An Echo of Grief Travels Thousands of Miles
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
There was another funeral in the District yesterday for another black man -- 25 years old, shot to death Nov. 17, homicide No. 169 for the year -- and that is where David Bowers was heading in the cold sunshine when he heard that Sean Taylor had died. Though Taylor's death occurred in Miami, it might as well have been counted on the District's grim tab, because Taylor, thousands of Washingtonians would agree, was one of ours.
"He was killed hundreds of miles away, but it's the same story -- and on a day when I was going to mourn the loss of Tim Spicer," said Bowers, who runs an organization, No Murders DC, dedicated to ending the epidemic of homicides in this city. "You hear the story, and it reminds you we live in a city where over 6,000 people have been killed in the past 20 years, and most of [the victims] looked like Sean Taylor."
In the aftermath of the news that Taylor, the Washington Redskins' 24-year-old Pro Bowl safety, had died yesterday morning in Miami, hundreds of Redskins fans gathered at the team's headquarters in Ashburn during the day and for an evening vigil.
"It was everything I could do to fight back the tears long enough to get out of the office and not break down in front of everybody," said Jason Fornwalt, 33, of Hedgesville, W.Va., who was among those gathered at Redskins Park. "Sean was just a dynamic player and a dynamic person. We watched his transformation from the time he got here."
Elsewhere around the area, folks engaged in the twin human reflexes of honoring the dead -- measured, in this case, by Taylor's Redskins "21" jerseys flying off the shelves of sporting goods stores -- and scavenging for information, accurate or not, about a celebrity's death.
"I'm going to wear this jersey out of respect," Anthony Mason of Waldorf, a 36-year-old McDonald's executive, said as he bought a Taylor jersey at the Redskins team store at FedEx Field in Landover, "and then I will never wear it again."
At the barbershop, on the bus and on the sports fan's front porch -- sports-talk radio -- Taylor's adopted city spilled its grief, its frustration and its anger over an act outsiders might see as "senseless," but which makes all too much sense to folks who have lived here.
"It's hard to believe that a man, a young man with so much promise, was taken so abruptly, under circumstances we still don't completely understand," said Rick "Doc" Walker, a former Redskins player who is a popular sports-talk host on WTEM (980 AM). "Gun violence among African American males is just off the charts. The numbers are preposterous. People care [about Taylor] because he's a star. But there are hundreds of these murders, and we've just become numb to them."
According to the Department of Justice, in 2005, the last year for which numbers are available, blacks were six times more likely than whites to be victims of homicide. In 2004, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, homicide was the leading cause of death among black males ages 15 to 34. For the 20-24 age group, nearly half of all deaths -- 48 percent -- were from homicide.
Perhaps not surprisingly for a city where race informs nearly every aspect of life, the discourse in the District regarding Taylor sometimes divided down racial lines. On Andy Pollin's sports-talk show on WTEM show Monday and yesterday, he said anyone who suggested Taylor had put himself in the circumstances that led to his death was immediately blasted by black callers.
"Sometimes it got defensive," Pollin said. "They felt anyone who criticized Sean was out of line."
But John Thompson Jr., the former Georgetown men's basketball coach, current WTEM host and one of the most respected black voices in town, said he understood the emotions expressed by Taylor's fierce defenders, because he identified with them.
"For the most part, the callers thought the past should be left alone at a time like this," Thompson said. "That's what I would have thought if I was not in the job I'm in. . . . The biggest thing that impressed me was that there was a certain protectiveness of [Taylor]. One guy came on the air and was crying. I mean, he was flat-out crying."
Criticism of Taylor's choices and lifestyle, however, did not come exclusively from white Washington. Jay Walker, former star quarterback at Howard University and now a Maryland state delegate from Prince George's County, questioned whether Taylor adhered too closely to the unwritten locker room code of ethics that values "keeping it real" over making smart choices in your personal life.
"That's a problem that has to change in the locker room," Walker said. "They call it 'keeping it real.' Is it keeping it real because you still hang out with the people you grew up with? Is that keeping it real? Well, keeping it real probably got Michael Vick in trouble."
It was 80 degrees and overcast in Miami yesterday as investigators sifted through clues in the shooting death of Taylor, and 50 and sunny in Washington, where life went on, and so did the good fight to try to keep this kind of thing from happening.
In Southeast, Tyrone Parker, executive director of the Alliance of Concerned Men, was conducting a meeting of community activists battling gang violence in the city when a reporter called and asked about Taylor's death. Parker put the call on speakerphone.
"This has definitely made an impact on our community," Parker said.
Said Rico Rush, program director of Partnership for Success: "When I talk to our youth, their attitude is: 'We're going to die anyway. Here was a guy [Taylor] who was a superstar, who was turning his life around, and look what happened to him. So what's the point of turning your life around?' The majority of our youth feel that way."
"Celebrities have the potential to help us reach these kids," said Rhozier Brown of the Alliance for Concerned Men. "We're the nation's capital. This might be a rallying cry to get the Redskins to the table, because we need everybody's help. The Redskins need to help. Please, Mr. [Daniel] Snyder and Mr. [Joe] Gibbs. It's halftime. We need you."
And at a funeral at Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast, Timothy Spicer, 25, was remembered by friends and family. He was not a football star. He was a line cook at Ben's Chili Bowl. He loved his Chevy Caprice, and he dreamed of becoming a graphic artist.
Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.