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One Living Memorial and Too Many Dead

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A tree was dedicated yesterday to homicide victims in the District and Prince George's County. A willow oak sapling was planted in a small park in the 1300 block of Rhode Island Avenue NE, not far from the county line.

Two benches will be installed, inscribed with quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. One inscription will read, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that," and the other, "Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

"The idea is to make sure that the victims of homicide are not forgotten," said Prince George's States Attorney Glenn F. Ivey, who helped organize the dedication as part of Crime Victim's Awareness Month. "The tree symbolizes a growing recognition of the need to stop the violence and start the healing."

It was a thoughtful gesture by elected officials from both jurisdictions. But in the end, the ceremony came up short.

Tradition holds that when trees are used to honor the dead, a sapling is planted for each death. You don't plant one tree for, say, every 1,000 soldiers who die in battle. You plant one for one.

In the District, there were 34 homicides this year as of April 7. In Prince George's, there were 27 as of March 28. Between the two jurisdictions, there were 322 homicides last year. Not to mention the hundreds of killings that occurred in the years before that.

That amounts to a forest. But with only one tree, you can't see it.

More trees are needed. The violent border between the District and Prince George's could be lined with them. And not necessarily willow oaks. They are too majestic, with strong roots and royal crowns.

Better to use weeping willows.

George Boomer, a housing supervisor at Fort Belvoir, attended the ceremony. His 23-year-old son, Jermaine, was found fatally shot last month on New York Avenue NE.

"Someone just pulled up next to him and started shooting," Boomer said. "He tried to drive himself to Prince George's Hospital, but he died before he could make it."

Asked what he thought about the tree dedication, Boomer said: "I guess they're trying to show us some recognition, but I keep seeing this kind of thing on TV all the time. The politicians come, then everybody goes their separate ways. I'm just hoping that something gets done to stop it."

Michelle Smith Wilson lost her 17-year-old daughter, Taleshia Ford, in January 2007. Taleshia was on the dance floor in a nightclub at Ninth and U streets NW when someone pulled a gun and began shooting. She was struck in the chest and killed. A 19-year-old man from Silver Spring was arrested and charged.

"Lose a life, start a life," Wilson said of the tree planting. "It's symbolic if nothing else."

Julian Agurs, 17, was shot to death in January near the park where the tree was dedicated. His parents did not did not attend the ceremony. The mother told organizers that she was still too upset. Julian and two other teens, 13 and 16, had just left a carryout across the street from the park when someone began shooting at them from a passing car. The younger boys were wounded. Another 17-year-old was arrested and charged.

"We want to heighten sensitivity to the enormous pain and suffering caused by violence in our communities," said D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), who helped organize the event. Thomas said there had been at least 10 homicides in his ward this year.

A lone sapling hardly seems adequate.

Firefighters from nearby Engine Company 26 had tried to save Julian. Some attended the ceremony and agreed to water the tree. Asked why such a task would fall to them, one firefighter said, "I guess because we're the closest to the park."

That's admirable. Well watered, the sapling can be expected to grow at least 60 feet tall, big enough to provide about 75 board feet of lumber. You could make enough paper for lots of books and diplomas out of that much wood.

On the other hand, it takes about 14 board feet to make a simple wood coffin. So, that 60-foot tree would yield about five coffins. In a few years, we'll have a better idea what that sapling really stands for.

E-mail:milloyc@washpost.com

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