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Black communities face 'epidemic' of violent murders

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Jill King Greenwood is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review staff writer and can be reached at 412-321-2160 or via e-mail.

 

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By Jill King Greenwood
PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
 

Lueana Coward knows that in a perfect world, no mother would bury her child.

But twice in the past 10 years, Coward stood in Fairview Cemetery in McKeesport as pallbearers lowered coffins carrying the bullet-riddled bodies of her oldest and youngest sons into the ground.

"I can't even describe it — what it feels like to lose not one child, but two," said Coward, 51, of McKeesport. "There is so much violence among young black men. It's an epidemic, a disease. Blood is running in the streets, and I wonder how many more mothers are gonna have to plan funerals for their sons before society decides enough is enough."

Black men killing black men is a problem of astounding magnitude. Statistics the Tribune-Review examined from the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office show about 8 in 10 murders since 2006 involved black victims, and black men were victims in 7 of every 10 slayings. The victims' average age: 25.

Experts including academics, police brass and street advocates blame social problems that began festering three decades ago. They cite the breakdown of black families, crumbling moral values and crack cocaine's infiltration into urban life.

"When I hear there is a homicide coming in to the office, I assume it will be a black male killed by another black male, that it will involve multiple gunshot wounds, and it will be overkill," Medical Examiner Dr. Karl Williams said.

"The black male victims come in, and they are covered in tattoos, and they have old bullet wounds, and some have been shot upwards of 17 times with automatic weapons. It's clear they are living very devalued lives."

The trend is not unique to the Pittsburgh area.

A study by the Tuskegee Institute shows the Ku Klux Klan killed 3,446 black people in America over 86 years; black men in America kill about the same number of blacks — mostly men — every six months, said Phillip Jackson, founder of The Black Star Project in Chicago.

"Young black men are exterminating other young black men at a very alarming rate," Jackson said. "The African-American community has failed miserably in creating positive, stable, successful young black men. And as a result, entire generations are being lost."

When changes started

Malanzo Davis, 37, remembers growing up in Northview Heights public housing in the 1980s when crack took hold in Pittsburgh. Before that, "we all respected each other, and there was a real 'we' mentality in our community. We stuck together, and we took care of one another."

Davis remembers a friend's mother living across the courtyard. She used to cook for neighborhood kids, who hung out at her house, he said.

"Then crack hit, and she started getting high, and then people were beating her up for drug money she owed, and she stopped taking care of her kids. That happened throughout the neighborhood," said Davis, a community coordinator for the nonprofit One Vision One Life, which mediates gang disputes.

"So we started raising ourselves, and before you knew it, we were picking up guns and dealing crack, and we didn't care if we lived or died. And we passed that mentality on to our children. So everything that is happening with these young dudes today killing each other is our fault. It all goes back to what we did back then."

Carnegie Mellon University criminologist Al Blumstein, a nationally recognized expert, said the breakdown of families swept quickly through black communities.

"More so than other races, black inner-city communities have a culture of using violence. They have a very high rate of single-mother households, a very high high school dropout rate, very few male role models and few models in general for how to get an education, a good job and be successful," said Blumstein, director of the university's National Consortium on Violence Research.

"Their models are that the way you solve a dispute is through violence and picking up a gun."

Going to jail like 'getting a college degree'

DeMario Patterson, 18, of the South Side counts more than 15 peers who have been wounded, slain or imprisoned for shooting someone. Staying out of trouble is a challenge for the Carrick High School senior.

"The thought out there pretty much is that you'll either be dead or in jail by the time you turn 21," Patterson said. "I don't participate in no gang violence, and I am no fan of the streets. I don't even try to be around that. But it scares me because bullets ain't got no names on them, and it's to the point where people who aren't even in the street game are being hurt. I worry about my little brothers and sisters.

"I want to stay out of it, but everyone around me doing it, and it makes me think maybe I need a gun, too, to protect myself."

Some high school boys stash guns outside city schools and retrieve them after the last bell rings. Fights in schools are common, and although drugs and territorial disputes spark many shootings, so does drama over girls.

"You gotta watch your back because you never know when someone is going to turn on you for nothing," said Zack Roche, 16, of Carrick. "You can't trust nobody. They'll shoot you for nothing, so you gotta protect yourself."

It's considered a badge of honor to shoot someone or go to jail.

"Doing that is like getting a college degree," said Chris Nowlin, who grew up in the Southern Hilltop neighborhoods in the 1980s and mentors kids. "You shoot someone, and you get put away and do your 10-year stint or whatever and you didn't snitch — you're congratulated and celebrated in the 'hood. It's a good thing."

In Pennsylvania, half of the 48,656 men in state prisons are black, according to the state Department of Corrections. Yet, Census Bureau figures show blacks comprise only 10.3 percent of the state's population.

Nowlin said young black men create role models. "In a lot of ways, hip hop has become the father of the black community. Black kids today are idolizing rappers and athletes and actors, all of whom probably didn't have fathers in their lives, either. It's all wrapped up in fatherlessness."

Escaping street life

Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper, who is black and spent much of his street career as a narcotics investigator, said arresting black men and confiscating illegal weapons is not a long-term solution.

"In order to turn off this faucet of death and break this cycle, we need to connect our young people with God," Harper said. "Without faith, there is no hope, and without hope, there are no dreams. And all of that means no future for these young men, who don't believe they will live to see 21.

"And every time one of these homicides happens, two families are ruined because one young man goes to the grave and one goes to the prison. We're basically standing by as a society and watching black men exterminate themselves."

Debra Germany, 49, of Oakland said faith in God sustains her since the July 2001 shooting death of her only son, Raymond, 23, during a botched drug deal in the Hill District.

"Our men need to walk upright, step forth and show these young men the way, because right now, they are totally lost, and they're letting themselves be guided by guns and violence," said Germany, the executive director of Divine Intervention Ministries.

Tom Baker, vice president of programs for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh, said mentoring programs can help shape the lives of young people.

In Chicago, a black child might wait 18 months for a suitable black male mentor in a similar Big Brothers program. In Pittsburgh, the wait is a few months, and Baker said his organization formed an advisory board to recruit mentors.

"For kids in this program, having someone dedicated to being there for them for a set amount of time every week can open their eyes to a caring adult who is positive and believes in them," Baker said. "And who hopefully has done well in their life and can be an example of how to be successful."

Success stories rise from among the funerals and vigils in black neighborhoods.

DeVon Madden was growing up in Beltzhoover when he fell in with a street crowd and a life ruled by guns and drugs.

Madden, 25, went to jail. Upon release, he vowed to start over. He went to college and became an athletic trainer and football coach. He returns to the streets as a mentor with One Vision One Life.

"I have a picture of me and my friends when we were growing up. There are 10 of us in the picture. Six are dead," Madden said. "It became clear that if I continued on that path, I'd be dead, too."

Kevin Alton, 30, also grew up in Beltzhoover and remembers a drug dealer with a fancy car giving him $20 to watch the car, its engine running, while the man ran into a convenience store. Alton was 10 years old.

"That made me want that lifestyle. I wanted to be like that. That became my goal," Alton said.

His world became one filled with guns, drugs and violence. His younger brother, Brandon, followed his example until a gunman killed him at age 23 in a Mt. Washington bar in July 2008. The 16-year-old shooter from the North Side was convicted of manslaughter.

"That changed my life," Alton said. "He was following me, and he died because of it. I had to go tell my mom that her child was dead. I felt responsible."

Alton mentors young kids and is raising his little sister, his brother's boy and his baby girl. He's determined to keep them from the allure of street life.

Seeking peace

Families of homicide victims experience grief symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress syndrome affecting troops returning from war, said Stephanie Walsh of the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime in East Liberty. They have trouble sleeping, become agitated or depressed, isolate themselves and repeatedly imagine their loved one's last moments alive.

Lueana Coward does that.

Her oldest son, Harry Coward, 18, was gunned down in front of 70 people at a party in Duquesne in 2001. That May night, he kissed his mother and gave his grandmother a peppermint candy before leaving home. Twenty minutes later, he was dead.

"They told me that his last words were, 'Tell my mom I love her.' I hear his voice in my head all the time, saying that," said Coward, who found it difficult many mornings to get out of bed.

That her son's killer remains unknown angers her still.

Coward struggled to raise six children. Their fathers were absent and, in the mid-1990s, her crack addiction landed the kids in foster care. Harry developed problems with the police that sent him to reform school. Her youngest son became so angry about her drug problems that he stabbed himself with a fork.

Rehab stints helped Coward get clean and reclaim her kids. She had begun to be hopeful about her future when Harry was killed. Then, four years later, as her grief and depression began to abate, the unimaginable happened: police charged a 16-year-old boy with fatally shooting her youngest son, James Jones, in a North Side apartment.

This time, Coward decided depression would not take hold of her. Determined to try to keep another mother from answering a knock at the door and facing news that her son is dead, Coward started RELIEF, a support group with the motto "No 1 Has 2 Grieve Alone." She helps mothers of murdered boys find ways to face the world each day.

"I can't get my sons back, and these other mothers can't either, but no one knows how deep this pain is but us, so we need to support each other," Coward said. "Because as much as I'd like to believe there will come a time when support groups like mine aren't needed, I doubt that will happen. Our young men will continue to die."

The Rev. Glenn Grayson's story shows that black homicides pervade at every level.

Jeron Grayson, 18, the minister's son, was shot to death at a party Oct. 17 at California University of Pennsylvania. The accused gunman, Keith Jones, 19, of Monessen is a black man with a criminal record. Police said he fired through the door of an apartment when denied admittance to the party.

Jeron Grayson lived a different life than his accused killer. An honors student and star on the Schenley High School football team, he had begun freshman year at Hampton University in Virginia. His preacher father and lawyer mother have another son and a daughter. They live in the Hill District, close to influences that could have led him down another path, but did not.

"My son had so much promise, so much potential and so many dreams," Grayson said. "Two families are shattered now, because we both lost a son. Black families are being shattered every day, and I don't know what the answer is. But we need to come up with one, because no one should have to bury their child."

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