IN THE FRIGID, just-after-midnight hours of Jan. 16, Yvonne Garces tried to comfort her parents, Martin and Venetia Garces. They stood together in Greater Southeast Community Hospital emergency room, alternately crying and holding each other. On the other side of a swinging door, Yvonne Garces' brother, Martin, 24, lay bleeding as doctors worked to resume his heartbeat, his body blasted by a bullet fired by one of four men from a car in the 100 block of Elmira Street SW.
"He is my heart, don't let them take my heart," Mrs. Garces muttered in her lilting Panamanian accent. Martin Sr., a portly, more taciturn man, touched her shoulder.
At 12:55 a.m., medical authorities ceased their life-saving measures. Martin Garces Jr., they said, was dead. As soon as his grandmother arrived from Panama, five days later, he was buried.
In a section of Washington where crime has cut a great swath into the lives of all its residents, the unsolved murder of Martin Garces was just another black-on-black crime to a hardened wider city, rating just two paragraphs in the newspaper. Serious crime in Washington jumped 10.8 percent from 1978 to 1979, most of it black-on-black, and, nationwide, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration reports that 85.4 percent of the robberies, rapes and assaults on blacks are committed by other blacks.
None of this is to deny that white-on-white crime is just as pervasive, just as serious and just as traumatic. It is more a question of creating a new consciousness among black leaders, professionals and solid, ordinary citizens.
If the cosmic causes for black-on-black crime range from racism and oppression to drugs and joblessness, family breakdowns and the double standard of justice, isn't it time to pay more than lip service to calling a halt to this terror?
Like most youths, Martin Garces Jr., was complex, not all good and certainly not all bad. From what is known, he may have behaved one way at home and very differently on the streets. Still, there is a particular note of irony that, on the day of his funeral, he was to have entered American University on a full scolarship.
Whatever the past may have been for Martin Garces, the promise never had a chance.
The suffering of the Garces family is no more than many, but one difference is their close-knit relationship, their internal support system in an area of Washington where crime and poverty often tear down all semblance of family structure. It is not a family untouched by the afflictions of the ghetto -- jail, drugs, overcrowded schools, illegitimate children -- but through it all, the Garceses survived. That it, they almost survived until Jan. 16, 1980.
The Garceses live in a narrow row house in the 2000 block of Naylor Road SE where a red sofa dominates a small living room. A framed 8 x 10 picture of the late President John Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy dominate one wall. A hanging of a graceful Spanish dancer hangs midway on the wall that leads upstairs. Opposite the semi-circular couch is a stereo set contained within a cabinet. Pictures dot the wooden top.
Later, Venetia Garces would get her "hair" -- a big, curly black wig -- for a photograph, but for the moment, this day after she has buried her "heart," the 47-year-old mother, a kerchief covering her head, looks vulnerable and simple. Only her ring-filled fingers bespeak an unfocused vanity and grab a visitor's eye.
There is a second visitor -- a close friend of Martin's, a young woman named Mona Aisner, who as a social worker with the National Conference of Christians and Jews, had tried to help turn Martin Jr. around and encouraged his going to college.
Mrs. Garces will not discuss Martin's death -- the police were investigating -- but she wanted to remember his life. A graduate of Anacostia High School, he served eight months in jail for possession of a deadly weapon and fathered a child, who was now part of the large Garces brood.
His mother, who works at a clerical job, had doted on her gregarious older boy and tried to supply his needs to keep him out of trouble. For example, she said she purchased for him first a used car and later a new one. In her mind, he was respectful, sensitive to her feelings and moods.
"He called me when he was going to be out late," she said, her fingers covering her eyes in spread-eagled spokes. "My other son, he would stay out and not call, but not Martin. I could knock him down and he'd never strike back. When I was in a bad mood, he'd kiss me on the cheek."
Martin Garces Sr. is upstairs as his wife talks of their son. He is 54, and his few words are a bass version of his wife's lilting accent. He looks solid and sad. He'd been the first to arrive at the hospital. He submerges his sadness in a busy work and soon leaves the house with several garments hanging on his arm, walking slowly to the dry cleaners.
A feeling of fear electrifies the air -- a violent death where murderers are unapprehended soils the lives of the victim and the mouners. Mona Aisner does not want her picture taken -- "I am afraid," she says bluntly.
Then there has been the incident at the wake. As the mourners lined up outside the Alexander Pope Funeral Home in Southeast Washington where the family huddled inside on the front seat, a man, described as "tall, wearing pants and shirt but no coat" on the cold evening, attempted to overturn the casket.He said something like, "You tried to be a king, you thought your were better than the rest of us!" as nearly as the two women could remember.
The startled mourner froze. It was like a flash of lightning disrupting a black night, leaving one shaken. The man finally was taken away by the police. Police guards attended the funeral. Mrs. Garces rose and spoke. "Whoever did this, if you're sitting out there, my son's death won't go unpunished." The lilt has left her voice.
As the family pulls itself together, a dim awareness is growing within the country. Ebony magazine devoted an entire recent issue to the subject of blacks victimizing blacks. The National Bar Association, the largest organization of black lawyers in the country, took the subject as the theme at a recent conference.
Mona Aisner, now a law school student, says "there aren't many young men from Anacostia going to American University." At one point she breaks into tears.
"If I had not already made the decision to leave social work, Martin's death would have convinced me. This is a tragic example of how nearly impossible it is to make it out of this environment."