Phillip Jones, 17, was gunned down last week while standing at a bus stop in Southeast Washington. I had met him in 2013 at a funeral for his friend, 16-year-old Darius Cannon, who had been shot to death near the Woodland Terrace public housing complex in Southeast, where both boys lived.
Phillip had been a pallbearer, making for the unseemly spectacle of a kid helping to carry another kid in a casket. Now he, too, was dead.
It’s as if black males of a certain age — 15 to 34 — have been set against one another in some diabolical ritual of self-destruction. No other group counts homicide as the leading cause of death. And no one seems to be able to stop it.
“People are calling for all of these meetings with police, but the problem goes so much deeper,” Assistant D.C. Police Chief Diane Groomes told me. “We had a conversation with a young man who said he doesn’t care if he dies, because life is such a burden. A lot of young people are like that. They don’t believe they have a future. They know all about the ‘school-to-prison pipeline.’ But where is the pipeline to success?”
The last time I saw Phillip, at a community meeting in Anacostia last year, he said that he was trying to get into Job Corps, the nation’s largest career-training network for low income youths. And he did. He was supposed to start a two-year training program Jan. 26.
“He was so happy,” recalled Karen Kenworthy, who had been his tutor in Woodland Terrace. “He said, ‘I’ll be in training and I’ve chosen maintenance work.’ I said, ‘Isn’t that kind of boring?’ And he said, ‘I don’t care. I just want a steady job, money and a place to live on my own.’ ”
On Jan. 14, Phillip attended a basketball game at Ballou High School in Southeast. He left the game and was confronted by a black teenager at a bus stop. He was shot several times and died on the sidewalk. A 14-year-old girl was struck in the hand by a bullet.
Trayon White, a former D.C. State Board of Education member, was Phillip’s mentor and was with the teenager just a few minutes before the shooting.
“He was going on the right track,” White told The Washington Post. “He wanted to do something better.”
One afternoon, not long after we met, I took Phillip and some of his friends to lunch. Looking over an all-you-can-eat buffet, their eyes lit up with the wonder you would expect to see on the face of a child. And they smiled unabashedly. They were some of the most gracious, well-mannered youngsters you could ever meet. They even wrote thank-you notes.
Back in their neighborhood, however, the once wide eyes narrowed, the smiles disappeared and they began to walk with a swagger. You wouldd be hard pressed to find a tougher looking bunch. I later came across a YouTube video that showed a couple of them mouthing misogynistic rap lyrics while holding bottles of Cognac in one hand and what looked like real guns in the other.
Who were these kids, really?
After learning that Phillip had been killed, I called his mother to express my condolences. She said, “How do you know my son? He never mentioned you.” I just assumed that he had told her about the lunch invitation. You would expect that most youngsters would tell their parents before riding off into a car with a stranger.
But he didn’t tell her. So I can only imagine what he never told me. I can also imagine other older men exploiting cash-strapped youngsters searching for an out that they think only fast money can provide. The drug trade flourishes in Woodland Terrace, with young black males serving as expendable pawns at the end of the distribution chain.
I found it ironic that Phillip was killed the day before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday — on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. Another black youth slain, the memory of a nonviolent civil rights leader mocked by blood spilled on a street named for him.
A candlelight vigil has been scheduled for Wednesday evening in the 3100 block, at the spot where Phillip died. Hundreds of mourners are expected to attend, as they did at the memorial for Darius.
I dread going, lest I meet another black youngster who winds up dead in the streets.