On D.C.'s U Street, a young life that I lost -- twice

Jamal Coates
Jamal Coates (Courtesy Of Bryan Weaver - Courtesy Of Bryan Weaver)
By Byron B. Davis
Friday, October 1, 2010

On Wednesday morning, I was reading about the previous day's shootout and car wreck on U Street NW, about how the victim and his friends had just departed a young girl's funeral, not far from where my wife and I used to live, when the dead 21-year-old's name hit me: Jamal Coates. I had mentored Jamal at an Adams Morgan teen center years ago.

When I worked with Jamal, he was an eighth-grader nicknamed "Pun" -- for "Punisher" -- by neighborhood kids. We attended Maryland Terrapins and Washington Wizards basketball games, debated Redskins vs. Cowboys and discussed his goal to stay out of trouble. He was a big kid with a nimble mind who hoped to play college football and one day become a judge. Most of all he wanted to make his "Moms" proud.

Jamal was wickedly smart and funny, a natural leader. At most meetings he was motivated, and after chatting we focused on homework. I remember that his reading improved. I remember helping him write a letter to a judge after he was caught as a passenger in a "friend's" stolen car. The streets were always a temptation.

In the spring he showed up less and less. One day in late spring, the teen center had extra tickets to a D.C. United game, so I called Jamal. He was not a soccer fan -- at all -- but he was curious. He waited for me on the corner at Columbia and Ontario. We lived no more than 150 yards from each other on Ontario, but Columbia Road, the busy thoroughfare in that melting-pot neighborhood, could have been the Grand Canyon separating our backgrounds.

We hadn't seen each other much in a while, so I really wanted him to have a good time. I brought some sodas, and as we pulled up to a stoplight Jamal casually tossed his now-empty plastic bottle out the open window.

The light turned green. Trying to be a "good mentor," I said: "Jamal, come on, buddy. Not in my car. Go pick it up." He looked at me incredulously. Horns blared behind us. I raised my voice, "Come on, let's go!" Cars swerved around us. He got out, picked up the bottle and got back in. His face was aflame.

This was a powerful lesson, I told myself. Sure, we had been chatting like friends, but he knew better than to toss trash, and he just needed a firm male role model to push back, I thought.

After a minute I asked, "You okay?" No response. Trying to seem sympathetic, I said, "It's our city, man. We need to keep it clean, not just throw trash around. Do you like living in a dirty city?"

Jamal exploded. "Cuz, that's why they pay people to clean it up, [expletive]," he snapped. "I ain't no [expletive] slave, and I ain't gonna be treated like one. Take me the [expletive] home." I tried explaining, but I had shattered what Jamal valued between us most: respect, security and a sense of equality.

It was an agonizing half-hour back to his corner. He slammed the door, slipping out across the canyon. I called his house later and left several messages over the next few days. After about a week Jamal gave me an earful, basically saying he didn't know me anymore and telling me to leave him alone. Never in years of teaching or working with youth had my efforts backfired like that.

The teen-center staff assured me that Jamal would be okay, that tough nights happen. But Jamal, it seemed, was done with me.

That summer I drove through his neighborhood several times, asking if people had seen him. No one recognized me as Jamal's mentor, and perhaps my buzz cut and husky build made me suspect. One night I spotted him among a group of older guys sitting near a street corner.

"Hey, Jamal, it's me, Byron," I said. "Come on over." I figured he would respect my willingness to cross into his turf. But Jamal just looked at me from his stoop, glassy-eyed. The group told me to get lost. Jamal clearly didn't know me, they said. I'll never forget his blank stare as his amused friends gave me the finger. My heart raced as I drove away.

Jamal came back to the teen center occasionally that fall. He had grown even bigger, like a man, at 16. He was distant. The previous year it was cool to come to the center, but now Jamal called it "slummin' it."

I won't speculate about Jamal's life over the past five years, but I know other good people tried to support him. I suspect that I'll think about Jamal more now -- not believing, selfishly, that if only we'd made it to that D.C. United game I could have saved him from the gunshots this week but, rather, wondering what can I do to help others. There are so many Jamals in our classrooms and neighborhoods. Too many of them remain faceless, destined for the streets, prison or worse. The solutions aren't simple. They start with consistent effort, no matter how uncomfortable the missteps may be.

Perhaps the first step can be to honor the living and the needlessly dead with a violence-free funeral for Jamal Coates, gone too early at age 21.

The writer, a former teacher and youth counselor, has worked with education reform groups in Washington. He is a graduate student at George Washington University.

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