We were gathered in a St. Louis, MO church to listen to stories of police violence against African Americans. And as many church traditions would have it, absolute silence was expected during those moments when the speaker quieted her voice to gather her thoughts. But on this particular night, a sad, aching cry disrupted all tradition and protocol when one woman's pain-filled voice burst through the silence to ask: "What about us killing us? When are we gonna deal with that? No one cares about us killing us!" Astonished and incredulous, I joined others who turned in their seats to locate this woman who dared challenge the speaker and upset established decorum that early November evening.
The speaker, who was sharing her personal story as part of the Ferguson Truth Initiative hosted by the Truth Telling Project, initially stood silent in response to the interruption. And so the woman, whose questions had caused the momentary awkwardness continued to speak. As she proceeded, in a more faltered tone than that exhibited in her original challenge, she told the audience that her son had recently been killed by a young black man who was a preacher's son. She concluded her brief story with weighted sadness by suggesting again, that "No one seems to care." And then just as quickly as she had begun to cause the scene, the woman uttered apologies and hurriedly left the assembly. Within moments of her exit, I found myself trailing in her footsteps.
It is an understatement to say that I felt an overwhelming need to connect with this woman, this stranger whose pain I felt so deeply -- yet whose story I did not know. I was compelled to let her know that I, and many others, most certainly did share her exasperation and frustration with the senseless, deadly violence associated with what is frequently referred to as black-on-black crime. I was also intent on telling her that that evening's presentation of stories about police violence against blacks was not intended to betray the equally tragic reality of "us killing us." And then, I needed to listen to her and I needed to comfort her. And yes, I wanted to hear her story.
As I approached this woman with a clearly troubled heart and tear-stained face, her emotions were high and I didn't know what to expect. Drawing nearer, I could hear her repeated utterances of apology for her outbursts. So I reached out my hand to touch hers, and I tried to assure her that there was no need to apologize for her pain. I told her that most of those in the assembly were sympathetic to her agony and grief. I told her I wanted to listen. And I asked her if she would tell me her story. This is what I learned that night, and during my subsequent talks with my new friend, Ramona.
Born on October 7, 1985 he was her only son -- a healthy baby boy weighing in at 11 pounds, 12 ounces and spreading a long, 26 inches. She and her husband named him "Malik" for its Arabic meaning: "King of Kings." Ramona told me that even as a youngster, Malik was "an extremely intelligent child with a very high IQ." When I asked her to elaborate she said, "He was like an old spirit. Talking to him was like talking to an old man." Then, she softly added, "But he was a happy child, and he had a heart as big as the Earth."
In a later conversation -- during what would become one of our many talks, Ramona laughed out loud when she recalled the fun they had during what she referred to as "Mom and Son dates" when they would meet at different restaurants to share desserts. And then, just as quickly as she had begun to laugh, her voice took on tones of sorrow and remorse when she reminisced, "I should have taken him school shopping that day. I didn't pay attention to the signs because I didn't think that type of evil would happen. I never thought they would kill my little boy like that."
Given his weight and height at birth, it may come as no surprise to some that Malik would be 6'8 by the time he was 16 years old. And while his height was a gift when it came to playing his favorite game of basketball, it was also a factor linked to his tragic and untimely death. Because Malik was so good at basketball, he was what many considered "a rising young star" on his St. Louis-area high school's varsity team. And it was a regular occurrence for schoolmates and neighborhood friends to seek him out when they planned a game. So on one sunny August afternoon in 2002 when a young man who lived a few houses away from Malik invited him to join in his favorite pastime, he didn't hesitate to go along.
As Malik suited up to join his friends, Ramona prepared for a short drive to visit her father who was struggling with Alzheimer's in a nearby nursing facility. Afterwards, she planned to join her husband for a boat ride. As she left for the afternoon, she waved goodbye to Malik and watched him walk down the street to his friend's house. That was the last time she saw the young man she still calls her "baby boy" alive.
It was during her drive to visit her father that Ramona says she had the "signs" she would later wish she had paid more attention to. "I had this sharp pain in my stomach," she shared. "It hurt so bad I had to pull to the side of the road. After I sat there for a few minutes to catch my breath, it went away. And I remember sitting there and thinking about Malik. It was strange, and it didn't make any sense. But I just shook the thoughts out of my head, and started the car again to go visit my dad."
After spending time with her father, Ramona headed for the boat ride where she was eventually joined by George, her husband. According to her, from the moment George stepped afoot on the boat he was aware that Malik had just been killed. But it would take her husband some time to muster up the courage to share this information with his wife. She recalled that for an hour or so, everything seemed just fine. There were no indicators that anything was wrong until George suddenly and abruptly turned to look her in the eye and said, "Baby, we lost Malik." Ramona remembers thinking that she didn't hear him clearly. So she asked, "What did you say?" And then, George said it again, "We lost Malik." He told her their son had been shot; he was dead. At that moment, she recalls losing all will and strength to stand. Ramona was eventually taken off of the boat in a wheelchair.
On the drive with her husband to their neighborhood and those streets where she had earlier that day seen her son walking along with a friend, she drifted in and out of awareness. One minute her heart was breaking in disbelief, and the next minute her senses were crying out in denial. When they turned on to her street the crowds were there, neighbors and friends. People were yelling, "Where is Mona?" When she exited the car, she could no longer deny. She fell -- literally, to the ground. She was in her words, "completely devastated." She notes, "I couldn't remember to think. I couldn't grasp that this had happened." She says she lost control of her bodily fluids. And she told me she wanted to die.
According to Ramona, Malik's would-be killer - William Claybon, was searching for a young man who went by the name of "Too Tall" when he saw her statuesque son playing ball with his friends. The story goes that "Too Tall" had robbed and beaten Claybon's brother, and Claybon was out for revenge. Some speculated that Claybon was high on Heroin that afternoon when he ignored the pleas of Malik and his friends trying to convince him that Malik and "Too Tall" were not one and the same. And so Claybon shot Malik, several times, and left him to die. Today, Claybon is serving a sentence of Life plus 20 years for the murder of Malik. And although this murder occurred 14 years ago, this is the source of the pain that still cuts like a knife through the heart of a mother who feels like it was yesterday. This is the "recent" killing that still prompts Ramona to cry out in agony.
A few months following Malik's murder, Ramona said she started doing research to learn "how many other 'Malik's' had been murdered." She told me, "There were a lot. And most were killed by other blacks." She added, "My baby was murdered in a drive way by a preacher's son. I live less than a mile from where Mike [Brown] was killed. But because Malik's was not a police shooting, it did not draw the attention that Mike's did." Of course, the time, contexts and circumstances surrounding the killings of young Malik and Mike are very different. But to this mother -- and likely many others who have lost their young ones to such senseless and deadly violence, these details don't matter; they blur through shed tears. The original wound and the continuous re-wounding cuts just the same -- and even acutely so when the images of the dead look so much like the sons and daughters to whom they gave birth.
Since Malik's death, Ramona has become active in local and national efforts to heighten awareness about all deadly violence in the African American community, especially that involving the epidemic of teen shootings. She told me that on the night of the event where we first met, she was concerned that the focus on police violence in our communities was detracting from all violence in our communities. She advises, "We [African Americans] need to take responsibility and demand NO more silence about what's happening. We need to stop spreading the seed that 'you're a snitch' [for speaking out] while our family members are dying." She adds, "It's true they [police] are wiping us out. But it's also true that we're helping them. And because, Joe-Joe's story doesn't get the same attention if he's shot by one of us, we are pretending it doesn't hurt as much. We go to the funerals and nothing happens after. A friend of mine had her son killed right in front of her. I am tired, and I don't know how to handle the grief."
I have learned so many lessons from my new friend. Among them, I have learned that the pain of losing a child -- no matter who the perpetrator, what the circumstances or when the act was committed, is always fresh and brittle; it never ends. I have also learned that we are obligated to support the mothers and families of those lost to the all too familiar everyday street crime with the same amount of prayer and fervor that we support those who have lost children due to police crimes. Additionally, I have learned that we must rally for the same Black Lives Matter movement that advocates for the end to police violence in our communities to advocate for the simultaneous end to all intra-group violence. As an example, Ramona suggests, "The last 10 to 15 murders that happened in St. Louis ... everyone on the street knows what happened! But no one wants to say anything. It's no longer two out of five families who lose a son or daughter on these streets; it's every other family now. When we don't speak up and say what we know, it's equal to watching the crucifixion of Christ and not saying a word." She added, "The term 'snitchin' must be taken out [of] our vocabulary and out of our brains."
It is true: we owe to all of the Maliks the same love and regard that we owe to all of the Mikes. And in the African American community, we can begin by strengthening, shielding, encouraging and honoring outspoken witnesses to crimes. This would be a major accomplishment for us. And as Malik's mother has so wisely observed, "If we can get this going -- it will be a movement all by itself."