Maybe they were innocent. Maybe they were the antagonist. Maybe all they wanted was ice cream.
No matter why they were shot, their final moments are usually what we remember about them because that is what is talked about in the hours and days after their deaths by law enforcement officials, witnesses and relatives who are raw in their grief, trying to grasp how someone who occupied so much space in their lives yesterday won’t be there to fill it tomorrow.
Reporters across the country have become all too skilled at writing these stories and the public all too used to reading them.
And yet, no matter how many gun violence deaths we catalogue in our minds in morbid shorthand — shot 17 times in a stairwell, struck by a bullet while waiting at a traffic light, killed after going to McDonald’s — nothing seems to change. Look at the District. After 10-year-old Makiyah Wilson was killed last year, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser declared “Enough is enough” — and yet, we are still standing in the same place we were then. Illegal guns are still too easy to get. Bullets are still scarring school walls. And people are still dying before they should.
On Wednesday, the city saw its 117th homicide of 2019. I’m going to tell you about the man who claimed that spot, Semaj Alsobrooks, but this time, I want to try something different. I don’t want to start at the end.
I want to start with a moment in his life that was filled with hope and promise and a wrinkled shirt.
I want to start with a photo of him when he was 9 years old.
In it, Semaj wears a white short-sleeve shirt with a collar. He stands in front of a wall, and he smiles with his mouth and eyes.
The picture was taken by Julie Feldmeier, who worked as an assistant to my fellow Washington Post columnist John Kelly.
She interviewed Alsobrooks and his mother, Aniedrea Galloway, for a column that ran June 28, 2006.
The piece detailed how Galloway paid off a $40,000 debt while raising two sons on her own and working toward a degree in early child development from the University of the District of Columbia. It described how, in an effort to give Semaj the best education possible, she drove him each day from their home in Southeast Washington to a school in Northwest.
It also asked readers to contribute money to help children like Semaj attend camp.
Here are the first four paragraphs:
“If this soon-to-be Moss Hollow camper becomes a star, my assistant, Julia Feldmeier, will be able to say she knew him when.
“Semaj Alsobrooks has long eyelashes. Very long, and very thick. The kind of lashes women covet, which is why, when his female classmates once pointed this out, he promptly cut those lashes.
“Semaj, 9, is no girlie-man. He’s a tough kid — ‘very smart, but stubborn,’ says his mom, Aniedrea Galloway.
“And ambitious. He wants to be a rapper, a movie star or — cue the long lashes — a model. Pipe dreams for most, but his is a family that believes in the impossible.”
The headline of the column: “In This Family, Dreams Become Reality.”
On Thursday, Semaj’s name again appeared in a Washington Post story. This time under the headline, “Man fatally shot, another wounded in Northeast Washington.”
I wish I could tell you how his life leaped from the first to the second headline. Or maybe it didn’t leap. Maybe it crawled. Maybe it climbed and then fell.
I tried to reach his relatives, in hope that they could fill in those years, but I did not hear back from them. A public records search and a look at social media posts about him hint at a complicated life. They show a man with a criminal past who was facing firearm charges when he died. But one who also wore matching Christmas pajamas with his family, took trips with his mom and got married a year ago.
They show a 22-year-old with the same eyes as that 9-year-old who is described in that column as “so Hollywood” before these lines:
“He looks up, lashes almost touching his brow, eyes twinkling. ‘Wanna be my agent?’ ”
It is hard to look at that old photo of Semaj and not see both what was lost and what could be. Every time I glance at it, I think about the 9-year-old black boys who are living right now in some of the District’s roughest neighborhoods and question what chances we have given them to survive and thrive.
How many illegal guns are in their neighborhoods? What pressure do they face to hold one, or aim one at someone?
How many are smiling, looking as if they are standing on promising ground, and will later end up in a police news release?
“Until all life is clearly valued, no life is really valuable,” David Bowers, founder of a group called No Murders D.C., says when I call him to talk about Semaj. Black males are disproportionately the victims and the perpetrators of gun violence in the District, he points out, and that won’t change until the solutions and interventions are “visible,” “well funded,” “well supported” and “long term.”
City officials and citizens both have to make that a priority, he says. “Everyone ought to be thinking, ‘What is my part to play to make sure not one life is lost?’ ”
The alternative, of course, is we could just keep piling up endings.
D.C. police have not released much information about the shooting, but the incident report provides some details about what officers saw when they arrived on East Capitol Street just before midnight.
They discovered two people had been shot. One man was taken to a hospital and admitted in stable condition. Semaj was found on the roadway, not breathing.
“After lifesaving efforts proved futile,” the report reads, he was pronounced dead at 12:42 a.m.
Lying on a road, shot and unconscious. That’s how Semaj’s story ends.
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