The murder of 9-year old Tyshawn Lee in Chicago last week devastated the city and shocked a nation that has grown accustomed to grisly headlines coming from the South Side. Reports state that the fourth grader was on his way to play basketball on Nov. 2 when he was lured into an alley and shot multiple times in the face and back, with police believing the youngster was targeted by gang members because Tyshawn’s father, Pierre Stokes, is in a rival gang.
No arrests have been made yet in Tyshawn’s killing. So many citizens live in fear that they could be targeted if they speak to the police. So many communities are on edge. I’ve been unable to shake the image of Tyshawn that went viral immediately after the story broke — a picture of a kid wearing a bright yellow school shirt and a backpack with a small half-grin on his face. He was nine years old. When I was nine years old, I still loved bologna sandwiches and watching cartoons every Saturday morning. My favorite singer was Michael Jackson and my favorite basketball player was Magic Johnson. It’s such an amazing time in your life, you’re becoming old enough to have your own ideas and tastes, but still so very young. Your world is so small.
When I was 9 years old, I was adopted by a middle-class family after having spent the majority of my childhood in foster care. Understandably, my adoption was a life-altering moment; I’d been the son of an addicted and mentally-unstable mother who never knew his dad and spent four years in the care of a kindhearted elderly woman named Elizabeth. My adoption put me in a household where both parents were educators, we took trips every summer and I was encouraged in my creative interests — like writing. It would’ve been unfathomable for anyone to have known how my life would turn out when I was 9 years old. In all that I’ve ever accomplished, I’ve always been grateful that a kid like me — with a not-so-idyllic background — actually got an opportunity to succeed in this world.
Tyshawn Lee won’t ever get the chance. And every time I look at that picture, my soul aches for him and his family.
His parents have been under intense scrutiny since Tyshawn’s murder. His mother, Karla Lee, allegedly used the money donated to her through GoFundMe to buy a 2015 Chrysler 200. After posting videos online saying the purchase was a necessity to keep her safe by not having to walk or wait at bus stops, Lee later told ABC7 that she used her own money for the car. The fundraiser was closed Sunday morning after raising more than $17,000. Stokes, the boy’s father, denies being in a gang but has reportedly been uncooperative with police. He also came under fire after launching his own GoFundMe page, asking for donations to help with funeral expenses.
“I understand the mother of my son did wrong by that money but what the news is not telling, that they are only paying for half the cost of everything,” Stokes wrote on his Facebook page. “They are blaming us so they don’t have to pay the full cost of everything. She is in the wrong for doing what she did with the money for our son, just give me a chance to lay my son to rest the right way.”
The parents have been roundly criticized for what most people view as opportunistic exploitation of a tragedy, but I try to empathize with what this young mother and father must be going through. I don’t know the hearts of these people and I know they didn’t plan on being thrust into the center of a media firestorm, let alone facing the senseless murder of their young son. Stokes’ refusal to talk to the police is problematic, however; “no snitching” is an unbreakable ethos in many communities like Auburn Gresham. But leaving children out of the conflicts between gangs has also long been a decree; and if there are cowards who have grown so cold that they’ve forgotten that long-standing rule of the street then “no snitching” should not apply. You violated, you face consequences.
Tyshawn Lee’s parents aren’t the only ones being criticized for how they’ve reacted to their son’s killing. In the frustration and anger over what happened to Tyshawn, some commentators have voiced criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement. Ever since BLM gained national attention in the wake of the 2014 killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO, critics have dismissed both the movement itself and the notion that Black people have more to fear from the police than from their own communities. “What about black-on-black crime?” became the easiest rebuttal to protesters and activists who have sought to raise awareness surrounding police brutalizing or killing Black citizens and never even going before a jury to be tried for their actions.
Over the past week, I’ve read pieces and heard commentary where those same sentiments have been expressed. How can we say “Black Lives Matter” when protestors didn’t flood the streets of the South Side in outrage over Tyshawn? An opinion piece called “We Care More About Money Than Tyshawn’s Murder” written by Charing Ball opened with “I think it is time that we acknowledge that no one cares about Black lives and death regardless of who is behind the killing…” Michael H. Cottman wrote “When a white police office shoots an unarmed Black man to death, Black folks will march in the streets for weeks, and I’ll write columns for several days running, but where are the marches for Tyshawn Lee? Where are the protesters?”
But there has never been silence regarding crime in Chicago. When 15-year-old Hadiya Pendlton was murdered in Harsh Park in January 2013, masses of people gathered to pay tribute and voice outrage. Even the First Lady attended her funeral. Sixteen-year-old Derrion Albert was beaten to death near Christian Fenger Academy High School in 2009, and his death also drew national attention and cries for change. Thousands attended his funeral, including Min. Louis Farrakhan and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. There are activists and advocates who have been working for years to address this kind of violence and they do it without cameras and recorders in the room and without international coverage. The concern over state-sanctioned violence against Black communities and the concern for Black youth being murdered in those communities are not mutually exclusive anxieties–most citizens and commentators are worried about both. And we should be wary of those who would use a Tyshawn Lee killing as fodder for dismissing the validity of a movement like Black Lives Matter and what it seeks to address.
We protest against those in power because they have the influence and resources to affect change. Black Lives Matter addresses a valid and necessary concern: the systematic murder and brutalization of Black citizens by the state. By the state. Protesters weren’t in Ferguson because a white guy killed a Black guy; and that wasn’t the reason people marched for Eric Garner in New York City, either. The violence by police against Black citizens is endorsed by legislative and administrative powers — elected or appointed officials who have decided that state-sanctioned violence is par-for-the-course. Gangbangers aren’t going to listen to protesters because why should they? Taxpayers don’t pay gangbangers. Gangbangers don’t need votes. And speaking out openly against gangs can oftentimes make citizens hostages in their own neighborhoods. What’s going on in Chicago and other communities requires a bit more nuanced thinking than the kind of derailing rhetoric “What about Black-on-Black crime?” offers.
And before we join those who have a vested interest in diminishing Black Lives Matter, we should recognize that those critics aren’t all that concerned with Black people, either —regardless of whether or not those Black lives are from the South Side of Chicago, Ferguson, Missouri, or on a major university campus. Black people in America must fight on a multitude of fronts and there are those who seek to squelch any resistance. The death of Tyshawn Lee is one of the most heinous things I’ve seen in recent years and we as a community must band together to bring his killers to justice and address how neighborhoods have become war zones. But part of addressing means acknowledging that a system created these neighborhoods. And we can and should attack the problem on a ground level, but always bear in mind who and what really shaped this situation. And who isn’t doing very much to fix it. Black Lives Matter is not the problem.
But it’s very telling that so many people need for it to be.