Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives - Gary Younge (2016)
Chapter 7. SAMUEL BRIGHTMON (16)
11:15 P.M. CST
IN HER BIOGRAPHY OF HARLEM RENAISSANCE WRITER ZORA NEALE Hurston, Wrapped in Rainbows, Valerie Boyd explains why it was so difficult to track Hurston’s whereabouts during her early twenties: “In 1911 it was relatively easy for someone, particularly a black woman, to evade history’s recording gaze.” She continues, “If not legally linked to a man, as daughter or wife, black women did not count in some ways—at least to the people who did the official counting.”1
The question of who counts and who is counted is not simply an issue of numbers. It’s also about power. Collecting information, particularly about people, demands both the authority to gather data and the capacity to keep and transmit it. Those who have both the authority and the capacity need to feel that those they are keeping tabs on matter. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as the dead floated in the streets of New Orleans and the living were stranded on highways and rooftops, a huge crowd of mostly black and poor people descended on the city’s convention center. When asked why relief organizations had been caught off guard, Michael Brown, the hapless director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, responded, “We’re seeing people that we didn’t know exist.”2
In short, not everybody counts, and therefore not everybody is counted. We know, for example, how many American soldiers died during the Iraq invasion, because the US government had to keep record. One can only imagine the outcry if they hadn’t. But we can only guess how many Iraqi civilians or insurgents have died, because there was no Iraqi state to count them and it was not in US interests to keep a tally, let alone learn their names. We know how many US police officers are killed in the line of duty in any given year, but there is no national tally for how many people are killed by police officers.
During the early nineties, when child and teen gun deaths ran at more than twice the rate they do now,3 many a child’s death went unreported in the media. The deaths were deemed so frequent and predictable, and they occurred in places so foreign to those who had the power to cover them, that they might as well have been in Iraq. So back then, a young life could be extinguished without trace. The police would barely be interested. The circumstances, the names, the ages of the dead were not considered of sufficient public interest to log each one as a matter of course. Dan Kois, who ran the Gun-Death Tally for the online magazine Slate, says that would not happen today.
“I think by this stage, pretty much every homicide or accident that takes place is reported,” Kois told me. The development of social media, citizen journalism, and new technology has made it more difficult for the established media to simply ignore gun deaths in certain areas. “In most cities, there are separate blogs recording gun deaths, and this keeps the newspapers and other local media outlets honest. The numbers we got chimed with the statistical projections [for gun homicides and accidents].” Kois, a senior editor for Slate, acknowledged that the numbers it collected fell well short (by more than half) of all the gun deaths that occurred, because, as I pointed out in the Introduction, suicides are generally not reported.
The Gun-Death Tally, set up in the wake of the Newtown shootings, sought to record every gun death in the country.4 The website, which ran for a year, compiled its data through basic Internet searches and crowd-sourcing; anybody could send in news of a gun death, and site managers would add it to the tally. The site represented each death using a stick figure in one of three sizes—large for adults, medium for teens, and small for children—with web links to news reports of what happened.
“The feature was meant to be a provocation of sorts,” Kois wrote when the site was closing. “We knew that those rows of figures, each one attached to a name, piling atop one another every day, made for an arresting visual, one that might trouble even the most ardent gun-rights supporter.”5
Five weeks after the Gun-Death Tally was launched, Joe Nocera wrote a column for the New York Times titled “And in Last Week’s Gun News . . . ,” in which he provided brief descriptions of a handful of those who had died from gun violence in the previous week.6
“There were nine or ten items,” Nocera told me. (In fact, there were fourteen.) “There was no editorializing by me whatsoever. Just these clips. I thought it was powerful and very effective. If you live in Lexington, Kentucky, or Providence, Rhode Island, you don’t have a sense of all the gun violence there is out there.” From this emerged “The Gun Report,” a daily digest on the New York Times’ website relating to all things gun-related, including fatalities. It ran from Monday to Friday; the one on Monday compiled the events of the preceding weekend. “It’s simply a google search every day of gun deaths,” says Nocera. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever done that got reviewed by the New York Review of Books,” he adds with some pride.
Both Slate’s Gun-Death Tally and the New York Times’ “Gun Report” were comprehensive and provided useful starting points. Neither were definitive. Four of the young people featured in this book did not appear on one site or the other; one death appeared on neither.
Slate wound down its efforts after a year and directed followers to the Gun Violence Archive, which conducted a similar but more extensive effort on a website bound to attract less traffic since it was not part of a general news outlet. The New York Times held out for a little longer before a dispute regarding overtime pay for the editorial assistant compiling the data allegedly triggered its demise.7 In the paper, Nocera offered a different explanation. “A few months ago,” he wrote, “I began to feel that we had made the point already. Day after day, week after week, there was a numbing sameness to the shootings.”8
But if the fact of a gun death is now generally reported, it is often done so in the most summary, almost dismissive, fashion. Such was the case for Samuel Brightmon’s shooting, which appeared in the Dallas Morning Newsunder the headline “Teen Fatally Shot While Walking Down Street.” “Police are investigating after a teenager was fatally shot Saturday night when walking down the street in Southeast Dallas,” the article read. “Police say Samuel Brightmon, 16, and another 16-year-old were walking in the 7300 block of Schepps Parkway around 11 p.m. when they heard gunshots. As the teens tried to run away, Brightmon was shot and collapsed in the street, according to police. Brightmon was taken to Baylor University Medical Center of Dallas where he was pronounced dead. No suspect has been identified.”9
The following day, the Dallas Morning News filed another brief report by Claire Z. Cardona, adding that: “Crime Stoppers is offering a $5,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest and indictment for the felony offense,” and giving readers the number of the tip line to call.
The local Fox News affiliate ran a picture of Samuel bearing a wide, bright, toothy smile and wearing a blue and white shirt. He has clear skin, a strong jaw, and bright eyes—a face too young for life to put lines on it. The Fox website had almost identical information, under the headline “Dallas Teen Killed by Random Gunfire.” “Dallas police are asking for help to find the person who killed a teen who was walking down a street. It happened just after 11 pm Saturday along Schepps Parkway in Pleasant Grove. Sixteen-year-old Samuel Brightmon was with a friend when they heard gunshots. They tried to run, but Brightmon was hit. He died at the hospital.” They did manage to get a quote from his mother. “‘It’s so unreal right now. It’s a million and one things going through my head, but then I just can’t focus on anything. The only image I see is the last image I have of me holding him,’ said Audry Smith, the victim’s mother. Brightmon’s friend was not hurt. Crime Stoppers is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to an indictment.”10
That was it. They didn’t have an awful lot to go on. The police report is similarly minimal, adding only that it believed the shooting was not gang related. There was no profile, no testimony from his school friends or teachers. No sense of who he was, let alone why he was killed. His death was counted. It just didn’t count for much.
SAMUEL COURDE-BERNARD BRIGHTMON, KNOWN to his family as DaDa (a nickname based on his middle name), died less than a week short of his seventeenth birthday. He was the second of three children of Audry Smith and the third of seven children by Willie Brightmon. Willie and Audry were long separated, but Willie was a constant presence in Samuel’s life. They were two of a number of parental figures, including his Aunt Debra (Audry’s sister), and Claudia, Willie’s second wife, who remained a good friend of Audry’s.
Samuel’s best friend was his sister, Whitney, a tall, reedy girl only eleven months his junior, who paid close attention as I twice interviewed her mother but said little. When they were younger, they’d sleep together because Whitney didn’t like sleeping by herself. When they were older, Samuel would often climb into bed with Whitney after he woke up. They would finish each other’s thoughts and sentences. “Them two, they were like Bonny and Clyde,” says Audry. “Everyone used to think they were twins because they were so close in age and did everything together.”
Whitney was Samuel’s fiercest defender. “I acted like a big sister to him,” she told me. Once, when they were at their Aunt Debra’s house, Samuel told his aunt that some boys had jumped him. “Before I could even get my shoes on, my middle daughter and Whitney took out running to fight the boys for him,” Debra recalls. “By the time I got there they had already found the boys and cornered them down. They were hot.”
Samuel was a prankster. His friends recall his japes the way teenagers do—laughing so hard that you’re still struggling to follow the story when it becomes clear that they’ve already delivered the punch line. The kind of anecdotes you really had to be there for. Once, he brought in a rubber duck and chased students around while making voices like Ernie from Sesame Street. Another time, he put on Whitney’s pink, fluffy boots and scarf and made like he was on a catwalk. He put a cornball on someone’s desk. His mother has a video clip of him doing a daft dance in school—all spidery legs and flapping arms. “That’s him,” she said. “Just goofy. Always.”
The fact that he rarely made anybody else the butt of his jokes was consistent with his personality. He was conflict averse. And from an early age he was always eager to please. “He wanted to fit in,” says Claudia, who met me at Soulman’s Bar-B-Que, a Texas chain, at a location next to the freeway. “He was like the peacekeeper. So when the other sisters and brothers would get to fighting, he would always say, ‘Let’s stick together.’” She continued, “Whatever he did he just smiled his way out of it. He didn’t want to get in trouble. So he would just put a smile on ya so you’d be like, ‘Okay, I’ll give you a second chance,’ because of his smile. He was sweet.”
“DaDa was like the son I never had,” says Debra. “Whenever I needed something done, like taking out the trash or something a son would do, he would do it. If I just got home from the grocery store, I didn’t have to worry about my groceries being taken out of the car. He was just a helpful kid. A happy kid. Full of jokes. He wasn’t a fighter. He wasn’t a troublemaker.”
There was a worry that his trusting nature would get him in trouble. “My most fear for him was because he’ll befriend anybody,” says Willie. “He ain’t never met no stranger. That’s his type of mentality. He’s so naive.” Willie grew up in Marshall, Texas, a small town a couple of hours’ drive away, not far from the Louisiana state line, where everybody knew everybody else. He felt Samuel’s manner was better suited to his own rural upbringing than to an urban environment. “Back home, ain’t no such thing as a stranger. But in the city, some people will take your kindness for a weakness. For him it was like, ‘Oh Daddy, no, it won’t be like that.’ And I said, ‘Yes, son, it will.’”
Debra also worried that his desire to please might lead him into bad company. Once, when Audry and the children were staying with her, Samuel started hanging around with a group of kids, including a girl he’d taken a fancy to, whom Debra didn’t like and of whom both her daughters had given poor accounts. “I think he just wanted to make everybody happy,” she said. “But these kids could have got him in trouble.” Debra told him to stay away from them. She was worried that he was so anxious to please others that he risked losing all sense of who he was and what he wanted. “I broke it down for him. I used to try to get him to understand that it’s okay to be different. I’d tell him, ‘Be true to you. Be who you are.’”
Samuel took it badly. He huffed and sulked for a while. “He was upset about it that night,” Debra recalls. “But the very next day he wrote me a letter apologizing for his behavior and saying he understood. That meant a lot.”
Audry had worried for some time that what at first sight may have looked like an easygoing manner masked a deeper fragility. Samuel was dyslexic, and the early years of school had not been easy. “The handwriting,” she says, listing the basics he’d struggled with. “Not catching on with the other kids. He was tired of going to summer school every year. The teacher always calling and saying, ‘He needs help, he needs help, he needs help.’ That took a toll on him emotionally and gave him low self-esteem,” she says. “He was quiet and reserved. He didn’t make friends easily. When he was younger he didn’t like the sports. He didn’t like the touching and the hitting. He was so sensitive he would always cry. He seemed desperate to please everybody.” When he was around ten he told a counselor that he sometimes thought of hurting himself. The counselor recommended an evaluation, and after a few tests doctors suggested admitting him to a psychiatric ward.
That proved too big a step for Samuel. “He cried,” says Audry. “Whitney cried. She didn’t want him to go, and he didn’t want to stay [at the hospital]. He didn’t want to be away from Whitney or me. They felt like it was jail because of course they take your belt, your shoelaces, all of that. So they let him do the outpatient thing, where he would come in the morning and stay all day.”
As he grew into his teens, he became more confident. He wanted to be a policeman. “From a young age, that had been his obsession,” says Audry. “He loved cop shows—Criminal Minds, Cops, whatever was on. He even had a police app on his phone so he could track their activities.” When he was fifteen, Audry moved Whitney and him from a big school with more than three thousand students to a new, smaller school in the northeastern suburb of Richardson, near her work, in the hope that he would get more hands-on attention. He campaigned for the vice presidency of the student council, an elected position that demanded going to each class to canvass for votes. He pledged to get a basketball team off the ground, and he won. A team duly followed, although, because the school was so small, it played in a city league rather than against other local schools.
The first response in the comments section after the Dallas Morning News piece ran online came from one of Samuel’s schoolmates. He called himself Parker Moore and identified himself as the student-council president of Samuel’s school. He wrote, “He’s a great kid and a go-getter. He was definitely going places in life. I last talked with him just on Monday about our ideas for a student council fundraiser. I can hardly believe this is really happening. Rest in peace, friend.”
Samuel didn’t have much of a social life beyond school and family, though he did have a girlfriend. He was basically a homebody. “He loved playing his video games,” says Audry. “He wasn’t an outdoor person. He loved his BB gun. He loved something to shoot at. But he never went anywhere. And if he went anywhere it was with me or Whitney.” For most of Samuel’s life, it seems, those closest to him did their best to protect him from both the tenderest parts of himself and the toughest elements of the outside world.
SUCH WAS THE BRIEF life whose death received such short shrift in the Dallas media. The woman who wrote the eighty-one-word account of Samuel’s death for the Dallas Morning News is Melissa Repko, a young, engaging reporter whom I met at a hipster coffee shop in a gentrifying part of town. Melissa occasionally worked Sundays on the crime blog. It’s a shift with a macabre but predictable routine and a busy start. “If something’s going to happen then it will usually happen between the hours of midnight and four a.m.,” she says. “The kind of time when your mother tells you nothing good happens.” Shootings, drunk drivers, and domestic violence are the staples from the Saturday night before. “There’s a police database that I go to, and then I make calls. I search for murders, sudden deaths, aggravated assaults,” she says. “It’s pretty common to have at least one shooting, although they’re not always fatal.”
Two months after Samuel’s murder she still remembered the case as much for what was not in the report as what was. “I did remember it only because he was so young and it’s quite rare they have no indication of there being criminal activity.” It was her task to record it, not to follow it up. So when the day was done, she’d hand the story over to the regular crime team, who take up the weekend stories they think are worth running with. Samuel’s death didn’t make the cut.
That didn’t surprise Repko. Indeed it would surprise very few. Pleasant Grove, the area where Samuel was shot, is poor, black, and located on the south side of Dallas; it is disparagingly known as “Unpleasant Grove.” As one of Samuel’s teachers said, “If it had happened in Richardson [the location of his school], people would have been in shock. But in real far south in Dallas, that’s not unusual.” Had she ever been there? “I don’t go down that way,” the teacher said. “That’s not a safe area for a white woman.” Evidently, it was not a safe area for a young black man either.
Shootings were common there, confirmed Repko. “People are desensitized to it. They reason that’s just where bad things happen.” I heard this refrain often when talking to the journalists who’d covered that day’s shootings. Clearly, I was the only one who had called them to follow up on the story. They would kindly rifle through their notes and tell me what they knew and, if they’d been to the crime scene, what they had seen. Invariably, when I asked if they had any contact details for family members, or if there had been any developments in the investigation, they would explain, somewhat matter-of-factly, why they had moved on. “Unfortunately, homicides are not uncommon in that area,” said one. “Unless something unexpected happened it just wouldn’t be the kind of story we’d follow up on,” said another.
As a journalist myself I understand this. I have no idea what happened to Jesus Josef, an eight-year-old Haitian boy whom I met in the Dominican Republic in 2005. He turned up at a refugee center with his neck twisted from carrying heavy loads and his shoulders bearing welts from mistreatment by the family who had bought him and used him as a domestic slave. Nor do I know the fate of Kulo Korban, whom I met in Sierra Leone in 1998 and who’d had both his ears and three fingers amputated by rebels in the conflict there. After a week spent reporting from each place, I moved on.
I write this with neither pride nor guilt. There is a level of detachment inherent, and arguably necessary, in the profession. Without it, one would become emotionally depleted. Moreover, one is constantly gauging what more there is to say and who would be listening if you said it. Outlets have limited resources. Editors have to justify budgets for keeping you in a certain place or sending you back to trace each individual story, which in turn must be balanced against what other new stories you might be missing. Journalism is not social work. And even social workers, to be effective, must move on. That said, these are little more than rationalizations for how I, and other journalists, exercise our relative power. We choose whose stories are told, whom we go back to, and where our resources are deployed. And those choices are not objective. They are made on the basis of what stories we subjectively consider are worthy of being told at any given time. The fact that most media outlets are commercial enterprises is of course a factor. The more a story costs and the less likely it is to bring in readers (and therefore revenue), the less likely institutions are to invest resources in it. But it is not the only factor and generally not the most important.
Even without the profit motive, news values are not human values. If they were, the front-page story of every newspaper and the leading item on every bulletin would be “Child Dies of Hunger.” But since we know that millions in the world don’t have enough to eat and that at any given time a child somewhere may perish from malnourishment, it is not deemed news. In all likelihood a newspaper that decided to run that headline every day would sell precious few copies.
“We’ve got compassion fatigue, we say, as if we have involuntarily contracted some kind of disease that we’re stuck with no matter what we do,” says Susan Moeller in her study of responses to the reporting of atrocities. She argues that it is avoidance, not fatigue, that averts our gaze.11
In States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering, Stanley Cohen contends that the avoidance comes from a lack of empathy: “The problem with multiple images of distant suffering is not their multiplicity, but their psychological and moral distance. Repetition just increases the sense of their remoteness from our lives. These are not our children; we have no bond with them; we can never experience their presence; all we know about them is that they exist for that dislocated thirty seconds during which the camera focused on them.”12
The fact that sections of the public don’t want to know about certain kinds of repetitive suffering does not make the fact that the media does not report on it less problematic. First, it is to some degree a self-fulfilling prophecy. By failing to report child hunger consistently we cease to think about it and come to accept it as an unfortunate, intractable fact of life. Since it’s unlikely to be reported, it’s less likely to be discussed. The less we talk about children starving, the less we talk about why they starve and what we might do to feed them, and the less public pressure there is on politicians to address starvation.
Second, this reasoning comes with a set of assumptions on behalf of those who make editorial decisions about who “we” are and what “we” want to know and what “we” think “we” know already. This is where the distance comes in. The further you are from experiencing child hunger or from knowing anyone who has experienced it, the less likely you are to see it as a priority or to see its victims as newsworthy. Put bluntly, a child dying of hunger is a far more newsworthy event for those who know the child than for those who don’t and are never likely to. That does not negate the ability to empathize, analyze, and engage beyond one’s immediate experience. It simply recognizes the distance between subject and object.
“The only feeling that anyone can have about an event he does not experience is the feeling aroused by his mental image of that event,” wrote Walter Lippmann in his landmark book, Public Opinion. “That is why until we know what others think they know, we cannot truly understand their acts. . . . Our opinions cover a bigger space, a longer reach of time, a greater number of things, than we can directly observe. They have, therefore, to be pieced together out of what others have reported.”13
News values are not an objective account of the most important things that have happened in any given time and place. They are the sum total of the priorities and received wisdom of those who provide the news. And those who provide the news are not a representative group. In 2013, the median personal income in the United States was $28,031;14 30.4 percent of people in the nation have degrees; racial minorities comprise 39 percent of the population and 58 percent of those who live in poverty.15 American journalists earn a median salary of $50,028; 8.5 percent of them are from minorities; 92 percent have degrees.16 Newsrooms are considerably whiter, wealthier, and better educated than the population in general.
So when it comes to covering gun violence, those most likely to frame the news agenda are therefore not the same as those most likely to be affected by the issue. Journalists are less likely to live in the neighborhoods where such violence takes place. Their opinions about those areas are “pieced together out of what others [with the same privileges as themselves] have reported” and then further amplified.
When the Dallas Morning News won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for its series on the divide between North and South Dallas, Tom Robberson, a former foreign correspondent, said he approached reporting from South Dallas as though he were sending dispatches from overseas. “The vast disparities we found between northern Dallas and southern Dallas made that possible. I treat it as if readers in North Dallas have no idea what’s going on there [in South Dallas]. I explain it the way I would if I was writing about Lebanon.”17
And what is true for reporters may well chime with their perceived audience. Segregation of any kind is a serious barrier to empathy. “If you’re a reader of the New York Times, then a child who is shot by a stray bullet during a gang shooting is not easy for you to imagine,” Kois told me. “Sandy Hook was easy for people to imagine.”
This is as true for class as it is for race. Nicole Fitzpatrick, who lost her son Jaiden in Grove City, Ohio, almost nine hours before Samuel’s death, said as much when she explained how his shooting challenged her image of the suburb she had grown up in. “That doesn’t happen here,” she said. “I’m not living in the ’hood.”
This is less the product of malign neglect than an unconscious omission born from the dead weight of power and privilege that makes the poor and dark in America invisible. In short, there are places in almost every American city where children and teens are expected to get shot—areas where the deaths of young people by gunfire do not contradict a city’s general understanding of how the world should work but rather confirm it. To raise children there, whether they are involved in criminal activity or not, is to incorporate those odds into your daily life.
Herein lies one of the most tragic elements to emerge from my research: that every black parent of a teenage child I spoke to had factored in the possibility that this might happen to their kid. Indeed, most of them had channeled their parenting skills into trying to stop precisely that from happening. While others are exerting themselves to get their kids into a decent college, through their SATs, or to excel at sports or music, these parents (who love their offspring no less) are devoting their energies to keeping their kids alive long enough that they can transition either out of the neighborhood, out of adolescence, or both. It dictates who they think their children should socialize with, where they can go, and when they have to be home. So when you ask them if they imagined that their sons’ lives could be so abruptly ended in this way, they give a knowing shrug. “You wouldn’t really be doing your job as a parent here if you didn’t think it could happen,” one father in Newark, whose son was shot dead just a couple of hours later, told me.
Friends of the deceased have similarly accommodated the possibility of death into their teenage lives. When I asked Trey, Stanley Taylor’s friend, if he ever imagined such a thing could happen to Stanley, he paused for a long time. “I ain’t gonna say it,” he said, suddenly choosing his words very carefully. “The life we all chose at one point. We were all going down that wrong path.”
It had certainly crossed Audry’s mind that she one day might have to bury her son. Only she hadn’t imagined it would be Samuel but her eldest, Jeremy. “Jeremy is the hardhead,” she said. “The knucklehead. He stays in trouble. When you hear about a fight, it may have Jeremy’s name in it. So you have to prepare yourself for Jeremy.” One day that fall, while chatting with Debra after a report about a local shooting, she discussed taking out an insurance policy on her kids for precisely that reason. She said she’d look into it. But she hadn’t got around to it by the time Samuel was killed a month or so later.
So your existence as a working-class African American makes you vulnerable; your presence in areas where working-class African Americans are most likely to live renders you collateral. “By the numbers,” writes Jesmyn Ward in Men We Reaped: A Memoir, which relates how she lost five young men who were close to her in four years. “By all the official records, here at the confluence of history, of racism, of poverty, and economic power, this is what our lives are worth: nothing.”18
This reality was not lost on Samuel’s family. “When it’s a black child shot, it’s a flash,” says his father, Willie. “Like a flash of lightning. You see it and you’ll be like, ‘Was that lightning?’ That’s how it is when a black child gets murdered or gets killed. No big news. But when it comes to other races, oh, well, you know it’s going to be on [channels] 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. . . . I hate to say it, but we still live in a racist world. You may have more opportunities. But in the end result you still living in a white world. And we’re still thought of as less than. And basically they’re saying we don’t matter. But if it was their child, they want the world to come to a halt. I’m not speaking out of anger or anything. It’s life.”
ON MARCH 12, 1963, a man going by the name of Alek Hidell bought a 6.5mm Carcano Model 91/38 carbine rifle by mail order from Klein’s Sporting Goods Store in Chicago at the coupon-clipping price of $19.95 plus postage and handling. His real name was Lee Harvey Oswald, and almost exactly fifty years prior to Samuel’s murder, he used that rifle to assassinate President John Kennedy in Dallas.
“Dallas killed Kennedy,” writes Lawrence Wright in In the New World: Growing Up with America from the Sixties to the Eighties. He continues, “We heard it again and again. Dallas as ‘a city of hate, the only city in which the President could have been shot.’ . . . It’s no wonder Dallasites were defensive and angry. And yet behind our anger was the fear that there must be a whisper of truth in the lies people were telling about our city.”19
Dallas is not a pretty city. A sprawling geographic mass tied together by freeways and highways, it has a downtown but no real center. You can drive around it for days, as I did while interviewing those who knew Samuel, without having a sense of having been anywhere specific beyond the particular destination points to which you were heading.
When the Dallas Morning News commissioned a poll in 1983, the assassination was one of three dominant images Americans had of the city; the other two were its pro football team, the Dallas Cowboys, and the TV show Dallas.20 Time has eroded the association between the assassination and the city. But to the extent that the rest of the country thinks of it at all, its carefully cultivated reputation as an all-American modern city—shiny skyline, girl-next-door-cheerleaders, business tycoons, oil money, and an impressive string of Super Bowl victories—remains intact.
The late Texas-based journalist Molly Ivins was characteristically damning in her description of the city’s social geography. “There is a black Dallas, there is a Chicano Dallas, there is a Vietnamese Dallas, there is a gay Dallas, there is even a funky Bohemian Dallas,” she wrote. “But mostly there is North Dallas. A place so materialistic and Republican it makes your teeth hurt to contemplate it. . . . The disgrace of Dallas today is that it is probably the most segregated city this side of Johannesburg.”21
Indeed, in their 1993 book American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton presented five “distinct dimensions” by which segregation might be measured. They described the metropolitan areas that scored highly on at least four of them as “hyper-segregated.” Sixteen cities fit the designation. Dallas was one of them (as were Chicago, Indianapolis, and Newark—three other cities where teens died on the day profiled in this book).22
“South Dallas blacks aren’t a deprived ethnic group,” wrote Peter Gent in the novel North Dallas Forty. “They’re a different civilization living in captivity. Just blocks from the phenomenal wealth of Elm and Commerce streets, South Dallas was a hyperbole. A grim joke on those who still believe we are all created equal. . . . The blacks seemed to be waiting, watching, knowing they would always be getting fucked. They took solace in the dependability.”23
Such is that part of the city where a child’s death is barely noteworthy. Broadly speaking, two borders demarcate the north from the south. The first is the Trinity River, which flows 711 miles southeast from north central Texas into an arm of Galveston Bay and then out to the Gulf of Mexico. Three of its four northern tributaries converge just northwest of Dallas, and then it snakes diagonally through the city—a narrow waterway chaperoned through much of the center by a thick greenbelt—before making more erratic dips and swerves as it heads toward the floodplains and pine forests of East Texas.
The other border is Interstate 30, which is half as long, starting in Fort Worth, Dallas’s western twin city, and veering northeast toward the Texas–Oklahoma state line before entering Arkansas and climbing diagonally past Hope—hometown of former president Bill Clinton—and ending in Little Rock.
The 7300 block of Schepps Parkway, in Pleasant Grove, where Samuel died, sits in the far southeast corner of the city, considerably south of I-30 but just north of the Trinity, close to one of the river’s final meandering kinks before it plunges precipitously toward Galveston. Geographically, Pleasant Grove sits between the two borders; socially, economically, and racially it is very much in South Dallas. Driving from downtown, the imposing, reflective skyscrapers recede from the rearview mirror, making way for the smaller wooden houses and empty lots ahead. Supermarkets and other chain stores become scarce; fast food franchises, liquor stores, and check-cashing outlets mushroom. Even without seeing a single pedestrian, one knows, from having visited any number of American cities, that this is where the black and brown people live. None of this happened by accident.
Democracy came to Dallas at roughly the same time it came to the Eastern Bloc—in the early nineties. It’s not that people didn’t have the vote; first white men and then eventually everybody else got that. But the way votes were counted and the polity was structured meant that regardless of whom you voted for, the oligarchy always got in. All elections to the city council were citywide, which meant that even when minorities got the franchise they struggled to muster the numbers to make any impact. The voices calling for more resources in deprived areas in such a segregated city were as marginalized as the communities who needed those resources.
In a blend of the patrician, civic, and venal, a small cabal of wealthy white men ran the city according to what became known as the Dallas Way, with the interests of the local government and local business regarded as both synonymous and symbiotic, each embedded in the other. “Dallas had always belonged to the men who built it,” wrote Jim Henderson in 1987. “Men who did not need zoning laws to tell them where to put skyscrapers or which pastures to subdivide. . . . They ran their government the way they ran their privately held businesses.”24
The consensus for this arrangement did not stretch far beyond North Dallas and finally ended up being judged illegal. It also became increasingly untenable as whites became a minority in the city—in 2010, Dallas was 42 percent Latino, 25 percent black, and 29 percent white.25 But it took a series of federal court rulings before the city finally got a municipal democracy worthy of the name. From the nineties, those who lived in neighborhoods where poor, nonwhite people were the majority could elect candidates who would at least ostensibly represent their interests. In 1995 the city elected its first black mayor.26
So for 149 of its 173 years, Dallas was run exclusively and overtly by white, wealthy business interests and often against the interests of African Americans, Latinos, and the poor. Dallas is a southern town and Texas was a confederate state. In The Dallas Myth: The Making and Unmaking of an American City, Harvey Graff describes how Dallas revised its city charter in 1907 to allow racial segregation in public schools, housing, amusements, and churches; again in 1916 to legitimize residential segregation; and again in 1930 to restrict African Americans’ access to office by requiring all candidates to run at large and on a nonpartisan basis. “A second city was built in law as well as social practice,” he argues.27
And the separation was vigorously enforced. When African Americans moved into white areas, their homes were sometimes bombed. A granite cornerstone (since removed) in the building housing one of the city’s oldest adoption agencies revealed the Ku Klux Klan as a major donor—a sign of the group’s respectability during the early part of the century.
In areas like Pleasant Grove, where poor black people are concentrated, the facts that white women would not feel safe venturing there and Samuel could be shot dead without much media inquiry as to the causes were the direct results of public policy and private practice. Dallas did not simply end up that way; it was made that way.
“It’s just another black child and another statistic,” says Claudia. “Another black child in the ghetto. It wasn’t a white child who got killed in University Park or Highland Park, where SMU [Southern Methodist University] is. If it would have been one of them, it would have got a whole column instead of a paragraph. I don’t think that’s just Dallas. I think it’s just America.”
GIVEN HOW LITTLE INFORMATION was out there, I assumed finding Samuel would be difficult. I found no trace of him on social media, although that, it turned out, is because his Facebook page was under the name Samuel Goodson—a pseudonym conveying his devotion to his mother. When I contacted Melissa at the Dallas Morning News, she gave me a primer for the racial dynamics of the city and generously told me what little she could about the shooting, which was not much more than she had written.
With little else to go on, I found the addresses for the funeral parlor that had handled Samuel’s remains and the church where his service had been held. From my headquarters at a Holiday Inn on the side of the motorway, I prepared two envelopes for his mother, both containing letters requesting an interview. I left one at the church and then headed to the funeral home, a large building on the far side of a mall wedged against a freeway.
I told the woman at the front desk my business. She listened only long enough to make sure it was above her pay grade and then fetched someone else. I started again. The next woman listened carefully, smiling throughout, and then, when I was done, told me that she could not understand a word I had said.
This is not as outlandish as it might sound. Language is a relatively small part of communication. The rest we pick up from context. I’d walked in off the street, with a black face and an English accent, to inform her that I was writing a book and needed to pass a package on to the family of someone I’d never met who had died more than two months earlier. On a regular day in a Dallas funeral parlor, there isn’t really a context for that.
It doesn’t help that I cut an unlikely figure in most professional circumstances. Small (five feet six), tubby, black, disheveled—when Americans think British journalist, which is rarely, I’m not what they think of. Things can get particularly disorienting once they hear the accent. African Americans often think I’m affected—a siddity negro with airs and graces. Sometimes that works to my advantage. People, especially those with a dim view of the mainstream media, may take comfort in what looks like the aesthetic of an outsider.
Others, perhaps seeking somebody authoritative to whom to tell their story, are unimpressed or unconvinced. While I was trying to report on Hurricane Katrina, a white policeman in Mississippi patted his gun and told me to turn my car around as I tried to get to an affected area. I was following the same route as other—white—journalists who all made it through. Whatever people are expecting, they’re rarely expecting me. Yet here I am, in a funeral parlor in Dallas, waiting.
The woman who could not understand me brought a colleague out. I pared my story and request down to the bare minimum. She went to get Samuel’s file, came out a few minutes later, and said, “His aunt’s on the phone. She said she’ll speak with you.” I explained myself to the aunt, Debra, trying desperately not to sound too jaded as I went through my lines about the book I was writing for the fourth time in ten minutes. I gave her my number and e-mail address. She said she’d pass on the message to her sister. “I’ll call you back tonight and tell you what she says.”
No call came that night. Nor that week, after I’d returned home to Chicago. I didn’t have Debra’s number. I was about to call the church and try my luck there. Then, eight days later, as I was picking up my son from his comic-book class, I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize with a Dallas area code. As thrown as the woman in the funeral parlor, I needed a moment to find the context to make the words make sense. It was Audry Smith. Samuel’s mother.
IF PLEASANT GROVE WAS part of a deliberate effort to corral poor, black people into certain areas of Dallas, then the story Audry told me of how she and her family ended up there owes more to a string of unfortunate events that highlights the precariousness of the American middle class.
Audry, Samuel, and Whitney were living together in the suburb of Garland, just outside Dallas. Audry was working as an administrator for a company that provided home help. Her boss was arrested for Medicaid and Medicare fraud. On the advice of her lawyer, she was told to leave the job because, given her role in the company, staying there could be incriminating. In September 2011 she quit. She took the opportunity of an enforced break to undergo a major elective surgical procedure that she needed but had been putting off. She applied for unemployment benefits, was first denied, and then was accepted on appeal.
She had the operation in March 2012 and needed to convalesce for several weeks. That May, she was on the mend and starting to look for work. She picked the children up from school one day. As she headed west on I-30 with Whitney in the back and Samuel in the front, the car ahead of her in the carpool lane slammed on its brakes. Caught unawares, she bumped into it. “I bent the hood of my car. But everyone could have driven away at that point,” she says. Just as she unbuckled her seat belt to check on Whitney, a Chevy Impala slammed into the back of her car. Because she was driving an SUV, which was raised substantially from the ground, the Impala actually ran under her car as it crashed. It was travelling at quite a pace. Her back windshield flew in; her steering wheel went into the motor; her shoes were up on the dashboard; her glasses were in the backseat; her seat collapsed into the back. She blacked out. When she came to, she found her leg jammed under the steering wheel.
The children were fine, but a woman in the Impala had broken some ribs, and Audry was left with a damaged knee. She couldn’t walk for about six weeks. Because she couldn’t walk, she couldn’t work, and because the driver in the Impala didn’t have insurance, she couldn’t be compensated for loss of potential earnings.
Her unemployment assistance was due to run out in July, and the lease on her rented apartment ran out in August. To qualify for disability she needed to be disabled for a year. She was in a tight spot. She looked for some money to tide her over until she could, literally, get back on her feet. The Dallas Urban League, a longstanding civil rights organization, agreed to pay her rent for that final month while she looked for somewhere cheaper. But the League’s funds fell through at the last minute. She couldn’t make rent. She was evicted. In less than a year, she’d gone from being housed and employed to homeless and unemployed.
Although the circumstances by which Audry had reached this point were particular to her, the fragility that had allowed her to fall so far so fast are all too familiar in a nation without much of a safety net. One in three Americans either lives in poverty or struggles in the category the census terms the “near poor.”28 According to one poll, 80 percent of American adults have, in the course of their lives, endured a year or more of periodic joblessness, lived in near poverty, or relied on welfare.29
“Poverty is no longer an issue of ‘them,’ it’s an issue of ‘us,’” Mark Rank, a professor at Washington University, in St. Louis, who calculated the numbers, told USA Today. “Only when poverty is thought of as a mainstream event, rather than a fringe experience that just affects blacks and Hispanics, can we really begin to build broader support for programs that lift people in need.”30
When such programs are lacking, it does not take much for those who are barely getting by to find themselves struggling to survive. “If something goes wrong there is simply no buffer,” writes Joseph Stiglitz in The Price of Inequality. “Even before the crisis, America’s poor lived on the precipice; but with the Great Recession, that became increasingly true even of the middle class. The human stories of this crisis are replete with tragedies; one missed mortgage payment escalates into a lost house; homelessness escalates into lost jobs and the eventual destruction of families. For these families, one shock may be manageable; the second is not.”31
With her credit shot and no job, Audry could not find another place to live at short notice. She, Whitney, and Samuel went to stay with Debra. Debra and Audry are close. The first two times they were pregnant they were pregnant together; they’ve always lived near each other; they call each other almost every day. Their children were more like brothers and sisters than cousins. Debra is two years older, but her role in the family has always implied a seniority beyond her years. “Every time something happens I’m the ‘go to’ person,” she says, less with resentment than as a matter of fact. “That’s the way they look at me in the family. Like I can fix everything, and I say, ‘I really can’t.’”
But she did what she could to help Audry. “I don’t know why this happened,” she told Audry. “But everything happens for a reason. Whatever it is, it’ll work out. Even though you’ve been evicted you really can’t say that you’re homeless. Because if I have somewhere to stay, you have somewhere to stay.”
That was true. But it was also tight. Debra lived in a two-bedroom apartment with her two youngest daughters—her eldest was already off in college. So when Audry, Whitney, and Samuel moved in (Jeremy lived with his grandmother), it was a squeeze. “It was different,” says Debra with a smile. “But we adjusted. There were no weird issues. It was just annoying that I had additional people. I talked to my girls. I said, ‘I know it’s going to be tight. But we family. This is what we do. We don’t have a choice.’”
Every day that she was able to, Audry looked for work. She was eager to find her own place. “I wasn’t in a hurry to get away from Debra. But in a way I was in a hurry because it was an inconvenience even though she wasn’t saying anything. Of course, who wants to stay in a two-bedroom with six or seven people?”
When Audry found a place in Pleasant Grove five months later that would accept her credit, she borrowed the deposit money from Debra and took it. “I don’t think she really wanted to go to Pleasant Grove,” says Debra. “But I understood. For her it was like, ‘Okay, this is my opportunity to get my own again.’ As a grown person with kids, you want your own. I think it was her gaining her independence back. That’s perfectly normal.”
Audry knew of Pleasant Grove’s reputation, but she wasn’t intimidated by it. “Back when I grew up, the neighborhood that I grew up in was considered worse then than Pleasant Grove is now,” she says. “People’d say, ‘Where you livin’?’ And I’d tell ’em, and they’d say, ‘You don’t act like you’re from South Dallas.’ The question that’s next is, ‘Well how am I supposed to act just because I live in a certain part of town? You tell me how am I supposed to act?’ Just because you grow up in a bad area doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. And that’s the stereotype that’s put on places like Pleasant Grove and Oak Cliff and South Dallas.”
Though it was not her desire to move there, Audry had no problems living in Pleasant Grove. “The neighborhood itself is okay,” she said. “We used to walk that area where DaDa was killed, just exercising. There’s always kids playing basketball at that corner.”
In any case, Audry was thinking long term. She’d found work in Plano, not far from the children’s school. “I had a plan. Move somewhere where the rent wasn’t that much. Work on my credit and then buy a house. I was trying to save money. And at the end of the day was it worth it?” she asks. “No! Did I even get to save money? No.” It was a fifty-mile round-trip commute from Pleasant Grove to work and school. “The transportation was just eating me up in gas.”
When we met, Audry had moved out of Dallas altogether, to the northwest suburb of Rowlett, half an hour away from Pleasant Grove, just off the George Bush Highway. Though they lived in Pleasant Grove for eleven months, they never really settled in. They knew their neighbors, an elderly pastor and his wife. But otherwise, the long commute to work and school didn’t leave much time to make friends. “That’s what makes Samuel’s shooting so random,” she says. “Because my son didn’t associate with anyone over there. He didn’t hang out, so no one in his age group there knew him.”
Such were the circumstances that came together to put Samuel in Pleasant Grove that night—an area where his mother had not expected to live but where others, schooled in Dallas’s geography of race and class, expected a young man of his age and race to die.
AROUND THE CORNER FROM where Samuel was shot is Gayglen Drive, where rows of homes resembling army barracks sit back from the street—a community billeted as though prepared for war. This was the only part of the area Audry considered rough. “Asante, Murdock Villas, Trinity Trails. They kept changing the name of those apartments, but it was always the same problem. It was all contained in those apartments. So we never heard gunfire. It all happened over there.”
The stretch of Schepps Parkway where Samuel fell is literally on the way to nowhere: there is a barrier marking the end of the road, on the other side of which is a huge freeway. It sits wedged between middle class precarity and bucolic calm. On one side sprawls the Woodland Springs Park, complete with picnic tables, which is in turn attached to McCommas Bluff Preserve, a 111-acre wooded commons that looks like an unlikely starting point for a leisurely ramble.
On the other side is a rabbit’s warren of streets with long, thin ranch-style houses. The mostly well-tended gardens and impressive cars in the driveways indicate more comfort than affluence; the bars on most of the doors and windows suggest a low-key sense of siege that has insinuated itself into everyday life. On the corner of Neuhoff and Schepps, the precise spot where Samuel fell, a makeshift sign pokes out of the ground offering “Cash 4 Junk cars.”
The census tells a story of population growth and white flight. Between 2000 and 2010 the white population of this tract plummeted by 41 percent while the Latino population grew by 39 percent and the black population by 25 percent, leaving it more than half black and more than a third Latino and, like most of America, more populous and less white than it had been.32
Samuel didn’t have any friends who lived in the neighborhood. But he did have a schoolmate, Denzel, who used to come to the area every month or so to visit his grandmother and who lived two streets down from Samuel. Denzel talks like molasses pours: slowly, richly, thickly. He tells his stories sparsely—with few embellishments and a Texas twang. He was dating Whitney at the time, so when she invited him over for a night in with the family he came right over.
They made an evening of it, watching We’re the Millers and drinking cocoa. “We had a mini family night I guess,” says Denzel. Whitney and Denzel were in the kitchen with Audry when Samuel took a break from his Xbox to suggest that they all play Uno. Audry initially declined. “We hadn’t played Uno in a while,” she said. “And Samuel used to cheat.”
“I’m not going to cheat this time,” Samuel protested. “I’m going to play fair.”
So they settled down to play on the floor. Samuel cheated, though not as egregiously as usual. Around eleven, Denzel decided to go home, and Samuel offered to walk him part of the way. It takes around seven minutes to walk from one home to the other. Samuel was just going to walk him to the corner but decided to go a little further. He was on the phone to his girlfriend, Alexis, when he interrupted the conversation to point out to Denzel that they had passed a white Crown Victoria parked at the end of the street, near Gayglen. “I turned around and looked to see there was a car sitting there,” says Denzel. “It was all white. But it was black inside so you couldn’t see nothing. No bodies. Nothing. The headlights were off. But the brake lights were on. So we turned around and took some more steps. Didn’t think nothing of it. I’m thinking they just sitting there to just sit there, I guess. I don’t know. So we keep walking, and then two, three steps and I hear a shot fired.”
When I ask Denzel to describe the sound he shrugs. “It was just like BLAH.”
He continued, “[Samuel] said, ‘Oh, I’m hit.’ I thought he was playing. I said, ‘Stop playing.’ So I rushed over there to him.” Denzel corrects himself. Had he known what had happened he would have rushed. But at that moment he still couldn’t believe what was happening. “I didn’t rush over there. I was walking towards him. And then he’s hopping towards the curb. And he told Alexis over the phone he’d got shot.” Then Denzel called Whitney. “Whitney. Sam been shot.” “What happened? What happened?” said Whitney. “He been shot, you gotta come right away.”
Audry drove straight down with Whitney to find Samuel lying on the ground. She stopped the car in the middle of the street, put it in park, and jumped out with the motor still running and the doors open. “When I did get round the corner Denzel is hollering and screaming and he’s upset. But for me I’m more in mama mode. Find the wound. Put pressure to it. When Samuel started regurgitating, turn him over to his side. Not hollering and screaming. I had no time for that. My reaction was more practical.”
Samuel was wearing only one of his shoes; the other was across the street. “He was moaning when I came out. He said, ‘Mama.’ We were trying to find out where he was hit. We called 911. We located the injury site of the wound. I was trying to apply pressure. He started regurgitating from his nose and his mouth, and his eyes started to rolling in the back of his head. At that moment I knew that he was dying in my arms, but I was still hopeful.”
The questions from the 911 dispatcher irritated her. “They were asking, ‘Is the person still out there with the gun?’ I mean do you think it would even matter to me if he was? When I see my child laying there on the ground. Or, ‘Are y’all safe?’ ‘Are you in a well-lit area?’ None of that makes sense to me. My focus can’t be on the crazy questions. Or, ‘What’s the major cross street you at?’ when I know you’ve got GPS and pick up the cell phone signal. So they’re asking all these crazy questions.”
You can hear Audry’s frustration increasing during the call. She starts out urgent, clear, and panicked. “My son has been shot right here at Schepps and Parkway,” she yells, with Denzel and Whitney wailing in the background. “We need an ambulance.”
The dispatcher asks her to spell the street name.
“S-C-H-E-P-P-S,” she says, twice.
But while Audry is desperate for someone to come and save her son, the dispatcher dispassionately and professionally—if ponderously—gathers a full account of the scene. “Did he see who did it?”
“And he just got shot. You didn’t see who did it?”
“No, he was walking with a friend.”
“Is the friend there too?”
“Yes,” and then Audry refocuses on Samuel. “Breathe, breathe, breathe,” she says.
While she is trying to encourage life back into her son, the dispatcher asks, “Was there a vehicle you saw or anything like that?”
Denzel’s voice enters from a short distance and then Audry relays the message. “It was a black Crown Vic. No. It was a white Crown Vic.”
“Where did he go?” the dispatcher asks, and at this point Audry loses patience and becomes more formal.
“I don’t know where it went, sir. I really don’t.”
“Alright. Where was he shot?”
“In the back.” She asks someone to get a blanket.
“Are you there?”
“Are you sure you don’t know which way the car went?”
“Sir, someone called me on the phone and told me to get around here, so I don’t know nothing,” Audry says, finally closing that line of questioning down for good.
“Is he conscious?”
“DaDa are you conscious?” she asks. A long groan is audible. “Yes, he’s moaning. I can hear him.”
“Okay. And no one is around there with a gun or anything like that?”
“I’m going to connect you to the fire department for arrival instructions, alright?”
When the ambulance arrived, it kept its distance for what felt like several minutes, which Audry thought was odd. “How can you not see my car in the middle of the street with the lights on and doors open?” she wondered. Eventually the paramedics came, but Denzel could make no more sense of what had happened than they could. And he’d been there for the whole thing. “I know those apartments in that neighborhood were dangerous,” he told me, indicating the complex on Gayglen. “My sister used to stay over there, and she said they were dangerous.”
Denzel sat at the crime scene for several hours. When the detective told him Samuel had died, he shrugged. The detective later asked a teacher if he was slow. “No, he’s very bright,” she told her. “But he’s in shock.”Audry looked through the ambulance window and saw them trying to resuscitate Samuel with CPR. She asked them if he was breathing on his own. They said no. She knew he was dead even before she reached the hospital because the ambulance did not turn its lights on.
She called Willie, whose immediate response was dramatic, says Audry. “The whole night it was him running up and down the hallway of the hospital hollering and screaming,” she recalls, “sinking to the floor with Whitney, apologizing all the time.”
Audry was particularly upset about her last moments with Samuel at the hospital. “I felt that I didn’t get a proper good-bye because at the hospital I wasn’t allowed to touch him,” she says. Her son’s body was now a crime scene. “That was really devastating. The only thing I could do was see him from behind the glass. He was laying there like he was asleep, but then I knew he wasn’t.” Three months later she showed me a picture she’d taken from the other side of the glass, of Samuel lying on a gurney with his body covered by a white sheet up to his neck.
“How often do you look at that?” I asked “Every day,” she said.
AUDRY’S COPING MECHANISM FROM the outset was to try and keep herself busy. Samuel died late Saturday night. On Monday morning she went to work. She went back again on Wednesday. “It was really just to get away,” she explains. “I wasn’t at peace at the house. There was so many people in and out constantly. I know everyone was there with good intentions. You know, to feed us and check on us. But it wasn’t the hug I wanted. It wasn’t the laughter or the voice I wanted to hear. So it felt like work was the only place I could go where I knew no one would bother me. When my phone would ring someone else would answer it. It was like my boss knew and didn’t want to say nothing to me if I went in. If I worked a little bit and said, ‘Okay, I’m going to go now,’ no one said anything. It was my place of peace to go to.”
Her doctor told her she was in denial and moving too fast and put her on medication for anxiety, to help her sleep, and, finally, for depression. The wake, held on November 29, was on Samuel’s birthday. He would have been seventeen. They released balloons at the funeral home and sang “Happy Birthday.” Samuel always said he wanted his siblings, scattered over different families across the city, to be together. And here they were. “Well, you got what you wanted,” said Audry. The funeral was on November 30. Audry was back to work full time by December 2.
At the funeral, Willie’s second wife, Claudia, sat directly behind Audry, in the second row. When it came time to close the casket, Audry reached behind, grabbed Claudia’s hand, and took her along as she went to see Samuel for the last time. She put Claudia’s hand on the casket and her hand on top of Claudia’s, and together they closed it for good.
Whitney was in a terrible state. “I don’t think I’ve seen anybody grieve like Whitney did,” said one friend. “At the burial I came over and gave her a hug and said, ‘Are you going back to school?’ Whitney said she didn’t know. ‘What would Sam want you to do?’ asked the friend. ‘He’d want me to jump in that grave with him,’ she said.”
When I first met Audry in February 2014, she fetched a leopard-skin box, roughly the size of a shoebox, and opened it up quite matter-of-factly as we spoke. Inside were keepsakes from the funeral. A couple of papier-mâché doves on thin metal rods, copies of the funeral service bearing the same picture that had appeared on the local news website, testimonies written by friends from school, and pictures of Samuel at various stages of his childhood, from infancy up. Going to the box is a daily routine.
It’s one of the many rituals Audry has adopted since her son died. A few months after the shooting, every Saturday night she was still putting on the same clothes she wore the night he died—a pair of pink jogging pants and a T-shirt that says “All stressed out and no one to choke.” “It’s not even intentional sometimes,” she says. “I just find myself with it on. Every Saturday, around the same time, I’m angsty. I don’t go to sleep. I never go to sleep until the Sunday morning, only to wake up in tears.”
When I met her again in June, things had improved a little. “I don’t put on the same thing every Saturday. The sleeping I still have an issue with. I don’t go to sleep until three or four in the morning. I’m not as angsty and anxious as I used to be. That could be the medication. When I’m with people I try to interact most of the time. When I’m at home I’m quiet.”
Whitney struggles. She says she sees DaDa everywhere. “Every day. Every little thing reminds me of him,” she says. “We all had this one particular song. I’d sing and say, like, DaDa, join in. But he’s not there. School? He’s not there. Home? He’s not there. I hate being in the house without him.”
“One day,” says Audry, “Whitney just came knocking on the door of my room. She said, ‘He’s not responding.’ I said, ‘Who’s not responding?’ She said, ‘DaDa. He’s not responding to my text messages.’”
Whitney left the school in the end. “Even to look over at his desk and not see him there just made it much harder for her to deal with every single day,” says Audry. “Samuel was always the one to calm Whitney down in certain situations. He was her voice of reason. Whenever she would get hot about something or mad he calmed her down. I couldn’t. I tried to get her to talk to someone. I said it’s only a matter of time before she blows up. It’s going to happen in school. She’s constantly looking over at the desk. And she’s mad.”
She didn’t get counseling, even though Debra says she needs help. “More so her because she’s a child and doesn’t really know how to deal with it. But she doesn’t like to open her head.” Denzel says he wasn’t offered any counseling and didn’t want any. “I don’t open up to nobody,” he says. “That’s just the way it is.”
Counselors came to the school, where Samuel’s desk was left unoccupied for the rest of the academic year, with a Bible in it opened to the book of Samuel. One teacher put an angel outside the entrance with a poem on it, to help talk the children through it. But few thought the counselors were very effective. One of them called Samuel by the wrong name. “It just instilled in these kids that this is nothing to you,” said another teacher.
Willie has retreated into himself. “From what I can tell, I think he’s grieving hard,” says Claudia. “He’s the life of the party. He’ll get you up dancing. Singing. He’d go out at the weekend and have fun with his friends. But now? He’s in a shell. It’s understandable because you’d never have thought you’d have to bury one of your own children.”
Willie says he’s constantly on edge. “Basically you can’t relax no more. There’s no ease anymore. There’s no way I can come in, lay down, and think the kids are okay, nothing’s gonna happen. You don’t know. You always on guard now. God makes no mistake. So I can’t sit up and say why mine? Because we all gonna die sooner or later. Everybody’s name is on the roll. But I question myself: maybe if he was here with me. Well, it can happen out here just the same as it happen anywhere else. As a father you wanna protect them.”
AUDRY STILL STRUGGLES TO piece together the precise details of what happened that night. “I had heard so many different stories in the beginning of how he got shot. At first he was hit in the stomach—in the abdomen. I said no, it’s not true. I asked, ‘Did the bullet come out the stomach, because the only wound I seen was in the pelvis?’ And no one could tell me anything. Denzel was emotionally distraught, and so his story changed too. He said he didn’t hear gun shots. And after a few weeks he said he did.”
Only an eight-year-old girl in the area said she’d heard gunfire. When the police and a journalist knocked on doors, nobody else admitted hearing anything. And despite the arrival of fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars, despite the screaming and the gunfire, nobody emerged to see what was going on. “No one came out,” says Audry. “No one. It’s weird. They would have heard the ambulance. Not only the ambulance, but the fire truck and the police. It’s like no one was talking.”
And she was reluctant to probe further on her own. When Jeremy, her elder son, started asking questions at the corner store, she asked him to stop. “I told him when you start drawing attention to yourself, you never know who comes out. I’d rather let me move and then if someone comes forward and says something that’s different. But you’ve still got a sister you have to worry about.”
Nobody knows why anyone would do this. There was no obvious motivation. The police were convinced it wasn’t gang related; their trail was cold from the get-go. Denzel didn’t catch the license plate number—why would he? And even if he had, the policewoman told Audry she wouldn’t believe how many Crown Vics are just stolen and abandoned in the adjacent neighborhood.
“He had his whole life to live for,” says Claudia, lamenting the senselessness of it all. “He missed his senior prom. He missed graduation. He missed everything because somebody else wanted to be stupid. And who knows who he is? It coulda been someone he knew. It could have been someone who lived next door. You just shootin’ to be shootin’? You just doin’ what you want to do? So what do you want to do?”
“One minute we’re playing Uno,” says Denzel, reflecting on the capriciousness of his life and Samuel’s death. “Ten, fifteen minutes later. Boom.”