities are known and felt, the families of many of the black victims do not feel that justice has been done precisely because they are black. (It’s worth noting that both families whose relatives were killed in “accidental shootings,” the Dunns and the Rajos, don’t feel justice has been done either. Those cases had very different outcomes and involved a white and a Latino family.)
They feel their children do not make the news like other children, and therefore little political pressure is brought to bear on the police to step up their investigations. If their child’s life was anything less than stellar—preferably an A student, still in school, or on his way to college with no previous convictions or gang associations—then it’s almost as if the child was asking for it.
In short, so long as black kids are killing other black kids, it feels to some as though nobody really cares. This is not new. During her ethnographic study of Indianola, Mississippi, in the 1930s, anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker concluded, “The mildness of the courts where offences of Negroes against Negroes are concerned is only part of the whole situation which places the Negro outside the law.”13
In many minority neighborhoods the dial has not shifted greatly. The police treat them as inherently lawless areas, and a significant proportion who live in those neighborhoods feel like they are living under occupation.14
So the desire for better policing is complicated by the fact that African Americans hold in relatively low regard the very people who have the power to protect them more effectively. Combined data from between 2011 and 2014 showed that whereas 59 percent of white Americans had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the police, the figure for African Americans was 37 percent. At 25 percent, African Americans were twice as likely to have little or no confidence in the police.15 “I fear the police more than the gangs,” one grandmother on the South Side of Chicago told me. “I don’t like the gangs, but the gangbangers still have to live here. The police don’t, and they’re not here to protect and serve. They think we’re beneath them.”
This experience of police harassment—compounded by extensively reported accounts of police shooting or otherwise killing black men—leads many to fear that rather than finding criminals they will just criminalize an entire community. So although a disproportionate number of murders go unsolved, a disproportionate number of innocent young people are also harassed, and those guilty of petty crimes are more likely to be caught and get longer sentences.
“Like the schoolyard bully,” writes Leovy, “our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.”16
Daina, too, is disappointed by the police response, but she also feels the black community has to come to grips with the scale and finality of the crisis it is faced with. “A lot of the men I deal with coming out of the prison system say they won’t call the police,” she says. “They say, ‘We’re not rats.’ I understand that. I didn’t want to be a snitch either. But today it’s different because now they’re playing with guns for keeps. When I was a kid, the crowd drew in, and whoever had the best set of this [she put her fists up] won the fight and it was over. Today, we’re going to funerals. And I think every parent whose son was murdered at the hands of another kid would prefer to visit their child in jail than to go to the graveyard.” It’s an awful set of options, I say.
“Well, he’s alive, rather than he’s dead,” she says both insistently and matter-of-factly. “If he’s out there doing these things, it’s up to you in the community to call the police. Have him locked up. Save his life. So if you leave him out there and he continues to behave that way, the streets are going to take his life. I have told my grandchildren, I have told those who I love dearly, I have told those I know in the community: I don’t care about the weed. But if I see you with a gun. You don’t have to be pointing it at anybody or shooting anybody. If I see you with a gun, I’m calling the police on you. It’s that simple. Because this shouldn’t happen. You can’t change them, but you can save them. You have to be dedicated enough to recognize that this is one of the hard choices. Labor wasn’t easy either.”