Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: In Overtown, a community becomes numb to bloodshed

Marlon Eason, the 10-year-old boy who was shot by a stray bullet Tuesday night while playing basketball in front of his Overtown home.
Marlon Eason, the 10-year-old boy who was shot by a stray bullet Tuesday night while playing basketball in front of his Overtown home.

Forty, maybe more of us gathered in an impromptu vigil at the scene of what I’d like to describe as Miami’s latest murderous outrage. Except, after so many killings within the city’s urban core, outrage has been supplanted by benumbed despair.

Marlon Eason had been gunned down two nights earlier in front of his Overtown home. The kid had been holding his basketball. He was only 10. The crowd gathered around the dead child’s mother Thursday evening as she wailed and shook and pleaded and finally collapsed against the huddle of women come to comfort her. “My baby,” she cried out.

Only 10 years old — “My baby, my baby, my baby” — her words pummeled our collective sensibilities. Murmurs of anguish and anger rippled through the gathering. But not shock. The notion that a 10-year-old boy could be gunned down in his own front yard should have left Overtown in a state of stunned disbelief. We should have been shocked, all of us. Except the scene on Northwest Fourth Court has become commonplace in certain poor black neighborhoods, where gunfire has become integral to the nightly soundscape.

“How many mothers here have lost sons to gun violence? Raise your hands,” shouted Renita Holmes, an ubiquitous presence at these wretched gatherings. “Raise your hands.”

A dozen arms went up.

“A victims’ advocate” describes Holmes only in the narrowest sense. She shows up at killing scenes in Liberty City and Overtown in her camouflage pants and black T-shirt to comfort mothers and raise hell with everyone else.

The trouble is, Madam Holmes, as she calls herself, has had to deliver too many variations of her impolitic killing-place speech. Her grim face, her angry words, her demands that mothers take control of their wayward sons, her scolding of police and politicians, have evolved into a Miami cliché. I asked her how many murder scenes has she attended since she started her crusade against street violence in 1985. She said 147, hesitated, then glanced over toward the place where Marlon Eason was murdered. Make that 148.

Marlon was one of two youngsters gunned down Tuesday night. We had two murders of two kids in two hours. Shootings so close in time and space that police investigators initially wondered if the killings were related. Maybe the same mad gunman on some random spree.

But no. Overtown’s deadly evening, two youngsters shot dead and another carted off to the ER, goes down as a not-unusual coincidence in the city’s most forlorn zip codes. Two apparently unrelated incidents six blocks apart. The other dead kid was 16-year-old Richard Hallman, shot not far from where the night’s third victim, another 16-year-old, took a bullet in the foot. Police were investigating the dismal possibility that the two 16-year-olds shot one another in a gun fight.

Initially, police reported that Marlon “was not a target.” It says something about the grim reality of inner-city Miami when that seems comforting news. That a 10-year-old’s murder could be put down to collateral damage or mistaken identity. That even Miami’s gun thugs don’t target little kids.

Except at Thursday night’s vigil, even that bit of solace faded as neighbors discussed the alternate theory that Marlon, doing what little kids do, had provoked the gunman. Because it was accepted wisdom around there that a gesture of disrespect that would have no real consequences in more prosperous neighborhoods might become a rationale for murdering children in Overtown or Liberty City.

“Nowadays, anything can set these shootings off,” said David Smith, an anti-violence advocate who drove from Liberty City to protest this latest shooting. “You never know. It all takes place on social media. You said this about me on Twitter. You tagged me on Facebook.

“And now they’ve got all kinds of weaponry,” said Smith, 43, getting at the sustaining element behind the startling spike of inner city killings even as the overall crime rate in Miami has gone down. “They’ve got Glocks and assault weapons. Kids got them. Guns bigger than their hands. I don’t know where they get all these guns.”

In the inner city, teenage disputes that might have led to an exchange of insults or a fistfight when Smith was a kid growing up in Liberty City now sets off armed combat.

Last week’s two shootings brought out community activists and civic leaders and the police brass, leading a walk-around through the Villas of St. Agnes, the Overtown housing development where Marlon had lived. They distributed fliers begging witnesses to come forward. But witnesses willing to testify against a killer are a scarce commodity in this community.

“People are afraid to say what they know,” Smith said.

“It’s so difficult for people to come forward,” said the Rev. Tanya R. Jackson. She and her husband are co-pastors at New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in a Liberty City neighborhood bloodied by drive-by shootings and other manifestations of gang warfare. She spoke of the risk of retaliation that hangs over these communities. Testifying against a gangbanger could lead to indiscriminate violence that could not only get a prosecution witness killed but take out anyone in his general vicinity. “People are just afraid,” she said.

I asked her why more people from the nearby community had shown up that night to walk the streets with the politicians and police and usual activists. Why weren’t the local residents, folks who live with the constant threat of gun violence, out there shouting their outrage?

A few years ago, a shooting like this, a 10-year-old killed, would have brought a big showing, she said. But lately, after too many killings of too many youngsters, outrage has given way to something else. “So much violence,” she said, shaking her head. “They’ve been anesthetized.”

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