I was reading at home about 2 a.m. Thursday when I heard gunshots coming from Midtown. I assumed yet another black person had killed another black person. And when I heard the helicopter a short time later, I knew for sure.
I used to be a cops reporter, and the habits of that gritty beat are hard to break. I dressed, retrieved a notebook and a couple of pens and drove to the crime scene, the Ninth Street Pool Hall, 1149 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. S.
When I arrived, the body of the victim, Marquell Burge, 30, had been removed. A handful of bystanders milled about, but I later learned a large crowd had been there before the police came. I wrote a few notes, drove home and went to bed.
At daylight, I returned to the crime scene. About 30 people, mostly young males, were in the parking lot behind the pool hall and along both sides of the street. A couple of men sat on an old couch. A bunch of flowers, a memorial, rested on the spot where Burge had fallen. Many of the men were drinking and talking and laughing loudly. A woman walked past the flowers, giving them wide berth.
Observing the scene from my vehicle, I realized I was witnessing a spontaneous carnival, perhaps a perverted celebration of death. How else do you explain it, having a good old time where a man had been gunned down and robbed hours before?
I returned to the crime scene at noon and again around 5:30 p.m., when the crowd had grown to several dozen. I drove around the neighborhood. Everywhere, small groups of men and women stood around talking and laughing. I parked and walked along 11th Avenue, listening and looking at faces. The closer I looked, the more I realized that many faces in the crowds were those of teens and young children. These kids, now out of school for the day, had joined the carnival.
I know why this old cops reporter was disturbed by the scene: I always have been deeply concerned about what is happening to our young people who continually witness violence. What are they learning about the nature of violence in their lives? Are they becoming numb to violent death? What are they apprehending about the value of human life?
Burge's death reached far beyond that dusty parking lot. Police said people seeking revenge went to the house, 1252 Eighth Ave. S, where the suspected murderer was thought to be and sprayed the place with semiautomatic rifles. Six children, ages 2 to 15, were inside. They were not hit. I do not believe they will forget the experience. How will it affect them over time? Where were their parents?
A few weeks earlier, Nicholas Lindsey, 16, was charged with shooting and killing St. Petersburg police Officer David Crawford. The boy had a gun he had bought off the street. What kind of environment makes it possible for a 16-year-old to buy a gun off the street? I heard a local black high school student say during a TV interview that many black teens in St. Petersburg own guns for protection. These mere children need protection from what? Sadly, they need protection, or think they need protection, from fellow teens.
Few black children will forget the death of 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton last year in Midtown. She was shot and killed when a gang of thugs seeking revenge unloaded 50 bullets into the house where she slept.
Calls to improve the community and make life safer for children went forth. Meetings and summits and marches were held. The city renamed a street for Paris. Residents and leaders vowed to do better. Now, in the wake of Officer Crawford's death, black leaders again have organized summits and other events aimed at reaching black youngsters.
Mayor Bill Foster, asking the so-called faithful to pray as he always does, has gotten into the act. Foster had even visited young Lindsey in his home and mistakenly believed that the boy had escaped the pull of violent street life.
The mayor, preachers, City Council members, county commissioners, teachers, judges, social workers and other outsiders cannot save black children. These children will be saved or lost based on the moral and ethical environment in their homes. The adults in these children's lives must teach, without apology or equivocation, what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, what is admirable and what is contemptible.
A carnival should not follow the death of a person in a debris-strewn parking lot behind a pool room. No child should feel like a big man because he owns a gun. These are the wrong values.
Being good — yes, I said it, being good — must become a habit. Call me old-fashioned and an Uncle Tom. I do not care. The hard truth is that black people are responsible for their children. We must teach our children that by being good and virtuous, they can live long and well.