Emancipation is hard to celebrate when kids are still slaves to city’s violence

Courtland Milloy
Columnist April 17, 2011

And it came to pass that many African American youths could not celebrate D.C. Emancipation Day on Friday. For a plague of violence had been visited upon them. And the soil once toiled by slaves was soaked with the blood of free-born blacks.

“I want to know what my son could have possibly done to make someone want to take his life?” a mournful NaClick Webb said to me the other day, as she and family members gathered around a dining table to console each other.

Webb’s son, 16-year-old Ra-Heem Jackson, had been an honor student at H.D. Woodson High in Northeast. He was shot to death April 7 near his home in the Congress Heights neighborhood and buried on Emancipation Day — which commemorates the freeing of the slaves in the nation’s capital.

Whatever the Promised Land was that Martin Luther King Jr. saw before his assassination 43 years ago this month, those parts of the city where Jackson and hundreds of his contemporaries lived and died were definitely not it.

Ra-Heem was one of eight black people slain in the District and neighboring Prince George’s County in a recent 10-day stretch. Funerals for four of them were held in the city last week.

Now comes the Passover Seder, on Monday, marking the start of the Jews’ ancient journey out of bondage. The story, as chronicled in the Book of Exodus, has made for a unique bond between Jews and African Americans.

But after this latest surge of killings, I can’t help but wonder if the deadly spirit that “passed over” the children of Israel and took the first-born of their oppressors has somehow reappeared and descended on the sons of black folks with a vengeance.

Ra-Heem had worked hard in school, won a $50,000 scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and needed only two high school credits to be eligible for college.

And still, he ended up being killed, shot once in the leg, chased down by his assailant and shot 10 more times.

“He died no more than 20 feet from our back door,” his mother recalled.

What could Ra-Heem possibly have done to make someone want to kill him? Probably nothing — except be a young black man in the city.

“I used to tell Ra-Heem that he was born with two strikes against him,” his mother said. “He was black and he was male. There was only one way to overcome that: Get an education.”

But not even that could save him.

Word on the street was that Ra-Heem had gone to buy a gun on the black market the night he was killed. If true, he would not have been the first otherwise law-abiding youngster who felt the need to carry a firearm for protection.

A star basketball player at Woodson, he’d leave practice long after sundown and have anxious walks home in the dark. Many students have refused to participate in extracurricular school activities because it just isn’t safe to be out at night.

Armed robberies are on the rise. Youngsters are being shot over small change. According to those who operate in the shadow world of the city’s underground economy, the people who were supposed to sell the gun to Jackson decided to rob and kill him instead.

No arrests have been made, and so far nobody who knows anything about the shooting is talking on the record.

“There are some bad apples out there that make it very hard for the good kids to thrive,” said Dwanna King, a cousin of Ra-Heem’s. “The dangerous kids are usually the ones who have been neglected by their parents. They have no problem taking a life because they have no connection to family or community. They think only of themselves.”

Making matters worse, city and county officials are cutting many of the programs aimed at helping both the good and troubled youngsters. In the District, summer jobs for teens have been cut back. Summer school has been cut back, along with training programs for ex-offenders.

At Ra-Heem’s funeral, a young woman read a poem that questioned why politicians had shown such concern over the possibility of a government shutdown when they do so little for the city’s youth even when the government is up and running.

But there were no satisfying answers to be had. As Jeannette Webb, another cousin, explained to Jackson’s mother:

“No matter what explanation you get, it won’t make sense.”

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