It started the way it too often does: with a pair of shoes.
The 17-year-old had taken care of his five younger siblings all summer, without complaint, so his mother bought him a pair of Nike Air More Uptempo ’96 sneakers. The $160 wasn’t easy for the hairdresser to spare, but she felt he had earned those shoes — and he loved them. The day he got them, he took a video of himself wearing them.
Then a few days later, as his mom waited for him to get home from a job interview, the teenager walked into the family’s Maryland home, wearing only his socks.
“Mom, I’m sorry,” he said before telling her that he had been robbed at gunpoint. The shoes he had worn only twice and a backpack that had held his school uniform were gone.
“Baby, you could have lost your life,” she told him.
As the teenager described the robbery to me on a recent night, detailing how two men sat in a car as a third man stepped out and aimed a small black handgun at him from “two feet away,” his voice dipped to almost a whisper. His mother sat nearby, nearly crying.
“I told you once and I’ll tell you again, if that ever happens again, you do the same thing,” she said. “I don’t care if those shoes was a million dollars, because I only have one of you. You did the right thing.”
The right thing. It’s a phrase that comes up often when we talk about crime. The generally agreed upon right thing to do during and after a robbery is the same: Cooperate. Don’t fight for things that can be replaced. Then call the police, give a witness account and, if needed, testify in court.
It sounds easy. But in some neighborhoods, where fear is already part of the backdrop, the fallout of doing the right thing can carry a price higher than what was stolen.
To see that, we just have to look at how the teenager and his family spent Christmas.
On Dec. 25, more than three months after the robbery occurred, his family passed the holiday in the borrowed space of a relative, too afraid to return to their own Prince George’s County home.
After he was robbed, the teenager walked for about eight minutes in his socks to his front door.
That night, his mother decided not to call the police. She was scared the men were still watching or knew one of her neighbors and she didn’t want anyone to see the officers pull up. She waited until daylight.
The next morning, the teenager told the police what happened and agreed to cooperate with the investigation. He later identified two of the three men in the car. None had even bothered to put on a mask.
I first met the teenager and his mother years ago but am not identifying them here to protect their identity. The teenager spoke on the condition that he only be identified by his nickname, V.J.
V.J. said he talked to the police because he wanted those men caught. He feared for himself but also for his five younger siblings.
Soon after the robbery, their mom stopped sleeping in her room. Her bed became the couch in the living room so she could listen for any sound that might indicate the men were trying to break in. After several weeks of doing that, she and her husband, a construction foreman, packed up the family and left their home.
Since October, while they have searched for a new place, they have tumbled between friends’ and relatives’ homes, squeezing eight people into living rooms and bedroom nooks. And those friends and relatives have made room for them in already crowded spaces because they understand the risks that come with speaking up.
They understand that more than a backpack and a pair of shoes were lost.
“I watched my son shut down after this,” the teenager’s mother said. He’s a high school senior who loves to play sports, she said. “When he said, ‘Mom, I’m not going to go outside anymore,’ right there, I said this isn’t going to work. He’s 17. He should be going outside. He should have a girlfriend. He should be shooting hoops. But mothers are losing their kids so frequent, so fast now that I’m also afraid to not know where he is at all times.”
Just this year, she has been touched by the deaths of two children who were killed in a spray of gunfire.
She went to the hospital the night 10-year-old Makiyah Wilson was shot as she headed toward an ice cream truck in her Northeast Washington neighborhood. She knew Makiyah’s mother from work and went as soon as she got a call saying the girl was hurt.
Then, a few weeks ago, she was attending an honor roll ceremony for one of her sons and noticed a fellow parent wasn’t there. She called and found out the woman, a D.C. police officer, was investigating the death of a 15-year-old who was shot 17 times in the stairwell of an Anacostia building.
“Do I have to cradle my son until I’m dead? Because that’s how I feel,” the teenager’s mother said. “I don’t want to bury any of my kids.”
She knows some people will hear her story and criticize her for buying her son expensive shoes. Those people will have missed the bigger picture while delivering a petty jab. She shared her family’s story because children are being killed for nothing and she believes it’s important that the public realize the cost that comes with trying to be part of the solution. After he was robbed, her son called the place where he had applied for a job and rescinded his application, knowing that with the move he could no longer get there on his own.
Days before Christmas, the family also hadn’t bought a tree or presents. Their space was already crowded enough. Even so, V.J. and his mom said they were grateful for that temporary housing because it offered what no longer existed at their old home.
“I feel safe now that we’re not there,” V.J. said.
“It’s uncomfortable,” the teenager’s mother said. “We’re living out of suitcases. But I’m with family. And I still have my son.”
The family plans to move the first week of January into a new apartment in a new neighborhood. They know crime will still exist there. But at least none of their new neighbors will know who they are or that they did the right thing.