MAXWELL:  When we murder one of our own

9/2/1998- Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Another black child is dead.

This time, he is 17-year-old Eric Lamont Gaye. He was shot in the back in cold blood at about 2 a.m. Sunday.

According to the St. Petersburg Times, Eric, along with a friend, was ordering food at the walk-up window of Red’s Snak Shak, 1701 16th St. S, when gunfire rained from a passing car. His friend, Kizzy Davis, 19, was shot in the leg, treated at the hospital and released.

I did not know Eric, a junior at St. Petersburg High School. I know people who did. Those with whom I spoke said that he was a good boy and that he had pumped iron all summer in hopes of playing football for the Green Devils.

Each time a child dies so senselessly, I have increasing difficulty coming up with words to capture the essence of the tragedy. I have asked people who knew Eric to describe him. All agreed that he was a good kid. That he was soft-spoken and liked to watch videos and spend time with his family and girlfriend. That he dreamed of being an architect. That he wanted to be a father and had already bought a crib for the baby his girlfriend will have any day now.

Eric knew the streets of the south side, knew the people there and thought that he was safe. And, like other American teens, he believed that he would live forever.

Friends tell me that I would have liked him. The smile on his face in Times’ photos tells me that he was a congenial young man. His mother loved him deeply. And from all indications, he was in love with his girlfriend.

I regret his death as I regret the death of any youngster. For me, a black man, a father and a grandfather, the death of a young black male at the hands of another young black male is the ultimate crime _ and loss. I take Eric’s death personally. As hard as blacks try to be non-monolithic, we are bound together by skin color and the collective experience of being outsiders.

We are a family as much as many other groups _ Jews, Cubans, Russians, West Indians _ are families. We are a brotherhood, albeit a dysfunctional one. And we, black males, are an endangered species.

The south side of St. Petersburg exploded after a white cop shot and killed TyRon Lewis nearly two years ago, within a stone’s throw of where Eric was shot. Because TyRon was killed by a white, we felt violated, outraged. Because Eric was shot by fellow blacks (yes, some of us know his killers), we are back to business as usual. I stood outside of Red’s the day after Eric was shot to capture a sense of the customers’ moods.

What were they thinking? Did they, too, feel regret and loss?

I do not think so. I witnessed the same old shucking and jiving. No outrage. No desire to burn down buildings. Apparently, fratricide is a tolerable crime among many of us _ an acceptable sin. Anthony Smith, who works at Red’s Snak Shak and who is the owner’s son, said this about Eric’s shooting: “I heard gunshots. I just took it as someone shooting in the air until I looked down and saw him.”

Just took it as someone shooting in the air? In other words, gunshots are so common in this part of town that residents take them for granted. Is this how a civilized community reacts to gunshots?

In addition to taking such violence for granted, we also use a double standard when dealing it. When a white kills a black, we react swiftly. When we murder one of our own, we mutter lame socio-babble in an effort to explain away our own culpability. Or we remain silent.

Where are the Uhurus and their news conference condemning those who gunned down Eric? Are they planning a march along 16th Street S? Will they help the police find these killers? What about the NAACP? And what about black churches? What messages will come from their pulpits this Sunday and on Sundays to come?

Will the police chief, a black man born and reared in St. Petersburg, finally say something publicly to help the black community start accepting its responsibility for taking care of itself? Or will he continue to issue Goliath-speak?

White people are not killing our children. We are killing our own children. We are killing ourselves. We have no one to blame but ourselves for the carnage. White people cannot save us from ourselves. Not the mayor. Not the governor.

We must find ways to stop the killing of our children. Eric Lamont Gaye, a good kid, should not have died in a hail of gunfire. He should be here to watch his child grow.