Bullet holes & torn lives

The first time I remember meeting my little cousin Dwayne, he tried to stab me. Dwayne was 5 years old. I was 9, I think.

I had gone out West with my mother and father to spend a week or so visiting with my relatives, meeting some of them for the first time. While I was there, my mother dropped me off with my Aunt Jean, Dwayne’s mother, for an overnight visit. I remember I was sitting in the living room watching TV with two older cousins, Rowena and Jeannette, and Dwayne. After a while, I guess, Dwayne got tired of watching TV, so he sauntered off toward his room in the back of the house, motioning with his finger for me to follow. Then again, maybe he just said, “C’mon.” Something like that. It’s been a long time.

However it happened, I wound up following Dwayne to his room. He said he wanted to play. I figured sure. Once I got in the room, Dwayne closed the door behind me. That’s when I noticed he was holding a knife. I think it was a kitchen knife, nothing sexy like a switchblade, but it was still a knife and Dwayne was looking up at me from about four feet away, saying, “I’m gonna stab you,” then awkwardly jabbing in my direction. He said it several times in his small, raspy voice — not much different from the raspy voice he has today, except not as deep — and each time he said it he jabbed at me with the knife and took nervous little steps in my direction.

“I’m gonna stab you.”

Not knowing why in the hell my little cousin wanted to stab me before he’d gotten the chance to know me a little better, I was scared and confused. This wasn’t making sense. I called out for Aunt Jean at the top of my lungs. Next thing I knew the door banged open so hard it almost ripped off its hinges. Aunt Jean stormed into the room, saw the knife pointed at me, and her eyes caught fire. She snatched Dwayne off his feet like a rag doll, took him just outside the room and wore his behind out, yelling at him the whole time. Jeannette and Rowena never even looked away from the television. Rowena, the gentlest one in the family, later explained to me that Dwayne never would have really stabbed me, he was just trying to be like the older boys in the neighborhood. She was pretty sure they’d been schooling him on how to use a knife on someone, and Dwayne was just trying out his newfound skills.

“Oh. OK.”

About 25 years later, when I was working as a reporter in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., not long before I moved to Detroit, I received word that Dwayne had been shot through the head while sitting in a car in front of the same house where he’d once tested his new skills on me. The bullet, which shattered the car’s rear window, entered from behind his ear and exited out the front — and he survived. Dwayne was a member of the Crips, so the family suspected the attempted hit was gang-related. No arrests were ever made.

Another relative wasn’t so lucky. On the same day that Dwayne got shot, my cousin Sheldon was shot and killed in a totally unrelated incident far away on the other side of town. Sheldon didn’t belong to any gang, and the murder was never officially solved, although we heard that it was his girlfriend’s mother who did him in on the sidewalk in front of her home. Sheldon — I don’t think he even reached 20 — was Jeannette’s son, my Aunt Jean’s grandson. Poor Aunt Jean lost her grandson and almost lost her son to gun violence in the hood on what should have been a happy December day between Christmas and New Year’s.

I haven’t been in touch with Dwayne for years, but I heard from another cousin that he has since left the city and moved out to the suburbs with his girlfriend. He apparently found work and is trying to raise a son. I’m hoping he hangs on and hangs in. My Aunt Jean died recently.

Here in Detroit, when I read about the nearly 400 murders, almost all involving guns, that happened last year — and that’s in addition to the more than 1,000 other shootings that took place — it’s hard for me not to think of my Aunt Jean and how two guns tore her life apart and acquainted her with a depth of pain that I hope I never, ever have to experience. Here in Detroit, it is hard for me to imagine that just in the space of one year there were more than 1,400 similar family tragedies written in blood on this city’s streets. I’m not sure there’s any cleansing agent strong enough to wipe away all that blood, especially when it seems like more blood is spilled just as soon as one stain is nearly erased. And even when the blood and the stench of it are gone, the brutal, anguished memories remain lodged in the hearts and spirits of the ones left behind.

So what can we do about it? Anything?

Last month City Councilwoman Sharon McPhail announced her candidacy for mayor. Former Detroit Police Chief Benny Napoleon, who’s on board to serve as deputy mayor if she is elected, said that the crime rate in Detroit would be cut by half during the first term of a McPhail-Napoleon administration.

Oh, really?

I mean, it’s nice to recognize that violent crime is near the top of the list of Detroit voters’ concerns, but it hardly seems likely that any mayor can bring down crime that much in the space of four years — especially when the city is dealing with a budget deficit of more than $200 million. But it does sound good, doesn’t it? Yeah. Long as it sounds good.

Last year, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick joined a group of ministers and community leaders for a prayer vigil following one particularly horrendous murder. The vigil was held to beseech God’s intervention and a heightened (Christian) spirituality among Detroiters to combat the violence. Although some applauded the appeal to God, many others questioned the tactic, saying it looked as if the mayor didn’t really know what to do about the violence. Better get on your knees, y’all, ’cause that’s the best chance we’ve got.

The image of our mayor beseeching the Lord to come save us may have made some residents feel safer and more protected, but I count myself among those who felt a chill. Nothing against an almighty God, and I’m not questioning the power of the mayor’s faith nor am I questioning his sincere desire to stop the violence the best way he can, but I didn’t vote for a pastor four years ago. Besides, even the Bible says that “faith without works is dead.” Now that we’ve seen the demonstration of faith, we need to see the works — and quickly, please.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said last year that we need to “change the culture” in Detroit if we are to have any hope of stemming the violence. I agree wholeheartedly, but specifically how does one go about changing the culture of a city where nearly four people per day are shot?

Screw Superbowl 2006, and the hell with Campus Martius. How will we ever clean up all this blood?

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]
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