The District lost an actual native son, Wednesday, one who truly wanted to do right by his hometown.
A.J. Cooper was a likable rascal turned community activist. He died of a heart attack, a cruel irony for a man who gave so much of his heart to this city. He was 34.
I’d known A.J. for years, ever since we were elementary school kids on the playground. He was sort of a wild kid, but he had charisma. He ended up leaving my school, but we played in the same Little League when we got older. After that, he went on to host BET’s Teen Summit, a show that made him somewhat of a national star, but more importantly solidified his interests in the youth of America.
Two years ago, when he ran for city council for the first time, it quickly became obvious that he was a young voice that the Wilson Building could use. He believed in working to curb teen pregnancy because it so often derailed the educational opportunities that kids had available to them. Most recently, his work in urban farming initiatives occupied his time. He was a young man that cared about his city, plain and simple.
In April, Complex magazine highlighted Cooper as one of “The D.C. Entrepreneurs Who Are Turning Chocolate City Green.” In it, Cooper’s work as the founder for Freedom Farms is lauded. “A.J. Cooper has realized what a lot of folks have not—that poverty, pollution and unhealthy food are all connected to an urban community’s upward mobility and ability to thrive,” Angel Elliot wrote. “He’s one of the leaders of the urban sustainability revolution that are using locally-owned and operated aquaponics farming to deliver low-cost healthy food to D.C. residents who wouldn’t normally have access to it.”
One of the most admirable qualities about Jay, as many people called him, was that he always had something to prove. As part of a lineage that included Tuskegee Airmen and the famed Cooper-Cafritz family, he never wanted to prove himself on anyone else’s back. When he likely could have lined up donors, endorsements and support for his political ambitions through the help of his name, he didn’t. He wanted to do it himself.
In politics, you never know what people’s motivations are. Some people want to be famous, others just want to get things done. Cooper fell in the latter category. And when you look out on the political spectrum and you see so many self-aggrandizing buffoons at all levels of local government, the thought of losing someone who truly wanted better for everyone is enough to make you cry.
Those who knew Jay before he went to the military, changed his life and decided to serve people will remember a young man who did his best to speak his mind. Perhaps Jay’s motivation can be best illustrated in a Facebook exchange I read Wednesday afternoon. Cooper still had dreadlocks at the time and was out with friends. In the comments someone wrote: “Jay, I still don’t understand the transition from the person I see in this picture to the person I see today! What was the motivating factor … the guiding light … the epiphany that led you into military life?”
His reply, in retrospect, is heartbreaking.
“I wanted to do something that meant something. Be a part of something greater than myself and serve my country rather than just enjoy the life that it provided me,” Cooper wrote back in 2010. “Most of all, being a kid from DC and having friends get killed as I was growing up made me want to make sure an I had an honorable death, not just some random murder.”