The Raging Silence
In North Philadelphia, the cost of speaking out against violence might be your life. But keeping quiet has a steep price, too.
Something strange in the air that morning, something in the angle of the February light, or the scarcity of clouds, later led people to call the daylight “broad.”
Parents hustled their children into North Philadelphia’s Pierce Elementary School, a bright spot in an otherwise bleak neighborhood. Children played and waited for class to start. A teenage girl with colorful braids wandered into the intersection of 23rd and Cambria, off a corner of the school, and a crossing guard called to her: Move it, young lady. That’s unsafe.
The girl flipped a reply over her shoulder: “My bad.” The crossing guard, 55-year-old Debra Smith, just rolled her eyes. She called that time of day “rush hour for kids,” but she considered each child her own.
A white Chevy minivan pulled to a stop at the intersection. The woman behind the wheel double-parked, like several other parents that morning. Never mind a ticket; the cops in North Philly have more to do than hand out parking citations at 8 a.m. outside a school.
Two blocks away, in a rowhouse on Lehigh Avenue, Faheem Childs checked his face in the mirror one last time: No fuzz yet, but he still had plenty of time for that. The 10-year-old tucked in his shirt — he liked to stay neat — and misted himself with his favorite cologne, the kind in the blue bottle. He galloped down the stairs, glanced at the clock — time for school to start — and sang out to his sisters, “You all are gonna be late. I’m gonna run.” He hated to be late. He was in third grade.
Just as Faheem approached the school, Debra Smith helped a batch of children across 23rd Street. There was some slight commotion — someone shouting something — as she turned back for the next batch. Suddenly: gunshots. From where? Smith dropped to her hands and knees on the crosswalk, crawling to the children. More gunshots, dozens, whipping the air overhead. She ferried the children across for a moment, then told them to run. What could she do, hold up a little stop sign? Scores of bullets now. Smith crawled behind a car and tried to hide.
The double-parked mother saw a man in tan boots and a red and white shirt run past her van, firing his gun. Parents fled. Across the street, an old man watched from a doorway’s shadow — two groups of three or four shooters maneuvered around the intersection, firing wildly as they backed off, dodged, trying not to get shot themselves.
Bullets burrowed into a gold van, a black compact car, a truck. One bullet hit a Ford Expedition so hard that it lodged inside the motor. Another hit a side-view mirror with such velocity that it punched a hole through the glass without shattering it. And one bullet found Debra Smith’s right foot, rending the tissue and fracturing her fifth metatarsal bone, along the outside edge.
Another bullet, dispatched from the muzzle of a semiautomatic .45-caliber pistol, flickered along the fence surrounding the school. It passed between a small set of brick columns, defying mathematical probability, and encountered Faheem Childs’s forehead just above his right eyebrow. It split the skin and soft tissue, then entered the cranium, beveling it inward and sending several fractures along what’s called the orbital plate. It traveled through the frontal, temporal and occipital lobes of the child’s brain, then finally stopped against the back of his skull.
And there it was. Something strange in the air, that morning: a copper-colored bullet, both horrible and symbolic. Horrible in its power to forever close a little boy’s eyes, and symbolic in its power to blind the parents, neighbors, passersby who saw its flight. Because it’s not the air, or sun, or angles that make daylight go suddenly broad. It’s the witnesses.
NORTH PHILADELPHIA SERVED, once, as a pedestal for power and glamour in the city. Following the Gilded Age, immigrant industrialists — often German Jews — settled there, made money there, and spent it there on elaborate homes, good restaurants, and nightclubs where residents could hear an exotic new music called jazz spill out onto the streets.
As industry in the city started to fade, the factories and their owners moved on, but the jazz stayed. The area evolved into a middle-class and mostly black neighborhood, faded from its 1920s glory but still a thriving place, with shops and jobs and clubs where John Coltrane could be heard tooting his sax now and then. People flocked into the ballpark on Lehigh Avenue, where the Phillies played.
Everything changed one evening in August 1964, when a car broke down near the intersection of 22nd Street and Columbia Avenue. Two policemen — one white, one black — arrived and told the driver, a black woman named Odessa Bradford, to step out of her car. When she refused, they tried to physically remove her, and a crowd formed to watch. A bystander stepped in to aid Bradford, but after a scuffle, the cops arrested them both.
A rumor rolled like thunder over North Philadelphia: Two white policemen had beaten to death a pregnant black woman. The crowd grew into a mob, and the mob started to riot, far outnumbering the police assigned to patrol the neighborhood. The riot continued for days, as residents smashed windows and looted stores, and police stood aside.
When the anger finally subsided, a vibrant commercial strip in North Philadelphia lay ruined. It never returned. Even the beloved Phillies, who were enjoying a magical season that summer, folded, suffering a legendary 10-game losing streak that cost them the pennant, and they soon left the neighborhood altogether. North Philadelphia stumbled to its knees and never quite stood up again.
The riots of 1964 proved two things: first, that in North Philadelphia a breach had opened between neighborhood residents and police, who stood powerless in the face of a community in revolt. And, second, that such a momentous change could announce itself with a single incident on an otherwise quiet day.
JUST BEFORE CHRISTMAS 2003 — a couple months before Faheem’s shooting — doctors in the emergency room at Temple University Hospital admitted a young man with a gunshot wound, unaware that in doing so they were tumbling into a long-running and ultimately lethal gun battle.
The young man gave his name as Rafiq Hunter, age 20, and doctors set to work on him right away. During a shoot-out on the corner of 26th and Indiana, a bullet had entered the young man’s hip and zinged through his guts, making for a messy and dangerous surgery.
Doctors repaired the damage and sewed up Rafiq’s wounds. The young man convalesced for a few days at the hospital, but midway through his treatment, he swung his legs from the hospital bed and — against arguments from the staff — took off. He left the hospital and all of North Philadelphia, hiding and recuperating in the south of the city at a friend’s apartment. He reassumed his real identity: 22-year-old Kareem Johnson.
Throughout his recuperation, Johnson plied his friends and caretakers with a single question. “Have you seen Cassius?” he asked. “Have you seen him?”
Johnson found himself locked in a duel with rival drug dealer Cassius Broaster, 30, once described by police as one of the worst and most dangerous men in the city. The duel started in 2003, while Johnson was incarcerated, according to police records. A friend of his, who went by the unfortunate name of Collard Green, hustled for money to boost Johnson from jail, until someone robbed and killed Green. Johnson blamed Cassius Broaster. Taniesha Wiggins, a 16-year-old mutual acquaintance, set up hostile three-way phone calls between them while Johnson was in prison; Johnson warned Broaster he was “a dead man.”
Now Cassius had gotten the better of Johnson in a shoot-out. He didn’t heal well, in hiding, and lost a lot of weight. But finally, having regained the strength to walk, Johnson emerged from South Philadelphia. He headed north. He couldn’t hide from Broaster forever, since they both operated in the same small patch of North Philly, so he decided to find his nemesis first. And better to catch him unaware. Vulnerable. Perhaps unarmed. Johnson knew the perfect place: He knew where Cassius dropped off his kid each morning.
On February 11th, Cassius Broaster and his brother, Jerome, eased up to Pierce Elementary in a Lincoln. Other cars, school buses and pedestrians jostled for position. Parents walked faster than their children, who were hunched under their backpacks like tiny Sherpas tasked to carry schoolbooks. The Lincoln pulled to the curb, where a young woman stepped out with a little boy who looked to be a first-grader, and the two of them walked toward the school. About then, Cassius noticed a knot of tough-looking men gathered across Cambria Street, maybe 30 feet away. It included his arch-enemy Kareem Johnson, Johnson’s friend Kennell Spady, and their friends Chris and Rafi. Rafi held a little girl on his shoulder, wearing a small pink coat. He let her down, and she headed toward the school.
When Cassius recognized Johnson, he stepped fast from the Lincoln, pistol in hand, confronting the group. While the old man, the one in the safety of a shadowed doorway across the street, watched, both groups of men drew an incredible array of weapons: From apparently nowhere, like street magicians, they produced an arsenal including a carbine assault rifle and an Uzi-like automatic gun, and started firing.
A radio call went out to police officers in North Philadelphia, relaying the report of a man with a gun on 23rd Street. One of the policemen who heard the call was Eugene Frasier, who arrived to find a scene of utter chaos, a neighborhood that had, apparently, just suffered through a war between two small nations. School buses and cars and homes and even the school itself had been hit. Glass lay everywhere, crunching underfoot as residents dashed from one hiding place to another; empty bullet cartridges carpeted the area, in staggering variety: .45, .30, .357, .38 and 9mm calibers. A woman had been shot in the foot. A child lay shot just inside the schoolyard. A little boy.
Frasier called for an ambulance and stood over Faheem, who remained unconscious but alive. The officer noted that no one was stepping forward to tell him what had happened; the shooters had melted into the silent crowd. Later, District Attorney Lynne Abraham called this moment a historical “tipping point” that announced the new boldness of criminals in Philadelphia. “Here we have a confluence of qualities,” she said. “These men acted in broad daylight, surrounded by dozens of witnesses, with no fear whatsoever.” They knew they could count on the community to keep to itself.
Frasier checked Faheem, calculated his chances of survival — adding for the quickness of his arrival at the scene, adding for the boy’s continued breath, subtracting for the lack of ambulances at hand, subtracting for the size and location of the gunshot wound, for the bit of something pink lying on the sidewalk beside the boy’s head, subtracting, subtracting — and quickly made a decision. Instead of waiting for the ambulance, Frasier scooped up the boy and placed him in the back of a police vehicle.
At the hospital, police searched through the boy’s belongings, looking for anything bearing his name or address. They opened his backpack, and a small, particularly heartbreaking piece of identification fell out.
A FEW MINUTES AFTER Faheem Childs ran to school, two of his sisters followed. Moments later, they returned home, which annoyed their mother, Patricia Arnold. Now they’d be late for sure.
“No, Momma,” one of them said. “We can’t go to school. We think maybe somebody’s been shot.”
Well, for heaven’s sake. What a neighborhood. Patricia sent one of her older daughters to the school with instructions to make sure Faheem was in his seat in class and not out poking around in whatever trouble had befallen the neighborhood that morning. The girl returned a few minutes later with word that neither Faheem nor any of his classmates were in their seats. They were all gathered in the hallways of the school — something really bad must have happened.
About that time, Patricia looked out her window and saw a police car pull up.
No, she thought.
The policeman climbed out of his car, and as he approached the house, Patricia saw him swipe the back of his hand across a runny nose. As he came closer, she saw his eyes were red, and wet.
She opened the door to the officer. “Ma’am,” he said. “I need to take you to the hospital.”
At the hospital, while she waited to go in and see her injured son, Patricia leaned against a table. She let her eye wander over its contents, which were mostly medical records. She noticed one document in particular, a standard outline drawing of a little boy, which pediatric doctors could mark to denote a scrape on this knee, or a boo-boo on that elbow. Standard. Except this chart bore her son’s name, and a mark just above his right eye.
IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE GUN BATTLE at the school, the shooters scattered. They had shot lots but aimed little, and had perforated every feature of the landscape except each other.
The Broasters climbed back into their Lincoln and drove away like ambassadors with diplomatic immunity. Kareem Johnson hid out at a house nearby. Kennell Spady did the same. Later that night, the two men met up in South Philadelphia, at an apartment on 17th Street near Mifflin where several friends and relatives lived. It’s a nondescript gray block of a building, with a locked door that requires any visitors to ring a buzzer. It offered a perfect redoubt.
A wave of witness intimidation had been building in recent years, mostly in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston, where thugs warned people to “stop snitching.” It’s the hard-case version of bumper-sticker philosophy — don’t cooperate, fight the power — and it manifested itself in popular t-shirts bearing the slogan STOP SNITCHING emblazoned over a red octagon. It’s meant to intimidate witnesses who might be tempted to direct police toward bad men; it ended up making a stronger fashion statement. So be it: Fashion comes and goes. But now police working the Faheem case encountered the phenomenon in its tangible form: Someone shot a little boy. Dozens saw it. No one spoke. Authorities offered a $100,000 reward for information about the shooters, but silence smothered the neighborhood, even as Faheem lay in a hospital with tubes piping air into his lungs.
Then, on February 13th, the police received — or appeared to receive — a gift. Taniesha Wiggins, the 16-year-old who set up phone calls between Johnson and Broaster, made a call of her own. “I know the people who did the shooting,” she told detectives. “Where it took place, and where they be at.” Johnson and Spady were putting on a show at the South Philadelphia apartment, acting out the shooting for their friends.
Wiggins met with detectives at the police department, where in a little white-walled room they questioned her on the details of the shooting. She delivered everything she had promised. While she talked, a pair of handcuffs swung from her arm. They didn’t belong to the police; the teenager wore them as a fashion accessory. She thought they looked cool.
Three days after the shooting, early on the morning of Valentine’s Day, a special police team hit the apartment building on 17th Street in South Philadelphia. They rousted Kareem Johnson, Kennell Spady, and their friends who lived at the apartment. They found a .45-caliber pistol there that matched the bullet in Faheem’s head.
Detectives took Spady to an interrogation room, where he sat in a corner, looking casual in a white t-shirt and baggy blue jeans. The detectives gave him a bag of chips, soft drinks and cigarettes. Then they sat back in their chairs as Spady described the schoolyard shooting in the breeziest way, as though telling his friends about a faintly awkward blind date.
He sat relaxed, except when he stood to demonstrate how he carried his carbine rifle. Spady weighs a wispy 120 pounds, but didn’t need a sling, he said, because he hid the gun under his jacket, with the muzzle tucked into the pocket of his blue jeans. He looked like he was demonstrating a clever way to sneak a candy bar into the movies, instead of a rifle into a school zone. Detective Jack Cummings adjusted his interrogation style and language to match Spady’s nonchalance.
“Yeah, it’s hanging up there,” Spady said, demonstrating the concealment.
Cummings looked genuinely impressed. “And the nose — where the bullets come out part — is down in your pocket,” he said.
When Spady and his pals caught Cassius Broaster’s eye that morning at the school, he said, “Cassius hopped out of the car and started talking all this old episode.” Then Jerome Broaster hopped out, and some partner of theirs with a “Sunni beard.”
Then, he said, the shooting started. The .45-caliber bullets and the .38s and the 9mms and all the rest. Same old episode, slightly more exotic locale.
As Spady wrapped up the story, detective Jerry Lynch said lightly that he had just a couple of points to clear up. “Two things,” he started. “You said one of your friends, Rafi, dropped off his kid at the school?”
“Yes,” Spady said.
“Okay. One of the Broasters dropped their kid off at the school too, right?”
Lynch moved quickly to the second point: “But also, additionally, you had said both Broasters and the guy with the Sunni beard all had guns, right?”
Lynch leaned in, incredulous. “As well as yourself, Chris, Rafi. You all had guns too?”
“Okay. That’s all. Thank you very much.”
Spady gave no hint of concern. No slip of wonderment at his own account. He could have been the embodiment of Lynne Abraham’s theory about a tipping point, wherein neighborhood thugs feel no sense of fear, responsibility, or consequence. The detectives just played along.
“You want a sandwich?” Lynch asked Spady. Spady: the man who had just admitted spraying an assault rifle across a crowded schoolyard.
“What kind of sandwich?”
“You tell me. Steak sandwich, cheeseburger, Chinese food?”
Spady considered his options, apparently for the first time that day. “Cheeseburger,” he said.
A MOMENT OF FEELING arose in North Philadelphia when Faheem died five days after his shooting. His face popped up on a mural and in portraits; politicians marched and memorialized; thousands of mourners attended his funeral; money for his family flowed, though it didn’t always reach them.
A certain outrage prevailed, like in the final scene of an old Western film, when the townspeople gather to face down the bad guy: Sure, he’s got the six-shooter, but he can’t kill the whole town. People were tired, sick and tired, and they weren’t going to take it anymore. They would stand up. Speak up. A few did, to police and prosecutors.
But then in September, just a few months later, something happened to belie the apparent spirit of vigil and circumspection. In a rowhouse a couple of blocks from the site of Faheem’s shooting, a woman named Jennie Clark found a note on her dining room table. Her 16-year-old grandson, Lamont Adams, whom she’d raised since he was a baby, had written it. The note read, “Lamont Adams was gunned down, son of Daneen Adams and James Edward Mathis.” Clark called Lamont downstairs and confronted him about it. “Aw, Grandma, I was just sitting down there writing,” he said, snatching it from her hand.
She pressed. “Why would you write something like that? Is somebody threatening you?” she asked. “Is somebody trying to hurt you?”
But Clark worried. She knew he had taken up throwing dice on the sidewalk, gambling with older boys. “You’ve got to stop it, there’s nothing good in it,” she told him. “Baby, those are drug dealers. And they don’t like to lose their money. They’ll kill you for it.”
Lamont gave her his best grin, which was as good as they come. “Naw, they wouldn’t hurt me. We’re friends.”
The next day, on September 23rd, as Lamont stood on the sidewalk of Cambria Street, a car pulled up, and a man climbed out. He shot Lamont, then stood there long enough to fire off another dozen bullets. It happened in sight of Faheem’s school, and it happened in daylight — broad, again — on a block full of witnesses. And this time, the “no snitching” threat lay at the heart of the crime: Word in the neighborhood is that someone killed Lamont for snitching on the local gambling kings.
“Why would they call my boy a snitch?” Jennie Clark says recently at her house. It’s a small rowhome near 27th and Cambria, with all the markings of a place where people long for something more: sofas protected by clear plastic, tidiness bordering on exact, a mirror wall doubling the apparent square footage of the small front sitting room.
“There’s not a day goes by I don’t think about my grandson,” she says, crying. She’s an angry woman. The bitterest part was the way she received the news of Lamont’s death. He was shot a matter of yards from their home, but Clark didn’t notice because she can’t hear well and had the television up loud. At last a passerby knocked on her door and tossed off, “Lamont got shot.” She ran outside to confirm the horrific news, but by then an ambulance had already taken him away. So in his last minutes her boy lay on the sidewalk, dying, while probably scores of folks who knew Lamont, knew her, passed by without involving themselves. Had a half-hour passed? Had a hundred people?
The silence continued, she says, when the police came around looking for Lamont’s killers. She gave a detective’s name and number to Lamont’s friends — those who were with him the day he died, those who would know his killer — but the detective later told her, “None of his friends came forward.”
“You know, the funny thing is,” she starts. Her face belies the figure of speech. “Lamont was born on this block, and he knew just about everybody down here.” But nobody stepped forward, because of what happened to Lamont. “They were afraid it would happen to them.”
And now she sits in her tidy home, at the front window, and stares out at the neighborhood she despises. “Right across the street — that lady right there. Her son was with Lamont the day he got killed,” she says. She reflects. “They’re still here. They’re still walking around breathing. They’ve got a life.”
Across the street, in sight of Jennie Clark’s window, a knot of young men rattle dice against a stoop, clutching fistfuls of cash. Eric Eades is with them; he says he doesn’t gamble, that he just likes to watch. And yes, he knew Lamont. “I knew him since we was young,” he says. His voice and his head drop. “He was cool. Outgoing. Always had a smile on his face.” He pauses a minute, thinking, and says, “It was sad.”
Then his cell phone rings, and he shrugs. He answers it — “Where’re you at?” — and turns back to watch the craps game.
The death of Lamont Adams thumped the neighborhood’s sense of justice, and found it hollow. The politicians had moved on, the memorials had ended, the money had dried up. The moment of feeling was gone.
Prosecutors, in the meantime, readied themselves for the trial of Faheem’s killers. They thought they had a few clear voices, ready to speak. Witnesses.
THEY HAD TANIESHA Wiggins, thank heavens: the girl who had fallen out of the sky and into the eager embrace of the city’s police department.
And they had a handful of others: the Reddicks, who lived in the South Philadelphia apartment where police found Kareem Johnson and Kennell Spady hiding. They had Russell Brown, a 42-year-old man who had been at the site of Faheem’s shooting, and had detailed for police how the shooters confronted each other outside the school.
The trial started this past March. Johnson and Spady’s public defenders argued that the Broaster brothers had fired first, and that Kareem Johnson and Kennell Spady had only fired back in self-defense; the prosecution planned to show that actually, Johnson and Spady had hunted the Broasters in the inner-city version of tall grass: a schoolyard in the morning.
The prosecution’s first witness, Taniesha Wiggins, was now 18 years old. She showed up at court that morning, but just before she took the stand, her father, Devonso Lawson, whispered instructions to her. “Say what I told you to say,” he said, within earshot of disbelieving prosecutors and scribbling reporters. “You don’t remember nothing.”
Throughout Wiggins’s two-hour testimony, Assistant District Attorney Jason Bologna applied the crowbar of evidence — written statements, a videotaped interview with detectives — but Wiggins never cracked. She applied a layer of lip gloss and sat back. She said that the death of Faheem Childs “was long ago,” and then waited until Bologna let go.
Bologna offered the court the story of Nathaniel Giles. The 26-year-old man had purchased a gun that was ultimately used in the shoot-out that killed Faheem. He was cooperating with authorities, until about a month before the trial, when someone killed him.
The next day of the trial, Russell Brown took the stand for the prosecution. He, too, recanted his previous words: “I don’t know where I was at when the shots were fired,” he said on the stand.
Next came the Reddicks, who had told police how on the night of the shooting, Johnson and Spady had re-enacted the scene in their apartment. Watching television news about Faheem’s injury, Jean Reddick had said, “What a shame what happened to that little boy.”
Johnson, she said, had replied, “Fuck them.”
But on the stand, the Reddicks and their friend Sharita Williams downplayed their previous accounts. They said they didn’t remember, or didn’t mean it in the first place.
So even with this trial, even after an initial outpouring of neighborhood rage when Faheem died, fear took over. The judge — Johnson and Spady had asked for a non-jury trial — ultimately found them guilty. But the trial shamed Philadelphia. The 1964 traffic stop of Odessa Bradford had shown a rift between police and the community: a whole cultural shift, revealed through a single incident. Forty years later, the shooting of a third-grader did the same.
“None of the witnesses followed through,” District Attorney Lynne Abraham said. “Not one.”
IN A ROWHOME ON 23rd Street — directly across the sidewalk from where Faheem Childs fell — two angry middle-aged ladies sat recently and plotted a way to take back their neighborhood.
The owner of the house, Dorothy Wright, publishes a newsletter covering her block. The interior of her home, decorated in various animal prints and leathers, seems a continent removed from the hot pavement and overdue trash collection of the neighborhood. Her co-conspirator, Diane Wells, directs the Norristown chapter and is involved with the Philadelphia chapter of Mothers in Charge, an organization for women whose children have died violently. The Philadelphia group started with three people three years ago, and now numbers more than 200. Diane’s son Shawn, for instance, was killed around the corner. He died two blocks from where Lamont Adams did, and for the same flimsy reason: a sidewalk craps game.
A quick tally of the children murdered on this three-block stretch of Cambria Street: Faheem, at 23rd Street. Diane Wells’s boy, near 24th. Lamont Adams, near 26th. That’s a one-child-per-block rate, and not a survey, but simply an accounting of deaths pertinent to this story. There are more.
“Things have changed in the past 10 or 15 years,” Wright says. The killers grow bold. The witnesses grow reluctant. The daylight grows broad.
She grasps for a solution, and finds the police: “I think they need more foot patrols,” she says. “And you have to start with the shooting craps on the corner.” Gambling opens doors to drug dealing, she says, and dealing begets murder.
But even more, the women agree, the revolution must come from within the neighborhood. “First of all, there’s not enough angry people yet. There’s not enough mad people,” Wells says. “Because if they were angry and they were mad, then they would be out here fighting in these streets like we are.”
People may feel anger in their hearts, but remain silent because they’re afraid. Isn’t she afraid?
Wells flinches on the sofa, startled by the idea. “Afraid of what?” she says. “I’ve got to die from something, and if it’s meant for me to die saving a kid, then it’s worth it for me to die.”
Wells’s fervor brings up an uncomfortable question. After Faheem’s death and the debacle of his killers’ trial, editorials in Philadelphia’s newspapers debated the nature of the “stop snitching” idea: Would a comfortable suburban resident really bear witness against a threatening thug? Is it hypocritical to expect the same of inner-city residents?
But that discussion doesn’t really touch the rightness or wrongness of snitching, as Diane Wells sees it — only its degree of ease. Snitching isn’t easy. But it is right: always right. “That’s what I have to do to save my block,” she says. “We do need people to snitch. We do need people to step up.”
So the plot hatched in Dorothy Wright’s living room is far from easy: an army of snitches, formed by grandmothers, schoolchildren, neighbors. A city of snitches. It’s difficult, and possibly deadly. But when enough people get angry — so angry that they’re willing to die snitching — change becomes inevitable.
FAHEEM’S MOTHER, Patricia Arnold, could slice off little pieces of her anger and pass them around to everyone in the neighborhood. She could feed the city with her rage.
Her rowhome on Lehigh Avenue looks like all the others on the block, with their brick fronts and small porches, except this one bears self-inflicted graffiti, scrawled onto the brick in chalk and ink: FAHEEM. RIP FAHEEM. FAHEEM. FAHEEM.
Inside, she sits in an unlit den, with a scarf covering her head and a small fan blowing into the darkness. One of her daughters, these years later, wears a black t-shirt beseeching Faheem to rest in peace.
Patricia Arnold searches for words by which to remember him. “He loved to run,” she whispers. “Yes. Run. And he loved to throw rocks.”
Words aren’t cutting it. So she drags out a blue tote bag full of Faheem memorabilia. A snip of newspaper, a ribbon of some sort. And then suddenly a piece of paper seems to flutter out of its own accord, like a dove. It’s a small envelope. It’s the piece of identification police found in his backpack that day at the hospital. It identifies him as someone’s son.
Faheem’s sister cries openly when she sees it, then leaves the room.
In each corner of the envelope there’s a tiny heart in blue ink, and in the center there’s a message: “I love you, mother.” Inside there’s an undelivered Valentine card, on which a large crimson heart embraces a smaller pink one.
Patricia Arnold remains sitting up as she looks at the card, but she collapses into herself, weeping.
“LOOK HERE,” THE MAN SAYS, desperate. He raises his hand, with his thumb touching the tips of his fingers, as though pantomiming a beak of some sort. The hand comes up, and the beak pecks at his lips. It’s unclear at first what he is doing.
He’s the old man, the man who watched, from the shadows of a doorway, the exchange between shooters on the day Faheem took a bullet to his brain. When first asked about Faheem, though, the man retreats from the sidewalk into a building near Pierce Elementary School. He pleads not to be identified. He doesn’t request, or insist: He pleads.
After the shooting, the man told police what he saw that day, about the argument between the rival thugs and what followed. He laid it out on paper for police, but never testified in court. Now he prefers not to talk about it, or even remember it. He’s afraid.
He starts into a disjointed story about how some time ago, thugs harassed him for snitching on a much lesser crime than the murder of a third-grader. Then abruptly he stops.
“Let me show you something,” he says. He pulls his wallet from a hip pocket, and sits down on an overturned bucket. From the wallet he pulls a picture, and smooths its creases on his knee. Most likely a picture of his wife, or child, or grandchildren, offered to bolster his argument for anonymity. But no: It’s a photo of Faheem Childs. In the photo, his head tilts delicately to one side, like the subject of a classical painted portrait, with large eyes staring out forever.
The man finishes smoothing it, and lets it lie on his leg. He looks up, and his eyes have gone soft and wet. One hand slides out at chest level, as though to pat a small boy’s head. “I don’t want to see any little one hurt like that,” he says. “Never. But — ”
Here the hand forms its beak, and taps at his mouth. “Look here. People who run their mouths” — the beak clamps his lips shut for a moment — “they get cut down.”
The man’s point becomes clear. The blame for the silence surrounding Faheem’s death, and all the others like it, can’t fall on his shoulders alone. No individual can reasonably be asked to give his life for such an abstract thing as justice. The responsibility falls on no one and everyone; not on the individual bricks, but on the mortar between them. It’s crumbling.
“So if you don’t mind,” he says, “I believe I’ll keep to myself.”
With that, he folds Faheem Childs’s photo once, then twice. He inserts it into his wallet, then replaces it in his pocket, where he carries it with him, and probably always will.
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