Colbert King has had a bee in his bonnet. When his paper, The Washington Post, and all the other news media, became consumed with the disappearance of Chandra Levy, he tried to provide an alternative perception in writing about the numerous children of color killed in our nation's Capital who never received that attention. When her body was finally discovered in Rock Creek Park, King revisited the subject, and has from time to time touched on the invisibility of deaths of so many in this city. Since the announcement earlier this week that the DC Metropolitan Police believe they have solved the Levy case, I have been waiting for today, Saturday morning, when King's column appears on the op ed page. I expected him to write some kind of response. In that I was not disappointed. But I acknowledge my surprise when I read Unsolved Murders, Unbroken Grief, because King offers more than a dozen paragraphs before mentioning the Levy case. Instead he talks about a brutal murder that took place in 1949, when he was ten of an 8 year old Black boy from his neighborhood, that was never solved.
Are some people's lives worth more than those of others?
I am not going to quote much from the column by King. You can read it easily enough. He notes that Levy's parents have said while an arrest obviously won't bring her back, at least they are getting the truth. King then notes
Would that the same could be said for the Washingtonians still haunted by what happened to that 8-year-old boy in 1949.
And they aren't alone when it comes to people left adrift by unsolved murders in the nation's capital. A case is considered "cold," Hughes said, when it remains unsolved for three years or more. Out of approximately 10,700 D.C. homicides from 1968 to 2005, said Hughes, "3,700 are open cold cases."
Nine of those unsolved murders occurred in 2001, the year Levy was killed. They, however, remain as cold as ice.
Those 3,700 unsolved murders aren't famous cases. You probably haven't heard of most of them and maybe wouldn't recognize any of the victims' faces. They're just black or brown blurs.
But that doesn't mean they aren't missed.
I stopped when I read the words I have just quoted.
They're just black or brown blurs. And despite the fact that the city is heavily of color, the names and faces are subsumed into statistics, not part of the landscape observed by most of us.
At least with the deaths in Iraq we eventually see the pictures, in uniform, of those who died. And when we look and read we discover how many of them are people of color: black and brown, with Hispanic and Asian surnames. At least these are noted, and we acknowledge the loss. And by that we also acknowledge that they are missed, unlike those black or brown blurs.
Perhaps I am more touched by King's concern because of my own life. After all, I teach in a county that abuts the District's most violent neighborhoods, so much so that the County Police and the city's police work in a joint task force on violent crime so that the artificial line that is the border between them not serve as a barrier to solving and hopefully occasionally preventing the kinds of crimes that lead to the deaths that to other are just black or brown blurs. My workdays are in a classroom, where of my 180+ students, well over 100 would qualify as black or brown or even in the racist classification of my youth yellow, and none of them are blurs to me.
Since I began teaching in that school system on Dec. 8, 1995, I have had students who have suffered violent deaths in their families. We have seen students from the two schools in which I taught arrested for murder, several who were not yet 16, And neither of those schools had a reputation for violence. In only one case, where two students killed an older Vietnamese man as he walked back from the Metro station at night, did was the story worthy of mention in the edition of the Washington Post I receive in northern Virginia, and that was of the slaying of the Vietnamese man. I know of no case that made the evening news. Instead we here of the statistics, the number of murders, perhaps occasionally the names of the perpetrators if they are arrested and if their actions can be attributed to gang action.
In the years since Chandra Levy's disappearance, there has been a slight increase in the number of times the Post has had stories of the deaths of children of color. Still, far too often the "hook" is less the death of the child than it is the nature of the crime - the innocent child killed as collateral damage in a gang event such as a drive-by shooting.
Collateral damage. That term by itself demeans the life lost, even as the story might intend to give some recognition. It is chillingly reminiscent of how the deaths of many in Iraq and Afghanistan die by our actions without a full acknowledgment of the tragic waste of humanity.
Returning again to King's column, he reminds us of the high percentage of unsolved murders. And while the 8 year old from 1949 was not in his family nor did he even know the boy, he puts that loss, that unsolved crime, into a context that can connect all of us:
Untold numbers of people in this city have, as Levy's parents did, lost part of their world to violence. They may still smile or laugh at something, but they remain locked in their private suffering, as if the murder had just occurred.
The horror never goes away.
I think about Harrison and feel that way.
The horror never goes away.
Not just any random 8 year old. A person, who had a full name:
8-year-old Harrison McKinley Walker
who had he lived would now be in his late 60s, older than am I. Who would have had a life that might have enriched the lives of others. Whose killer was never punished. Whose family never got the kind of closure now being given to the parents of Chandra Levy, Whose crime, as violent as it was, did not receive the application over years of many police resources in an attempt to solve. Who, were it not for Colbert King, not even rise to the level of a blur, whose face is lost to most of us, white or black or brown.
King worries about the possible thousands of uncaught murderers of those whose 3,700 deaths since 1968 that remain unsolved still wandering among us. He closes with two brief lines:
Still among us.
It's like that Sunday evening in October '49 all over again.
Another thought comes to my mind as I read and reflect upon King. It is a line from John Donne, from the famous meditation that includes the idea that No man is an island. It is this:
any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.
I acknowledge that I cannot individually mourn each death of my own community, or of those connected to me even once removed through family and friends. Still, I accept the idea of the universality of loss, as expressed by Donne.
I do not accept something else. I am unwilling to diminish myself by demeaning the importance of others. I cannot ignore the deaths of others by relegating them to the category of just black or brown blurs. If I do, I become an accomplice after the fact in the brutality they have suffered, in the loss suffered by those who knew them, and who - unlike the parents of Chandra Levy and other high profile (and far too often disproportionally white) victims of violence do not receive attention and hence never get closure.
I looked for King's column today, because I somehow knew this was a topic he would revisit. I expected this, but I am still surprised. And I am grateful for the surprise, that he chose to provide the context from which he has been writing. But that is not the surprise I felt, to discover what he has carried inside himself for more than half a century.
No, my surprise is the depths of my own response. It transcends the mental acknowledgment of the reality about which King writes. It reminds me of my interconnectedness with all of humanity, however distant. And of how much I lose each time a life anywhere is cut short by violence of any kind. It is one more person whom I might never have encountered, such an encounter enabling me to "answer that of God" in that absolutely unique image and likeness of God, no matter how distorted the person's actions might have tarnished that image. I am selfish. Such a death means I am somehow less.
King tells us that The horror never goes away. It should not, lest we lessen our own humanity.
UPDATE in a comment, Edgewater (h/t) offers this link where you can actually see the faces of many of those whose murders remain unsolved. If you go to the link, click on a year and you will see a list of names. If you click on name, you will get a pdf, and the ones which I downloaded added faces to those names.