Miami Herald

Dying Young

A sudden rash of recent gun violence has claimed the lives of several black teenagers in South Florida. The murders seem random, but records reveal a troubling trend: The number of young homicide victims is rising.

by NICOLE WHITE, DAVID OVALLE, LUISA YANEZ
June 25, 2006
The Miami Herald

They are predominantly black, mainly boys. They are young, mostly teenagers. They are murder victims, police say, silenced in senseless acts of violence.
Week after week, mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters of the murdered have mourned, collected donations, planned wakes and buried their children.

There was Kennetha Jordan, 18, who was shot just hours after her graduation from Central High School. She bled to death on the lawn of her El Portal home.

Jeffrey Johnson Jr., 17, college-bound with dreams of becoming the next Johnnie Cochran, was shot dead in a duel over fancy cars.

Evan Page, 17, a Carol City Senior High student, was shot to death during an apparent robbery at the Checkers where he worked after school.

And perhaps the most heinous, 18-month-old Zykarious Cadillon, was killed on his front lawn by a bullet that police say was meant for a family member.

”I’m tired of burying black boys,” lamented state Sen. Frederica Wilson, whose district includes Northwest Miami-Dade County, from State Road 836 to the Broward County line.

The murders may seem random, but the bodies and numbers collected by the Miami-Dade medical examiner’s office reveal a troubling trend: The number of homicide victims 18 years old or younger this year has already surpassed last year’s count. At the current pace, the number of murders could more than double by year’s end. Last month was the deadliest — authorities logged nine murders.

In thepast 12 months alone, 18 people who were 18 years old or younger have been murdered in gun-related violence. Thirteen were black; five were Hispanic. Most came from neighborhoods in Northwest Miami-Dade.

The public and police are perplexed, especially since crime, including violent offenses, has declined locally and nationwide in recent years.

Anna Jones, the aunt of 18-year-old homicide victim Alexander Dawkins, cannot comprehend why anyone would kill someone so young. ”I don’t understand,” she said. “They just don’t value human life. They just don’t.”

”My generation is falling apart,” said Steven Jones, a student at Carol City High who wrote a mournful rap song about the murders.

The spate of violence within the black community is not new. There was a public outcry:

In 2004, after 10-year-old Jacobi Brooks was killed by a bullet intended for someone else.

In 1997, after 5-year-old Rickia Issac was killed by a stray bullet as she walked from a Martin Luther King Day parade.

In 1995, after 14-year-old Keta Murray was shot and killed at a Kentucky Fried Chicken where she worked after school.

The alarm is being sounded again, but this time the outrage seems muted and contained to the black community.

A rally organized by Miami-Dade County Commissioners Dorrin Rolle and Audrey Edmonson drew about 30 people; a press conference called by a group of clergymen — including the Rev. Jerome Starling, uncle of Rickia Issac — attracted a handful of media people.

”I think it’s being viewed as a black problem, which is unfair,” said the Rev. Dwayne Richardson of the Greater Love Baptist Church in Miami Gardens.

”At what point should we just be upset because innocent children are being killed?” Richardson asked. “I don’t think [their race] should matter to our leadership.”

”I guarantee you if it was happening in other communities such as Pinecrest or Little Havana, they wouldn’t sit back and allow this,” he said. “Where is the sense of urgency?”

Attorney and community activist H.T Smith agreed, saying: “The murder of black children is deemed less important by elected officials and those empowered to make a real change.”

The outcry, irrespective of its decibel level, initially came solely from black leaders.

When contacted by The Miami Herald, Mayor Carlos Alvarez, the county’s top elected official, issued the following statement:

“As Mayor and the former director of the Miami-Dade Police Department, I can tell you that public safety is paramount in any community. While I am happy to report violent crime in this community is down approximately 49 percent in the past 10 years, even one incident of violent crime is one too many, especially when the victim is a child or young adult.

“My heart goes out to all of the families impacted by recent acts of violence.”

Robert Parker, director of the Miami-Dade Police Department, recently went on a rare round of media interviews, urging witnesses to cooperate with police.

Like many in the community, Parker is at a loss to explain why so many teenagers have been killed in unrelated incidents. But he stressed that members of the community, especially in the hardest-hit black community in North Miami-Dade, need to remain vigilant.

”I see the initial shock and outrage, but I also see a certain [lack of concern] by the public,” Parker said.

Like Parker, many parents of the murdered are deeply troubled as to why this generation has become prone to violent death in recent months.

”It’s senseless. It’s wasted lives, and nobody seems to care,” said Mike Livingston, whose nephew Bryan Livingston, 18, was shot to death by a friend.

There is no shortage of theories to explain the root causes of violence: poverty, drugs, rap music, television, video games, bad parenting and absent parents.

But experts say the conditions that lead to sudden outbreaks of violent crime tend to be worse in poorer neighborhoods, where jobs are scarce and opportunities for young people are few.

Said Jeffrey Butts, a national expert on juvenile crime and a research fellow at the University of Chicago: “It’s not that African Americans and Latinos are inherently more likely to be affected by violence. It’s a question of where one can afford to live, and whether your family is stuck living where violence tends to happen.”

Mimi Sutherland, director of the GATE Program at Jackson Memorial Hospital, agrees. Her program works closely with teenage boys convicted of crimes involving weapons, and she said there is no single reason to explain the cycle of violence within the black community.

These young men are often angry at a parent for being absent, at schools for failing them, at employers for not hiring them because they have a criminal record — no matter how minor the infraction, Sutherland said.

”We have a bunch of angry kids out there. It’s very sad,” she said.

Sutherland said these young people see only one way to deal with conflict: They fight not with fists but with lethal weapons.

Wilson, the state senator, said the culture of violence has reached the point where young blacks fully expect to die before they become adults. ”Our children are planning what to wear at their own funerals,” she said.

For parents, the loss of a child is a slow and painful process. Some find solace in each other or establish a memorial fund to remember the dead. Many keep the cases alive by pressing police to find the killers.

After burying his son last month, Jeffrey Johnson Sr. became an unwilling spokesman, a godfather for the cause of murdered children. He comforted the families of two other slain teenagers.

He established a foundation in his son’s honor to fund scholarships for children from the county’s poorest neighborhoods.

”I just want everybody to know how precious life is,” he said. “When you take one life, it affects thousands. You can’t imagine the pain. It’s a void that can never be filled.”

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