In these sorrowful times that threaten to remain so for the unforeseeable future, I've had to acknowledge there is only so much grief to go around. My response to war has been necessarily uneven: Iraq's myriad horrors either blur obligingly into a background of newsprint and e-mail links that fade by the hour, or a single detail slugs me in the gut and stays there. I heard last weekend that a 4-year-old Iraqi boy hit by a bomb was almost, but not quite, burned to death, and so he lay not dead but whimpering in a hospital. The thought of him in such terrible suspension stole my own breath and stopped me, forbade me, from counting laundry in the upstairs hallway for several hours.
And yet still there is that other war, a cumulatively bigger and much closer battle being fought on the streets right here in town. It's a war between gang members and wannabes and their rivals who increasingly are not other gang members but the general public. It's what recently deceased soul singer Edwin Starr decried in his '70s hit "War" which was not, as some assumed, about Vietnam but about the abject killing in ghettos fueled by the fallout of racism and poverty at the time. But very young people are still dying, people as young and as hapless as that Iraqi boy, without much expression of political sentiment or debate. I hear about the casualties of this war, casualties that do not even merit a perfunctory explanation, and I not only stop counting laundry, I go to the window to look toward the street, the site often not far from where I live as if to search the sky for an approaching bad front. This war is happening in my time, on my turf. This war is mine.
The eternally troubling homicide rate in South-Central has spiked in the last year, but since the war on Iraq began, it has felt and read more like a footnote than usual. Police Chief Bratton came to town last year and challenged Angelenos in all four corners of the city to give a damn about the tragedy in its midst; some months back the Los Angeles Times ran an unsettling series about the emergency room at King-Drew Hospital that sees black men with fatal bullet wounds about as regularly as military hospitals saw them during all of World War II. The killings have come again, but not with the same concerted media attention. Ever selective with their grief, the media are now trained on the violence unfolding thousands of miles away.
Joseph Swift was an ordinary 13-year-old who walked out of his church on a Sunday afternoon, hungry for a snack and buoyed by the idea of his new youth group, when he was struck by gunfire randomly sprayed by a passing car. Joseph went down but didn't initially understand that he'd been badly hit; he and his brother, who came to his side, searched diligently for the wound together. When his mother arrived he was able to say "I love you" before slipping away. Joseph's anguished grandfather said what will doubtless be repeated by similarly affected parents and relatives in the tragedies to come the real American war is here at home. There is terrorism perpetrated by a hundred Osama bin Ladens, the grandfather said, in too many neighborhoods that breed criminality in direct proportion to their lack of decent jobs and quality education. Too many victims of this abhorrent vacuum are Joseph Swifts, boys not even contemplating the bad life but merely caught in a roaring slipstream of urban violence that is both ancient and present American history. There is little desire to alter this history. We do not declare war on this war, or advocate regime change, nor do we conduct inspections or unilaterally try to disarm the armed in 48 hours or less. South-Central is not a country that has anything we covet, and so it is left to an open-ended battle that is acceptable so long as it contains itself in its own borders.
Everybody south of the I-10 remembers in '92 that the National Guard was deployed in earnest only when the rioting threatened to spread north of Wilshire. Everybody also remembers that when the rioting broke out in South Central, the police that had often been compared to an occupying army mostly stood by, or left.
The borders of the battle at home are more fluid than they once were, more than we like to think. A few weeks before Joseph Swift's death, an unassuming basketball coach at Inglewood's Morningside High was cut down on Seventh Avenue between Arbor Vitae and Century, the street where I grew up and where my parents still live. Lee Denmon wasn't a gang member; his crime, in the mind of the shooter, was that he didn't belong to a set. Seventh Avenue, like the other avenues in Inglewood, is long and rambling, shaded with trees and known for its elaborate block-club Christmas decorations that draw carloads of spectators every year. It's not Mayberry, but it's a genuinely small town in both a textbook and a peculiarly L.A. sense of the term; it's not South-Central, but it shares some of its demographics and reluctantly bears some of its misery.
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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.