Elegy for a 16-year-old

Courtland Milloy
Columnist April 30, 2013

The cemetery grass was soggy, the ground muddy between newly laid headstones. Rain-soaked pallbearers watched their step and kept a tight grip on the casket while moving from the hearse to the grave

Under a green tent, the casket lay on straps, ready to be lowered into the ground, as a preacher prayed: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

And that was pretty much it. In a service that was shorter than the time it took to move the casket into place, Darius Cannon, 16, was finally laid to rest Monday at Washington National Cemetery in Suitland.

The boy had been shot to death April 7, but it had taken nearly a month for his mother to work out the financial arrangements for his burial. Money was tight for the Cannon family, as it is for many families in Southeast Washington where they live.

It’s called Ward 8, east of the Anacostia River. It has the highest unemployment rate in the city, an astounding 21.9 percent. Joblessness for black teenagers is more than 50 percent. There are too many single mothers trying to raise too many children alone. One in three black children lives in poverty.


Pallbearers carry the casket of 16-year-old Darius Cannon on Monday at Washington National Cemetery in Suitland. (Courtland Milloy/The Washington Post)

You would think someone would be enticed by the $25,000 reward being offered for information leading to Darius’s killer. He was gunned down on a sidewalk in early-morning darkness, three blocks from his home in the Woodland Terrace public housing complex. D.C. police have made no arrests, and their substantial bounty remains unclaimed.

The burial drew about two dozen mourners, most of them teenagers. Two of the pallbearers were 16; another 17. Nearly all of the youngsters had been suspended from Anacostia High — mostly for fighting with students from a rival neighborhood along Good Hope Road not far from Woodland.

“Gone too soon,” said Monique Dabney, 19, who had known Darius since he was 5.

Monique was an 11th-grader at Anacostia but had not been back to school since her suspension for misbehavior three months ago.

I recalled what first lady Michelle Obama had said during a commencement address at Anacostia in 2010: “If you want a life free from drama, then you can’t hang out with people who thrive on drama. You have to pick your friends wisely.”

The message resonated with many — just not with Monique and others like her who had been born into a life of drama and didn’t always have the luxury of choosing their friends.

“Our friends are people we grew up with,” Monique said. “We are like family. We depend on each other for our safety. If someone attacks one of us, all of us fight back.”

Darius, too, had been suspended from school at the time of his death.

One of the boys who hung out with him told me that they had been looking for work, that they needed money. And not just to buy sneakers. Having been kicked out of school, they no longer got enough food, the friend said. They wanted money to buy something to eat.

We often hear reports about hunger, like a recent one from D.C. Hunger Solutions: “In 2009-2010, 37.4 percent of households with children in the District of Columbia said they were unable to afford enough food. This is the worst rate in the nation.”

But we almost never put a face to the numbers, to actually see a teenager who is so hungry there is no telling what lengths he might go to get something to eat. Whether Darius had been out trying to get money for food and clothes — or, as some have speculated, was killed in a case of mistaken identity — only his closest friends know for sure. And apparently they aren’t talking.

Nevertheless, you would hope that school officials would do more to understand why kids act up and realize the dangers of just kicking them out and leaving them to fend for themselves on the streets.

No doubt that a more creative approach to these problems could ameliorate some of the hardships faced by Darius and his friends — especially changing the way students are disciplined, creating more jobs for teenagers and ending childhood hunger. But a more confounding problem would still remain, one cited by Monique as perhaps the main reason for Darius’s death.

“If somebody had been there for him,” she said, “if he’d had a father figure or something, this would not have happened.”

But there was no father around for most of them, standing on the soggy, muddy ground, listening to the preacher. And the result was simply tragic. They couldn’t go to school. They couldn’t find jobs. But they could go to the graveyard to bury their friend.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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