This week, I attended the funeral of Marquise Ortiz, a 19 year old college student who was gunned down a few blocks from a party last week in South LA. It was incredibly sad. He broke free of all of the temptations and trappings of gang life to make it to college. He was a "symbol of hope," as one friend put it, because he made it to college and was going places. I met the charming kid just once, when he was working a summer job set up by my non-profit.
I feel compelled to say something about him, to try to articulate the devastation caused by his violent death on his family, friends and community. I want to put into words the importance of his life and to communicate my sense that, while things are getting better here in LA, we are capable of doing so much more to transform inner-city communities into healthy, safe places to live.
Marquise clearly inspired a lot of people. Around 1,000 people were at the funeral, telling stories of his hard work, dreams of going into film, love of animals and sports, and his commitment to God.
Yet, I find the story incredibly difficult to tell. I have no dramatic "before and after" pictures akin to an earthquake in Haiti. People from the suburbs have little personal experience with such violence and people from the inner-city are often numb to it. I have no real or symbolic picture of a villain to hold up. The usual suspects in such killings are kids from our community who could have been saved at some point in their lives not that long ago. Their horrible acts of violence only increase the sadness. I worry that the story of Marquise feels like one more drop added to an ocean of dysfunction, tragedy and failure in our inner-cities.
Instead of one picture, I think it takes 1,000 pictures to tell this story right. I want to lay 500 pictures of Marquise side by side, showing him growing up and playing baseball with pure joy; pictures of him surrounded by gangs and violence, having the inner-strength to make the right choices in life. Perhaps some of these pictures would remind people of their own family members and provide a connection for outsiders to stand up to help kids who are usually ignored. Perhaps such pictures would provide a connection for those in the inner-city to remember hope.
And 500 pictures of the killer. I know -- that is a much harder, complex task because no one wants to, in any way, excuse monster-like behavior. And we seldom have the courage to look at that killer and realize how intertwined his or her life is with Marquise's life. But if we lined up those 500 pictures, and saw the young child growing up in a dysfunctional home and acting out, what would surprise most of us is that the killer would remind us of our children. We would feel a connection and realize that he or she -- at that moment in time -- was not that different from our child. We would then see a picture of the killer as a teenager, acting out in more extreme ways, but in a way we could connect with. We would see that he or she was not that different from our kids, or our kids' friends, acting out in pretty extreme ways as teenagers. And when we lined up all of those pictures, we would see 2, 4, 10 perhaps 50 chances when we, as a community, could have instilled a proper attitude, discipline, and love in that kid that would have most likely prevented Marquise's death.
We would realize that fixing this problem comes with very mixed emotions. We despise the murder and the murderer and we yearn for that person to be held accountable in the most severe way. It would be wrong to blame ourselves or others in any way for the act of an individual. Yet, we see the complete story. We see in that person a reflection of how our own lives and own families could have easily veered off path at various crucial points in our lives. And, we recognize that, if we don't do better at engaging people we currently ignore or are afraid of, somewhere within the time-line shown by those 500 pictures, we will continue to relive this sad story thousands of times every year in our nation.