It took me a few minutes to fully grasp what Marcia Holmes told me. She told me that 23-year old Ashley Patrice Cheval, gunned down in a gang related crossfire attack in South Central Los Angeles a week earlier, was her daughter. At the time, I vaguely remembered a brief news report on the killing. But it was just another of many reports of violence I heard in recent weeks in Los Angeles. It rated the barest of passing note, and quickly passed from my radarscope.
Marcia had been an active participant in our weekly public issues roundtables for the past few years, and in that time we had become friends. Now as I listened to her tell her tale of suffering, the pain and loss she felt hit home with me. Ashley was a college educated, real estate professional, and Marcia's only child. In short, she was another among the growing legion of innocents that have fallen victim to senseless violence in Los Angeles and America's big cities. There are more of them than in the past decade.
Nationally, the FBI in its latest crime report notes a spike up in murders from 2004 to 2005. That's the biggest percentage jump in 15 years. Every big city has been hit and hit hard by the violence plague. The prime victims are young black males, but they are not the only ones. Children, and young women such as Ashley, have also been victims. They are not being gunned down by Neo-Nazis, the Klan, or the police, but by black killers. That was the case with Marcia's daughter.
But Marcia did not call me to get sympathy or compassion, although I had plenty of that to offer. She called with a novel idea. She wanted to make a public plea for a dialogue with the killers, and other gang members that have wreaked terror and mayhem in black communities. Marcia wants justice for her daughter, but that does not mean revenge or retribution. She did not demand to lock em up and throw away the key, or as many family members of murder victims have loudly demanded that they be quickly dispatched. She wants to understand why they commit their terrible acts. But she also genuinely believes that these individuals are in pain too, and desperately need help to turn their lives around.
Marcia has no illusion that the killers will risk arrest and imprisonment and come forth, or that a dialogue alone will do much to halt the spiraling violence. She does hope that if a dialogue can save one life then it is worth the effort. And why not try? More prisons and police have not stemmed urban violence. Neither have tougher laws, dragnets, barricades, and street sweeps.
Marcia's search for an answer to the big, tough and tormenting problem of why so many young black men slaughter each other at an alarming rate must begin with this understanding. They are not by nature violent or crime prone. They are not killing each other simply because they are poor and oppressed.
When the violence implosion that drives many black males to indulge their murderous impulses on their community, they are often taking out their pent-up frustrations, that have no other outlet, on those whom they perceive as helpless and hapless as themselves. The twisted psychological forces that turn black aggression inward are not due to personality flaws, or a racial aberration, but more likely are a warped response to deprivation, blocked opportunities, powerlessness and alienation.
Many of those who tuck guns in their waistbands and shoot-up their neighborhoods, or pump bullets into innocents hardly flinch at the prospect of doing a long stretch in prison if caught. There are troubling reasons why they have no fear of jail, death, and being universally reviled as cowards, predators and, of late, urban terrorists. Many actual or wanna-be gang members feel that no one cares whether they live or die. Their belief that their lives are devalued fosters disrespect for the law and forces them to internalize anger and displace aggression onto others.
Another powerful ingredient in the mix of murderous violence is the gang and drug plague. Much of the recent escalation in the murder rates can be directly traced to busted drug deals, competition over markets and disputes over turf. Gangs will terrorize residents, and commit senseless murders to imprint their name on neighborhoods.
The stark reality is that with near double-digit joblessness among young blacks and continued high drop out rates, the slashes in skills training, recreation, and gang prevention programs has been another cause of the violence surge.
Marcia's plea for a dialogue with her daughter's killers and those who terrorize black communities is not simply a mother's effort to forge healing and reconciliation out of her personal tragedy. It's a deep and sincere effort to bring a small measure of peace to communities torn by violence.
It's an urgent plea of hope. It's a plea that screams out for a response.
The Ashley Cheval Memorial Fund
Culver City, California 91522
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of the forthcoming, The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006), a hard-hitting look at Bush and The GOP's court of black voters. www.blackgopbook.com