Children's tears point up our failures

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The girl, about 10, walked over to the steps of the abandoned and boarded-up house and wept unashamedly.

"He was my cousin," she wailed. In the street -- the first block of S. Carey St., to be exact -- a round-faced boy of about 8 and wearing a knit cap cried loudly. The grown-ups around them had gathered for a march and candlelight vigil for James Smith III, killed at the age of 3 when two idiots who couldn't shoot worth a tinker's damn turned the Fresh Cuttz Barbershop into the O.K. Corral.

It was a bone-chilling Tuesday evening, some five days after James had been buried. The adults knew why they had gathered, but how long will it take the children to get over young James' death? How long will it take for their scars to heal, or for them to recover from the shock of knowing that we as a society have failed to protect them?

Some marchers carried signs that pointed to the depth of our failure. "Erica Jefferson, 16," read one.

Do any of us remember Erica? She was an honor student at Edmondson-Westside High School. Also a church girl, a member of Mount Moriah Baptist Church. She wanted to study physical therapy in college and played on her school's basketball and volleyball teams. In July of 1996 she would have gone to Europe to play as a member of the U.S. volleyball team, if some thug hadn't ended her life in December of 1995.

She was walking home the night of Dec. 16 with $250 her aunt had given her for the volleyball team's tour. A bullet to the head ended her life.

"Tauris Johnson, 10," read another sign. Tauris was Baltimore's most famous victim of an egregiously violent act -- at least until young James was killed. It was in November of 1993 that Tauris was in the street outside his East Baltimore home when members of rival drug gangs started shooting at each other. Tauris took a stray hollow-point bullet to the head that should have killed him instantly, but the tough little guy who wanted to be a professional football player hung in for three more hours before he died.

He'd have been approaching 14 if he had lived, probably deciding which Baltimore high school -- Dunbar, Lake Clifton, City, Poly perhaps -- could best make use of his football talents. But Tauris' dreams, like Erica's and James', are only memories for their families and loved ones now.

The marchers were called together by the Rev. Willie Ray of the "Stop the Killing" campaign. Joining him were the Rev. Arnold Howard of Enon Baptist Church and the Rev. Dr. John Wright of the First Church of Guilford in Howard County. Only two city officeholders -- Comptroller Joan M. Pratt and 6th District Councilman Melvin L. Stukes -- attended the march and vigil.

It's a sobering thought. Black children being cut down in the city, and only five black religious and political leaders find the time to come to a march and vigil to make some kind of statement about the grisly situation. There is a crisis here, one city leadership needs to address.

Wright seemed to sense this and alluded to inaction by elected officials.

"We can clean this mess up, and we're not going to tolerate it anymore!" Wright thundered to the cheers of the crowd, which had marched up Carey Street, down Baltimore Street and then down Carrollton Avenue before stopping in front of the barbershop where James was killed.

"I'm tired of excuse-making," Wright continued, adding that politicians should either do the job or voters should kick them out of office.

The round-faced boy with the green knit cap had stopped crying by the time the adults gave their speeches. But his pitiful wails -- and those of the little girl -- chilled me in ways that the freezing temperatures never could. Were they crying because of the death of little James Smith III or because, with what may have been their childish intuition, they somehow doubted our ability to see that they might be next?

Stukes tried to give the children who attended the march a sense of their inherent preciousness. Each of us is different and unique in our own special way, Stukes said. Even identical twins aren't exactly alike.

"If you are the only thing [God] created who is just like you," Stukes continued, "think of how special you are."

Our children are special. It's time we started treating them that way.

Pub Date: 1/18/97

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