“Am I going to live?” he asked.
“Yes, you’re going to live,” his mom told him.
“Then everything will be all right,” he replied.
Everything is not all right. That shrug of a reaction from a seventh-grader who went from playing football to not being able to walk without a wheelchair or braces is not all right. The dismissive, blame-heavy reactions we’ve come to expect from adults around us in response to the trauma of black and brown children are a far cry from all right.
I made a mistake this week. I know better than to look at the online comments for some articles. I even advise some people I write about not to do so. But after I read the powerful story my colleague Peter Hermann wrote about that 13-year-old boy and his 12-year-old brother who were shot on separate days just weeks apart in their Northeast Washington neighborhood, I couldn’t help it. I clicked on the comments. I then, of course, immediately regretted that decision.
“They are off to a great start if they want be thugs [sic] from the ghetto,” read one. “I have very low expectations for this family unfortunately.”
“Until unwed young women living in poverty stop reproducing off springs [sic] that they can neither afford nor properly raise the cycle of poverty and violence will continue,” read another.
“Life isn’t fair,” read yet another.
Trust me, I don’t like giving those comments a second life in this column. I would prefer to ignore them, or convince myself they were all written by Russian bots. I normally do that. But this time, I think it’s important to not give the usual pass to the vitriol that is too often lobbed at nonwhite victims of violence — and in this case, two boys who haven’t yet graduated from middle school.
The police don’t believe the boys, who are named Roy’Ale and Roy’Nal, were the intended targets of those bullets. One of the brothers was heading home with a new pack of strawberry-flavored gum in his pocket when at least 51 shots were fired around him. The other brother had just turned down a slice of pizza offered by friends when more than a dozen bullets flew.
The story that provoked those hateful comments was not about politics. It was about two boys who are real and who live here in Washington, just a Zip code away from children their same ages who still have to convince their parents they’re old enough to watch scary movies.
It was about two boys who did not choose their race or their address, but who may one day choose to read what people said about them during one of the most difficult times of their lives. And when they do, they will see their suffering dismissed by adults who don’t know them but who have already given up on them because of who they are and where they live.
They will see that someone, following a string of mentions of their mother, wrote, “choices . . . it’s all about choices.”
That finger wag drips with privilege and ignorance because it’s aimed in only one direction. Whatever choices led to those boys living in the Kenilworth Parkside-Gardens neighborhood and standing in the path of those bullets were made by a whole lot of people.
Poverty, and who remains in it, does involve personal choices. It also involves choices made, in the past and in the present, by people in power, including lawmakers, law enforcement officials and real estate developers. It involves choices made by the people who shoot those guns and the people who brought those guns into the city and profited from the sale of them.
We all have choices. Those brothers chose to share their story. We choose how we respond to it.
Here’s what it looks like when people react in a way that works toward finding solutions: On Wednesday, in that same neighborhood where the brothers were shot, Brandi Forte welcomed a new tutor to the after-school program she runs in the Kenilworth public housing complex. Forte said the woman and a few other people offered to volunteer with the children after reading a column I wrote about the Amala Lives program.
The program serves children who live in the public housing complex and who are well aware of the violence around them. A former tutor was shot and left paralyzed, and current employees know to move the kids into another classroom when the sound of gunfire gets too close. On the day I visited, a cold breeze blew through a large hole in the kitchen window where a bullet hit.
The city’s housing authority sent someone this week to repair the window, Forte said. She said she also heard from several people who offered to donate supplies, snacks and money to the program. “It’s beautiful,” she wrote to me in a message. “I see some people do care.”
A former D.C. housing officer who used to patrol that neighborhood also contacted me after that column ran. He commended Forte for creating a space for “kids to be kids, to wonder, express themselves, to laugh and play.”
“I’ve met and spoken to these kids and they are bright, hopeful and kind, then the streets and violence wear them down,” he said.
I talked to him again this week after he read about the brothers. He didn’t click on the comments. He knew better.
“The callousness and disregard for the lives of these kids is the problem,” he said. “Being black and poor is like a weight on their shoulders they can’t shake off. They wake up and go to bed hungry. They live in food deserts, at the same time D.C. is a culinary destination known the world over, with chefs like José Andrés cooking for people all over the world.”
He spoke of regrets about not doing more for those children, or persuading others to, when he was on patrol in those neighborhoods.
“They aren’t supposed to make it, and few do,” he said. And he knows what not making it looks like for them. Some grow up to pull triggers. Some grow up to commit other crimes. Some don’t grow up at all.
After the shootings, the brothers and their family were transferred to another housing project, Clay Terrace. They are now neighbors with the mother of Makiyah Wilson, who was 10 years old when she was shot and killed while heading toward an ice cream truck.
No, everything is not all right.