Essay: When a lethal crime hits home

I met my cousin, Jarrett, at his funeral. He was 23-years-old, two years younger than I. His dad, my mom’s uncle, lived in our building in Queens. Just a week out of jail, he’d taken his 4-month-old baby girl hostage, shot and killed her grandmother and wounded two others. After a six-hour standoff, Jarrett turned the shotgun on himself. I watched the whole thing—cops in visible bullet-proof vests, neighbors on their lawns, the black body bag—on the six o’ clock news.

As if that wasn’t bad enough though, nearly a year later, I watched the entire “episode,” movie-like, along with a national audience, on CBS’s 48 Hours. Unbeknownst to my family, the show had filmed the hostage crisis that day in October 2002. I remember turning to my mom—I’d been in her bedroom channel-surfing—and saying, “I think this means we’re Americans, now.” It was the first time in 15 years that America had claimed me as one of her natural-born.

Bringing up what’s been left unsaid:

[audio:|titles=Bringing up what’s been left unsaid]

(Link to mp3)

My language, my history, my culture: they predated my arrival to New York City, at the time, 15 years ago. City slang, which I adopted in the 4th grade, or listening to hip-hop music could only blend with and not supersede the identity markers already in place. But the infiltration of our family by the criminal justice system—deservedly so in Jarrett’s case—felt like the first on a checklist of uniquely American experiences.

A part of me even felt like it was inevitable. And that was how Jarrett’s violent end made me, for the first time, pay attention to how ‘the system’ had always crouched on the periphery of and sometimes crept into my life.

“You all didn’t travel in the same circles,” my mom had said, when I asked her recently, why Jarrett and I had never met. But you don’t have to move in Jarrett’s circle in order to get in trouble with the cops, I thought.

Twice, before I even turned 18, I’d been detained by NYPD. I was 25 when Jarrett became a headline but for at least a decade before, I’d been listening to young black men from my neighborhood, Brooklyn, Harlem and the Bronx compare notes about run-ins with NYPD or about being sent upstate and to Rikers. Much apparently hasn’t changed since I was a kid.

The New York Civil Liberties Union on Feb. 11, 2009 released an analysis of NYPD data showing that the department stopped and frisked more than two million people—roughly the population of Brooklyn—over the last five years. In each of those years, 50 percent of all persons stopped were black. And although the NYCLU will release their ages in a separate report later this year, it’s a safe bet that most who were stopped and frisked were 25 and under. That is abnormal, this American way of rearing adolescents of color.

After the funeral I rarely, if ever, heard Jarrett’s name again. It was like Jarrett had existed for two weeks only, from the day he died to the evening when a line of young black men stepped to the funeral home’s mic, not to spit lyrics, but to say goodbye. I never felt the need to say goodbye; I didn’t know him after all. But an unexpected admission erupted out of me a couple of years later.

I was vacationing with a couple of school friends who were not Americans. The United States was thousands of miles across the ocean in fact, and I was grateful for the distance and its accompanying freedom. Late one night, during one of our meandering talk sessions, I spoke about Jarrett and then, for the first time, how it felt to be policed. I’d pause for breath, and there’d be silence. I’d stop to shake my head and review everything I was saying, and there’d be silence.

It felt like I was flushing everything out—the fear, the anger, the resentment, the confusion. I don’t know how long I talked but when I was done, I felt better.

Carla Murphy attends the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and will graduate in December 2009. She is a print student specializing in urban reporting. Some of her work and interests can be seen here and here.

About Carla Murphy