Two years ago this week, we were with Derrick. He was 15 then. Young and impressionable and in search of living a good life with strong direction. He had asked my husband, Evan, to baptize him.
The two of them stood outside the church that Sunday for pictures beforehand. Both wore jumpsuits - crisp white to symbolize the birth of a fresh, pure life.
Derrick was smiling wide, unsure of which camera to look at. I'm pretty sure he got a haircut for the big event. He was antsy. A little nervous. Mostly excited. He was the first in his family to be baptized. A few months later his mother and sister would do the same.
He hung out with us often, sometimes taking several buses to get to our place. He would frequently tease me about Evan in a way that made him sound like a cool teenager while trying to hide that he really wanted to know how to be more like him.
Derrick would be silly. He had a boisterous laugh that sounded a bit like a horse's whinny. And a smile that seemed to stretch across his whole face.
When he lived close by, I would often drop him off at his house and wouldn't drive off until I was sure he got safely into his home. He wasn't living in a very bad neighborhood. I was just worried about him.
Derrick would wave a forceful goodbye in a way that said in Teenager, "Okayyyy, you can leave nowwww." I would call Evan.
"I'm so worried about him," I would always say. "He's SO GOOD. I'm just worried that he's the kid who will accidentally be in the wrong place at the wrong time and get killed."
This Monday, exactly two years after he was baptized, that's what happened. Derrick was 17 years old.
About a year ago, Derrick's family moved to south central L.A. We didn't see him much. His new bishop told me that over the last few months, Derrick had become silent and kept to himself. He'd been hanging out with a new set of friends that his mom would describe as "the wrong crowd," and he even spent a few nights in juvenile detention. Again, Derrick had me worried.
Although there is still little information about his death, police suspect Derrick was approached by a gunman while walking along the street by his home. Gunshots were reported and police soon arrived to find him lying on the sidewalk.
I've had a slew of thoughts rushing through my head these last few days. I've cried the mother's wail. I've scrolled through old pictures in disbelief of this new reality. Mostly I've sat in shocked silence.
And today, with the continued national reports of race and violence, I can't help but wonder: If Derrick were white, would people already be familiar with his story? Have the circumstances of his death become all too common that it's not newsworthy? Are the shooting deaths of young black men now "status quo?"
Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times released its annual homicide report. According to its analysis:
The face of who gets killed [in Los Angeles has] unchanged over the seven years of homicides.
Men account for nearly 85 percent of homicide victims. One of every three males killed is between the ages of 17 and 25. Latinos, about half of the county's population, account for nearly half of all killings since 2007. One of every three males killed is between the ages of 17 and 25. Blacks, just eight percent of the county's residents, remain disproportionately affected, accounting for 32 percent of homicides. Last year, black people in L.A. County were killed at more than seven times the rate of all other racial and ethnic groups combined. The homicide rate for blacks has remained stubbornly high even as homicides have plummeted in the county from 941 the year Homicide Report began to 594 last year.
This part is worth repeating: "One of every three males killed [in Los Angeles] is between the ages of 17 and 25."
I want to stop worrying about these boys.
Tonight we will head to a candlelight vigil for my friend Derrick Owens. His family has asked that everyone attending the vigil wear his favorite colors - black and gray.
I like to imagine that he'll be there too. Wearing white.
Originally posted on the author's Facebook page.