Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives - Gary Younge (2016)
Chapter 2. KENNETH MILLS-TUCKER (19)
NOVEMBER 23, 3:13 A.M. EST
A RAPID, REPETITIVE BARRAGE OF SHOTS HAD PIERCED THE NIGHT like the clacking of an almighty typewriter echoing through a dark, empty office. It was 3:13 a.m. when a woman, woken by the noise but still with the weight of sleep in her voice, called 911 and told the controller what she’d heard. “Some kind of gunfire,” she said, before deferring to her husband, a muffled presence on the line. “My husband says it’s automatic.” The controller asks which direction the gunfire is heading. “Going north. From just down to the street,” she says before her husband corrects her. “He says it’s going east. Going toward the main office.”
“How many did you hear?”
“Repeated fire. It’s more than six.”
“More than six. I’m in my bed, I didn’t get up. ’Cos they woke us up. It woke me up. I never heard this kind of fire before.”
The second caller was matter-of-fact and brief. “911? The police are round here now. But someone got shot outside my house.” As the drama unfolded in real time, residents in a patch of northwest Indianapolis offered what they could by way of information. Stray bullets peppered the area. One hit a bedroom wall, two others went through bedroom windows. The calls were partial, occasionally panicked accounts from residents whose slumber had been disturbed by the high-powered crackling of a weapon of war and who were now disoriented as they struggled to relate their versions of events to the dispassionate voice of a civil servant seeking hard, actionable information on the other end of the line.
“I’m at Three Fountains West apartments. And I think I heard gunshots. And then people running through right past my house,” a third caller says in breathless, abrupt sentences. “I heard the shots. And as soon as I looked out the window there were two gentlemen running right past my house. And I saw them stop.”
“Okay are they white, black, Hispanic?” asks the controller.
There’s a long pause.
“They are black. And they’re wearing black.”
“Both wearing black?”
“So my roommate says the victim was shot right in front of his room.”
“He saw this happen?”
“He didn’t see it. He heard it. And looked out the window. He saw that he fell.”
The next caller is clearly terrified. “Me, my baby, and my boyfriend were in the house and then we heard a gunshot. My window. . . . My wall is just. . . . ” A bullet had just gone through her window. As she loses her train of thought, her boyfriend takes over, his tone more fretful and urgent. “They’re shooting from my house. We’re at Falcon Crest watching TV. I need to get out of here. Can you get a car so I can get out of here? I don’t want to be in this area.”
“I think there’s several officers already over there,” the dispatcher says.
“I don’t want to be in this area. What the hell.” He’s breathing hard.
“There are so many officers over there,” the controller says, trying to reassure him. “You’re going to be okay now. Okay. There’s a lot of them over there.”
He’s not listening. He’s instructing his girlfriend to gather their things. “Put the stuff in the baby bag. Find it tomorrow. We’ll carry it to a hotel.” His breathing is still labored.
“We’re going to let them know,” says the controller.
“How long is it going to take?” he asks.
“You want to leave now?”
“Yeah, we just want to sleep in a hotel.”
His girlfriend returns to the phone. “Hello ma’am. We’ve got a young two-month-old baby.”
“So we really want to leave now, okay?” she says. “We really want to leave.”
The controller is getting testy. “I understand, ma’am, I’ve already told you that we’re going to get an officer inside your house, okay? They’re really busy out there. There’s a lot going on out there. They’ll be with you as soon as they can. But I’ll let them know that you want to leave and you want to go to a hotel. They’ll be there as soon as they can, alright? As soon as they can? As. Soon. As. They. Can. To talk to you, okay? Just stay inside your apartment. Do not go out. We’ll get an officer to you.”
Three Fountains West is in a curious part of Indianapolis where country, town, and suburb meet but don’t match. Within a three-minute drive you can be on the interstate, on a horse, in a box store, in an apartment, or in a town house. But Three Fountains West, a housing cooperative, is pleasant. It reminded me of the English new town that I grew up in during the seventies: newly built, affordable, cookie-cutter homes, with yards front and back, decent amenities—a few playgrounds, a community center, a swimming pool with a slide—and well-tended green space. A three-bedroom town house here goes for $620 a month, with management promising to “provide that ‘at home’ feeling without the hassles of home ownership.”1 According to the website of the census tract (a relatively small area usually comprising a few thousand people), this was the most diverse of all the places where kids got shot that day (62 percent black, 15 percent white, 20 percent Latino).2
The police got to Three Fountains West very quickly. They had been setting up for an unrelated detail nearby when they heard the shots reported in the 911 calls. Still, by the time they arrived, the shooters had fled, leaving what looked like a scene from a David Lynch movie. A green 2002 Honda Accord had struck a utility pylon and flipped onto its roof. Its four occupants were now scattered. Wayne Wilson, age twenty, the driver, was on the grass complaining of a pain in his back. Jaylen Grice, twenty, who was with him in the front, felt pain all over his body. Both were taken to the hospital. Tarell Davis, nineteen, was not there when the police arrived but returned later, apparently uninjured. Kenneth Mills-Tucker, nineteen, lay still, not complaining at all. He had staggered a short distance and fallen about a hundred feet from the car. He’d been shot in the left side of his torso; another bullet had grazed the right side of his abdomen. Police believe the gunfight took place right outside the administrative offices of Three Fountains West because casings were found in the parking lot there. Kenneth and his crew did not get very far. The car overturned yards away as they tried to head south on Moller Road, leaving the area in darkness for several hours after it struck the utility pole. The coroner’s verdict report reads, “Medical intervention was unsuccessful and the decedent was pronounced nonviable at 3:57 am.”
Around the time Amy Sanders and her family were crossing the Mason-Dixon line on their way from Houston to Grove City to see Jaiden inert but still technically alive, Kenneth became the second person whose story is told in this book to be shot and the first to die over the twenty-four-hour period covered. Jaiden was the youngest; Kenneth was the oldest—only three days shy of his twentieth birthday.
In the picture used for his obituary, Kenneth, who was also known as “kj,” looks quite the dandy, wearing a white shirt and bright white hat, tilted slightly to the right, and a matching bow tie and vest with gray and white diagonal stripes. His closed-mouth smile makes the most of a prominent chin and the goatee growing on it. Formal and handsome in his bearing and playful with his clothing, were he not black he could be an extra in The Great Gatsby.
Apparently, he had been looking forward to bidding farewell to his teens—his Twitter handle was his birthday, @Nov.26th. One of his last tweets, sent on the evening he died, read, “Out with the gang Dooney Wayne n Rell what’s going on tonight. My last weekend being a teenager.” According to the coroner’s report, the four had left a party at the Three Fountains apartment complex around 3:13 a.m.
As the sun rose, Twitter hummed with news of his death. In one exchange at 5:21 a.m., a friend commiserated with Kenneth’s girlfriend, Denise: “yu might be tha last voice he heard, no one can imagine what yu goin thru smh it’s hard for everybody but keep ur head up.” Denise had not heard. “what are you talking about,” she wrote. “kj dead” came the reply. “No TF he’s not what are yu talking about what’s your number where’s KJ.”
Those who know what the shooting was about have not come forward. If the police know, they are not saying. Meanwhile, Kenneth’s assailant has not been found.
DEAD MEN TELL NO tales. For each young person who fell that day there is a story beyond his death. The challenge, in compiling this book, was to unearth as many of those stories as possible. Finding family members was not always easy. There were short news reports, usually written by whichever general-assignment journalist was unlucky enough to be on the weekend shift. Occasionally, they included a quote from a family member. But often not. After that, there were online obituary notices, which provided names of parents, siblings, funeral directors, and churches. If the shooting had happened in or near the home, families often moved away—as Nicole had done. So contacting people was a mixture of persistence and luck: trawling online phone directories for names listed in online obituaries in the hope that there might be an address; messaging people on Facebook; literally walking streets and asking if anyone knew the family; approaching the funeral directors who buried the victims and the pastors who eulogized them; asking local journalists if they would share leads.
If any of those attempts bore fruit, then came the tough part: approaching the families.
Talking to the relatives of bereaved children is inherently intrusive. The issue is whether the intrusion is at all welcome. It is no small thing to trust a person you don’t know with the story of your dead child. Journalists are not entitled to such stories. But often parents are genuinely heartened to know that someone from outside their immediate circle is even interested. They are relieved to hear that someone, somewhere noted that the young person whom they bore and reared has been summarily removed from the planet.
Conversely, there are others who not only do not want to speak but resent being asked. The relative of one child in this book responded to my request for an interview with this angry voicemail: “Don’t call my phone. You’re a stupid son of a bitch. And I’ve got your number. And I’m gonna give it to my lawyer. And I don’t want anything to do with your dumb ass. Don’t you ever fucking call my phone. You bitch.” A family member, whom I’d already interviewed, had given me her number.
The truth is, you never know until you ask. I asked Kenneth’s grandfather. I found his name through the list of family members in Kenneth’s online obituary and then matched it to an identical name in the online phone directory. According to the census, his address was in a neighborhood with a substantial black community. I figured that of all Kenneth’s relatives, his grandfather was most likely to have a landline. So I called.
A woman answered and said I’d called the right place but he wasn’t home. I explained my idea for this book and she was very enthusiastic. “Thank God. Somebody should write about this,” she said. “They should teach children in first and second grade to stay away from guns. It’s a waste. The guys who shot him weren’t even looking for him,” she said. I asked if she had a contact number for either of his parents.
“Wait and I’ll call him,” she said, referring to the grandfather. “He’s in. I just thought you were a collector,” she laughed. The grandfather gave me Kenneth’s father’s cell phone number. In hindsight, I should have texted his dad. That would have given him time to process the inquiry in his own time. An unexpected call from an unfamiliar number in the middle of the day from someone wanting to talk about your recently murdered son would throw anyone off. I know that now. But I called. I told him how I’d got his number, what the book was about, and asked if I could see him when I came to Indianapolis in a few weeks.
“Where did you get my number from?” he asked. I explained again. “How did you get their number?” he asked. I explained. “How did you find our names?” he asked. I explained. And so it went on. Understandably, he couldn’t see past being blindsided. I apologized for putting him on the spot and asked if we could talk at a better time. He said he’d call me back that night.
I immediately texted an apology and a further explanation of the project. He didn’t call back that night. Nor the night after that. I left it for a couple of days and texted again and then once again before I left for Indianapolis. He never called back. When I arrived in Indianapolis five months later, I called the grandfather’s house and left a message. When they didn’t get back to me, I went to their home and left a note at their door. By the time I got back to the hotel, they’d left a voicemail while I was driving. It was his grandfather’s partner. The message was four seconds long. She simply repeated her number and said, “Don’t call again.”
I’D GONE TO INDIANAPOLIS in April 2014, almost exactly five months after Kenneth’s death, for the annual convention of the National Rifle Association, which was being held in the downtown convention center, just twenty minutes away from where he was shot. The sense of fear and helplessness exhibited in those 911 calls the night Kenneth died—the infantilized man unable to defend his family and seeking protection from the state; domestic cocoons pierced by the chaos of the street; law-abiding citizens paralyzed by vagabonds run wild—is the currency in which the NRA trades. The 911 dispatcher instructed the caller to sit and wait; the slogan for the NRA convention that year was “Stand and fight.”
When the NRA comes to town, they make their presence felt. A huge banner straddling an entire block of the city center promised “Nine Acres of Guns and Gear.” The displays inside didn’t disappoint. In a cavernous exhibition hall showcasing the industry’s finest killing machines, scores of white men (few other demographics were present) aimed empty barrels into the middle distance and pondered their purchases. All the big names were there: Mossberg (“Built rugged. Proudly American”); Smith & Wesson (“Advanced by design”); and Henry (“Made in America. Or not made at all”).
The relationship some of the men walking these halls have with guns is romantic. At times it even borders on the sexual. The touch, smell, and power of a firearm come together in their own erotic alchemy. “Pick up a rifle, a pistol, a shotgun, and you’re handling a piece of American history,” writes Chris Kyle in American Gun. “Take the gun up now, and the smell of black powder and saltpeter sting the air. Raise the rifle to your shoulder and look into the distance. You see not a target but a whole continent of potential, of great things to come, a promising future . . . but also toil, trial, and hardship. The firearm in your hands is a tool to help you through it.”3
The convention hosts scores of seminars ranging from “Wild Game Cooking: From Field to Table” to “The Men and Guns of D-Day.” But by far the most popular are those premised on the notion that you are fighting for your life. In the “Home Defense Concepts” seminar, Rob Pincus, a taut, muscular figure with a trimmed goatee, encouraged several hundred attendees to visualize the room in their house where they would barricade themselves in the event of a burglary and to “re-create that emotional component” of a break-in by having a dry run with the whole family. Families should have a code word. “Think about where you are in the morning and in the evening,” he told them as they imagined the best hiding place. Running through the arsenal that might be most appropriate, he suggested a 20 gauge for defense, or maybe a 9mm, “which can be a lot more manageable.” When thinking of the firearm you’d use, bear the following in mind: “What’s the practical distance? What’s the predictable distance? What’s the predictable size? What are the shooting skills?”
In other words, imagine a burglary in vivid detail, and then make sure you are always prepared for that eventuality. Rather than succumb to the complacency that it would not happen or is unlikely to happen, develop a state of alertness in which you have embodied and embedded the notion that it could happen to you at any moment, and develop the reflexes to respond effectively and accordingly. Basically, live your life in fear of threat and violation. Be stimulated by the possibility that someone, somewhere might be poised to invade and attack. “You have to do the drill,” he stressed. “You have to create the stimulus.”
But the threat the NRA evokes is not only to an individual or even a family; it is to American civilization itself. “In order to justify the necessity for firearms, the gun-rights narrative must continually reaffirm the frontier spirit, which makes self-defense essential and militia duty compulsory,” writes James Welch, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, in his essay “The Ethos of the Gun.” “Despite the fact that the frontier has long ceased to be a common experience for Americans, the staunchest gun advocates go to great pains to maintain a sense of the world as a dangerous, insecure place.”4
The NRA defends the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Adopted in 1791, it states, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” The assumption that this relates to an individual’s rights is widespread but by no means uncontested.
“The world of the Second Amendment is unrecognizable,” argues Michael Waldman in The Second Amendment: A Biography. “A world where every white American man served in the military for his entire adult life, where those citizen soldiers bought their own military weapons and stored them at home, and where the idea of a US Army would be enough to send patriots to grab their musket. When the militias evaporated, so did the original meaning of the Second Amendment.”5
Five years after his retirement from the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Warren Burger, a conservative appointed by Nixon, insisted that the Second Amendment “has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud—I repeat the word ‘fraud’—on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”6
Back at the convention the NRA’s executive vice president and CEO, Wayne LaPierre, addressed a huge rally by painting a dark picture of hydra-headed threats enveloping the country, leaving no person safe and no place uncontaminated by suspicion. “We know, in the world that surrounds us, there are terrorists and home invaders and drug cartels and carjackers and knockout gamers and rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers, road-rage killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids, or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse the society that sustains us all. I ask you: Do you trust this government to protect you? We are on our own.”7
Apocalyptic in tone, demagogic in content, hyperbolic in scale, the dystopian vision conjured by LaPierre was of a nation not only under attack but in decline. “Almost everywhere you look,” he said, “something has gone wrong. You feel it in your heart, you know it in your gut. Something has gone wrong. The core values we believe in, the things we care about most, are changing. Eroding. . . . It’s why more and more Americans are buying firearms and ammunition. Not to cause trouble, but because we sense that America is already in trouble.”8
EVERY NRA CONVENTION ATTRACTS a small but determined gathering of protesters from around the country. But this one was special. A few weeks earlier, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg had announced he would spend $50 million developing a grassroots network of gun control advocates that would bring together some of the main organizations campaigning on the issue, including Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, to form a group called “Everytown for Gun Safety.”9 Its press conference in Indianapolis that day to protest the NRA convention was one of the first events it had ever held.
Given the initial reaction of Kenneth’s grandfather’s partner and the fact that the NRA convention was in his hometown, I hoped that I might find Kenneth’s friends or relatives among the gun control activists, galvanized by his death. Looking around the room at the press conference, that seemed unlikely. In a city where one in four people is African American, and more than half the homicide victims are black, there were precious few black people among the protesters—apart from a handful of women at the podium, all from other cities, who had lost their sons to gun violence. Indeed, despite Indianapolis having one of the highest homicide rates of any of the cities covered in this book, there didn’t seem to be anyone from the city there who had suffered from gun violence.
When I asked one of the organizers if I could talk to a local person, I was steered toward a woman from Carmel, a nearby wealthy suburb. Like most attendees at the convention, she became involved in gun control after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut. If others I spoke to said they had been active on the issue before, they told me that this particular tragedy had reignited their passion. If they admitted they’d never paid it much attention before, then Newtown forced them to reckon with their ambivalence. Given the large number of mass shootings—in 2013 alone there were 254, including one on the day this book is set and four in Indianapolis10—what was it specifically about Sandy Hook that had prompted her to act?
“I have four little kids,” she said. “When that happened I couldn’t help thinking about my little kids in school. I’d been growing increasingly more concerned. Every time a shooting happened I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ But I didn’t really know how serious it was. Few circumstances are as great as a mom trying to protect her children.”
Donna Dees-Thomases, who organized the Million Mom March in 2000 (the biggest protest in favor of gun control to date), spelled it out when I met her at the press conference: “It was first graders. Twenty-six Americans were slaughtered in an elementary school in five minutes. That could have been our school. They could have been our children. It’s the innocence of children. It isn’t any more terrible than when anyone else dies a gun death. But you can’t deny the devastation of these innocent first graders, and we didn’t protect them.” All around the room the children who died at Sandy Hook were invariably described as “angels,” “innocents,” or “babies.”
This emotional connection is easy to understand. The enduring image of that day, of distraught children being escorted by a police officer in an orderly line, their faces contorted with panic and trauma, was searing. The sight of parents waiting anxiously to learn the fate of their kids and the pen portraits of fledgling lives so senselessly destroyed were harrowing. It is also easy to grasp the potential political impact of the moment. If Sandy Hook was a tragedy, it was also an opportunity for gun control advocates to illustrate their case in the starkest terms. Rights come with responsibilities; all freedoms come with some restrictions. Do you love guns more than you love children? How does the freedom to bear arms measure up against the freedom to know that your children will be safe in elementary school?
On the same day, in China, Min Yongjun, a mentally ill thirty-six-year-old, took a knife into Chenpeng primary school in Henan province and stabbed twenty-three children and an elderly woman.11 No one died. Whatever one makes of the NRA axiom that “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” it couldn’t be clearer that people can kill more people more efficiently with guns than with almost anything else that is commercially available in the United States.
In law, as in life, children comprise a special category: the most vulnerable and the most in need of protection, both by and from their parents and the state. The fact that they are children means they have had no say in how the world they live in has been constructed or what the ground rules are. There is pathos in their pain and thus more intense outrage at those who would torment or harm them. To raise this in an argument does not exploit an issue but contextualizes it.
But dwelling on children can be calculated. In not only emphasizing their vulnerability but also declaring their inherent innocence and insisting upon their angelic nature, one moves them from a “protected” to an elevated category: it shifts the emphasis from the availability of guns to the moral purity of those they might be used to kill. Dees-Thomases was right when she insisted, “It isn’t any more terrible than when anyone else dies a gun death.” And yet to dwell on the innocence of “babes” and “angels” suggests there are more guilty, less angelic victims out there more deserving of the fate. The pursuit and promotion of the “ideal, worthy victim” is a staple for social justice campaigns. It can at times be effective. But it is always problematic.
In 1955, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was fished out of Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River with a bullet in his skull, an eye gouged out, and his forehead crushed on one side after he failed to show “due respect” to a white woman in a grocery store. The two white men who killed him (they later confessed to a journalist) were acquitted by an all-white jury. In an editorial, Life magazine drew attention to the fact that Till’s father, Louis, had died in the military during the Second World War: “[Emmett Till] had only his life to lose, and many others have done that, including his soldier-father who was killed in France fighting for the American proposition that all men are equal.”12 This attempt to sanctify Emmett as the offspring of a patriotic serviceman backfired when it turned out that Louis had actually been hung in Italy after he was convicted of raping two Italian women and killing a third—an accusation he denied. But if Louis had been caught, on camera, diving on a hand grenade to save his platoon, it would still have been irrelevant to Till’s fate. No child should have been so brutally slain whether his or her father was a pimp or a priest.
Not all attempts to establish the decency of a victim are executed in such a ham-fisted manner, but they are all underpinned by the same fundamental flaw. The argument’s center of gravity shifts from “This shouldn’t happen to anyone” to “This shouldn’t happen to people like this,” suggesting that there are people out there who might deserve it. Emphasizing the innocence of the child victims of Sandy Hook may clarify the obscenity of the injustice of young people being shot, but that doesn’t make the injustice less obscene when it happens to someone who has lived long enough to be deemed guilty of something. When you take these empathetic shortcuts, a lot of people get left out on the way.
KENNETH MILLS-TUCKER WAS GUILTY of something. With his family being unforthcoming, I trawled the Internet to find out what I could about him, including examining public records such as police files. It was there I discovered that on March 10, 2013, at around 11:50 p.m., he was guilty of driving while black. Or, more specifically, of slowing down but “failing to come to a full and complete stop” while approaching a stop sign. In the incident report, the officer who pulled him over writes, “When I got out and approached the vehicle, I smelled the distinct odor of what, through my training and experience as a law enforcement officer, I believed to be marijuana. When I got to the driver’s side window, a large billow of smoke rolled out of the window, which again smelled of marijuana.” He took Kenneth’s license and registration, went back to his car, ran Kenneth’s details through the system, and called for a backup unit. When the other officer arrived, he ordered both Kenneth and the other passenger out of the car and “placed them in handcuffs for our safety and due to the probable cause of the odor of marijuana.”
Searching the vehicle, the officer found a pipe with marijuana residue in it just above the pull-out cup holders, as well as several cigarillo wrappers and loose tobacco. Kenneth said it was his pipe. He was arrested for “possession of paraphernalia” and given a citation for failing to stop at a stop sign. The car was towed, the pipe was confiscated, and Kenneth was dropped off at police headquarters.
This is how large numbers of black men in the United States are caught in the criminal justice system—with a dragnet. In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander explains that 95 percent of “Pipeline” stops yield no illegal drugs.13 (Operation Pipeline trains uniformed officers to identify indicators of drug-related illegal activity while engaged in traffic-enforcement operations.) This was one of them. But once they’ve stopped you for “something” they’ll settle for anything. In the words of one California Highway Patrol officer quoted in the book, “It’s sheer numbers. . . . You’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince.”14
Kenneth’s pipe made him a prince that night. Though he was killed nine days before he was due in court, one can assume—given that it apparently was his pipe and the likelihood of his affording a good lawyer was probably remote (he’d been assigned a public defender)—that he would have been convicted of “something.” This would have cast him out of the world of “babes” and “angels.”
To a sympathetic eye, it wouldn’t take much imagination to cast Kenneth as a success story. In a city where 38 percent of black kids did not graduate from high school in 2012,15 he was, according to his obituary, a graduate of Arsenal Technical High School.16 In a city where 74 percent of black youth between ages sixteen and nineteen were not working (many, of course, were still in school),17 Kenneth had a job at U-Haul. But, most significantly, he was loved. “K.J. was like a Son to us all,” wrote one family friend on his online obituary page. “I always enjoyed watching him in church. . . . You always had them dressed so well, and they were so well mannered, and I enjoyed looking into his bright eyes.”
But had Kenneth’s death been an issue of public concern, all of this would likely have counted for nothing. No media account could or would include the phrase “never been in trouble with the law”; most would be sure to mention his “recent drug-related conviction.” No longer innocent, no longer worthy. On some level it would be framed as though he had it coming.
As it happens, the handful of stories about the incident said nothing about Kenneth beyond his age and name. The circumstances surrounding his death earned a couple of hundred words; the fact of his death earned scarcely more than a sentence; to his life was devoted nary a word. But had anyone considered it worth denigrating him, they wouldn’t have needed to trawl through his police records. They could just go through his Twitter feed and let him condemn himself. For although dead men tell no tales, many younger ones (including all the teens who died that day) do now have a voice beyond the grave—on social media.
One should be cautious when drawing conclusions about people’s characters from social media. On Facebook, nobody’s children cry, nobody’s marriage is imperiled, and everybody has beautiful holidays under the bluest of skies. These are performance platforms where we present versions of ourselves that are curated for public consumption.
Such performances are ripe for misinterpretation. After policeman Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, an unarmed eighteen-year-old, in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, news organizations initially used a picture of Brown from his Facebook page holding his hands in a manner that some claimed was a gang sign and others said was a peace sign. Within days, hundreds of young African Americans tweeted contrasting pictures of themselves—one in which they could be perceived as threatening and another in which they would be deemed “respectable”—with the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. They wanted to show how easily a picture of black youth, taken out of context, could be distorted in order to fit a stereotype.
Tyler Atkins, for example, displayed one picture of himself in a black tux and white bow tie, holding a saxophone, and another of himself wearing a blue bandanna with his finger pointed to the camera in what could be the shape of a gun. The first was taken following a jazz concert in which he performed; the second was for a rap video he’d made for a school math project. “Had the media gained ahold of this picture, I feel it would be used to portray that I was in a gang, which is not true at all,” Atkins, seventeen, told the New York Times.18 That sentiment was clearly felt by many; within two days the hashtag had been used 168,000 times.19
But even if it would be a mistake to read too much into someone’s social media output, it would be no less of a mistake to ignore it altogether, for it does, at the very least, tell a story of the image a person wants to project, and that itself can be revealing. And in the absence of any contact from the family, social media was the only way to find out more about Kenneth.
Kenneth was a prolific but sporadic tweeter: in September he sent only one, the week before he died he sent one hundred. His Twitter feed largely reads like a mixture of the banalities for which social media has become infamous—“Man I hate cold toilet seats”; “I hope they make a strong ass phone to the point when u drop it the screen dnt crack”—and the online swagger characteristic of young men with too much time on their hands. There are quite a few references to smoking marijuana—“The kush I’m smoking got me sneezing”; “I hate going to sleep high. I feel like its a waist [sic] of weed”—and a considerable amount of misogynistic cock-strutting: “if good pussy dnt make a nigga stay then nothin will”; “I dnt trust NO bitch PERIOD.” At times, his adolescence comes through. He’s clearly excited about his upcoming birthday, mentioning it three times in just a few days. And he publicly splits up and reconciles with his girlfriend in the same night—as only an adolescent could. Within four hours, he goes from “Love dnt live here nomore fuck the bullshit” to “If I’m single ima b single for a couple of years shit stressful” to “even doe we mad at each other buuuuuut [heartshape emoticon]” and finally to “Tough Love.”
But what emerges most markedly (and what distinguishes his timeline from that of his peer group in almost any other Western country) is that his bragging goes beyond women and weed to weapons and death. In the seven months before he died, Kenneth lost three friends. A posting on October 2 reads, “4/5/13 R.I.P ReggieMac 7/21/13 R.I.P Frank 10/2/13 R.I.P Rockhead.” Frank, a seventeen-year-old who appears to have been killed in an accidental shooting in a Marriott parking lot during a Black Expo celebration, was apparently someone Kenneth was particularly close to.20 Frank’s picture was the backdrop to his Twitter home page. “I miss Frank man y u take my nigga away from us,” he tweeted. And then a few weeks before he died, Kenneth tweeted, “Man it’s been 71 days since u left bro we miss u not a second go by u not on our mind but we gone keep the dream alive R.I.P @ImFrank_GMG.”
That such a young person would be in the vicinity of so much death is shocking, but once you’ve read their tweets it’s not that surprising. Frank tweeted, just an hour before he was shot, “im one of da only yung niggas out here dats really thuggin and i could careless about catchin a murder charge.” A couple of days before Kenneth died he wrote, “Most niggas carry guns n act scared to use them.” A couple of days before that he asked, “Am I wrong for popping him when he wanna take my life that shit ain’t right.” And a week earlier he’d quoted rapper Chief Keef: “I get gwop [money] now that bitch remember me I send shots now them niggas hearing me.”
More than two years after Kenneth was shot, police arrested nine suspected gang members belonging to the “Get Money Gang,” who they claimed had “terrorized” Butler-Tarkington, a north-side neighborhood, while trafficking drugs and guns through the city. They seized 17 guns, almost 6 grams of cocaine, 26 pounds of marijuana, and more than $32,000 in cash. Police believe the group was connected to four homicides in the neighborhood and beyond, dating back to 2012, as well the fatal shooting of a 10-year-old boy, courtesy of a stray bullet.
Two people they had arrest warrants for in relation to the gang, but failed to catch in the raids, were Jaylen Grice and Tarell Davis—two of the three passengers riding in the car with Kenneth the night he died. The neighborhood they are accused of terrorizing is just fifteen minutes from where Kenneth was shot. His Twitter feed is peppered with references to GMG—Get Money Gang.21
Whether it’s guns, death, or themselves Kenneth doesn’t take seriously is not clear—it’s only Twitter. We don’t know if he had anything to do with GMG, if his friends were guilty, if he ever touched a gun, if he was carrying a gun the night he died, or if he ever did anything more criminal than failing to come to a full stop at a stop sign with marijuana residue allegedly in his pipe. Young men like to strut, preen, and bluster, and a platform such as Twitter makes that easy. But one can’t simply dismiss it all as venting on social media. Because both Kenneth and those he mentioned really are dead. The day he was buried @QueenofPetty apologized on Twitter for not attending his funeral. She’d had enough: “srry I couldnt see you get buried today. I can’t go to anymore funerals its heartbreaking. See you in Heaven soon R.I.P.”
A few days shy of his twentieth birthday, Kenneth was no more an adult than the average college sophomore, but no one was going to describe him as an “innocent,” “angelic,” or “babe.” The elevation and canonization of the “worthy victim” has a significant bearing on why so many of those most affected by gun violence—the black, brown, and poor—do not align themselves with the gun control movement. “Sometimes, in the past, that has held organizations back,” Julia Browder Eichorn, who has been a gun control campaigner since the nineties, told me. Julia, who is African American and lives in Columbus, Ohio, was in Indianapolis to protest the NRA. I’d met her at Ohio State University by chance a few weeks earlier when I’d been in Columbus to deliver a talk. “To put someone out there who has had less than a stellar lifestyle—the opposition is going to tear that apart. They’re already calling our children, who’ve done nothing, thugs. That’s a huge piece of why you don’t see more moms of color in this movement. Maybe they knew their kids were doing these things, and they didn’t stop them. Maybe they just prayed nothing would happen to them. We have to stand with that mom who maybe didn’t make the best choice, or maybe she made the best choice that she could, but sadly her kid’s not here anymore.”
Many of the kids who would die in the next twenty-four hours were raised in tough circumstances and had messy lives. But so long as the gun narrative stops at protecting “innocents” and “babes,” it’s difficult to see who will ever speak out for them. “The children who are dying are real kids,” said Clementine Barfield, who set up Save Our Sons and Daughters after her two sons were shot (one survived, one died) in Detroit in the same incident. She was speaking with Deborah Prothrow-Stith, former Commissioner of Public Health for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. “They are real kids from real families. Some were doing foolish things. And some were just caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. But all kids have the right to make mistakes. All kids have the right to live. My child is dead. Your child could be next.”22