The gang/home war has become more mobile as black people have become more mobile, claiming higher ground in Inglewood and Ladera and even Riverside. Unlike our white suburban counterparts we are not as insulated from the realities we sought to mitigate with lawns and barbecues and room add-ons. We have never been insulated, and didn't necessarily seek to be, but we always hoped our middle-classness and wish for solid and workable communities would ameliorate long-standing problems out of existence. We hoped for a domino effect of our own democracy; we trusted that the flags we planted in the name of prosperity for all would take root, and the worst examples of it not happening are incidents like Lee Denmon and Joseph Swift. We mourn most for the dead we consider to be the greatest innocents of all, the "good" ones who are entirely the victims of fate and of their own trust, like Swift, and — worst of all — those who consciously decide to invest in the neighborhood whence they came, like Denmon, who played college basketball back east before circling back to Inglewood and to his alma mater, where he hoped to tutor boys not much younger than himself.
The less virtuous the dead — gang members and their initiates, ne'er-do-wells — the less we tend to mourn them, but the fact is that all these black men tend to be remembered as a piece of the same bad phenomena. If Joseph Swift wasn't a gang member yet, it was only a matter of time. Lee Denmon was clean, a college graduate like others in his family, but surely he had some association with the guy who rolled up on him, and if he did he must have had it coming, or seen it coming, and so he could have altered his destiny — this is the most efficient thing to believe. It fits nicely into the borders of the narrative we've constructed for colored men who get shot. I sometimes wish I could be duped into believing the Iraqi boy had it coming too, but it isn't possible, because it isn't true. The truth hurts.
I know very few black people in town who don't know at least one person who's been shot and killed for one reason or another. I'm not just talking about students I've met at Locke or Jefferson High or elsewhere in the hood, but entirely professional, middle-class people who have teas and take vacations every year. We are all but a few degrees of separation from the pain of loss our counterparts in less fortunate and not-very-far-away circumstances experience, and in some ways we are not separated by any degrees at all.
In a living-room discussion last week with a group of some of the black fortunate, the topic turned to the war. Of course, before that we had exhausted ourselves talking about the street war, the war that had taken Joseph Swift and Lee Denmon and that shadowed the rest of us in the room. We wound up having more concrete things to say about Iraq, chiefly because the rest of the country had more concrete things to say about it, too. We are all choosing our sorrow more deliberately now, but there are still times — over and over — when sorrow chooses us.