They Called My Dead Cousin A 'Gang Member'

Why do we still need a reason to feel sorry when young black people die violent, untimely deaths?

They killed him. They murdered Ricky. My cousin, Ricky, was killed on January 1,, 2016 in Chicago. He was the city’s 3rd homicide victim that year.

When I got word of his murder, all I knew for sure was that he’d been shot to death. The rest of details were still really sketchy, so I did what most people would do when they wanted more information, I turned to the news. I visited the local website of a major media outlet. They didn’t say any more about the case than what I already knew—except for one thing—they made certain to describe my late cousin as a “documented gang member.” That stopped me. In some ways, that made me feel as if Ricky had been murdered a second time.

Don’t get me wrong, my cousin’s gang affiliation was a fact, his rap sheet exists, but, nobody is perfect. NOBODY.

People get killed every day, for all types of reasons, but we never hear if the victims of school shootings or movie theater massacres smoked marijuana, shop lifted or somehow antagonized the shooter in the moments leading up to the chaos. My cousin gets killed, though, and the media wants to let it be known that he was in a gang, even though nobody knew enough about the circumstances surrounding his death in the first hours after his death to say whether his gang affiliation was relevant.

Trayvon Martin gets killed and within no time, it’s common knowledge that he was suspended from school for possession of marijuana. What purpose do such revelations serve? What did these unflattering facts have to do with why either of these young men was killed? Do you know who else got suspended from school for smoking weed? Chance the Rapper, and just he went on to win three Grammys and become most one of the celebrated music artists in the world. So clearly smoking weed doesn’t stop any show, but it was used to define Trayvon Martin’s life.

Black people still have to be humanized before we can mourn them.

It’s ironic in some respects. There’s a play I saw at Chicago’s Goodman Theater back in 2010; Tracey Scott Wilson’s “The Good Negro.” The play is set in Birmingham, Alabama during the Civil Rights movement and one of its central themes is that black civil rights victims had to be picked out very meticulously. They had to have pristine reputations in order to be hoisted up as victims of segregation and inequality, because if there was anything unflattering in their backgrounds that the papers may get wind of, it would surely come out and would be used to justify the second-class treatment of black people in America and justify white Americans withholding their sympathy from the African-American plight in this country. Until recently, I thought this thinking about black victimhood was behind us. Cases like my cousin’s and Trayvon Martin’s showed me that black people still have to be humanized before we can mourn them.

We still need a reason to feel sorry when young black people die violent, untimely deaths. If they weren’t “A” students who’ve never been in trouble, we don’t care if they die, we think they caused their own deaths. And that is unfortunate. In a city like Chicago, where black young people are losing their lives at alarming rates, words like “gang member” are used to justify non-black Chicagoans withholding their sympathy from the deceased. We don’t see them as mischievous or misguided youths whose lives were taken before they realized their potential, we see them as monsters-in-training who we’re glad to be rid of. We don’t see gun violence as a collective problem, we see it as “south side” or “west side” problem for those communities to solve.

So yes, my cousin was gang affiliated at one point in his life and he did things that he ought not to have done, but he was young. The thing is, though, time changes everyone and my cousin wasn’t young anymore; he was growing up. He hadn’t been affiliated for some time and in the final months of his life, he’d got married, obtained primary custody of his children and secured employment. I remember that he was so excited about getting a legit job, that he posted a photo of himself in his uniform on Facebook. That’s who he was, that’s the person my family lost that fateful day. And as we’d find out in the months to come, his past gang affiliation had nothing to do with his death. But some people will never see or him as anything more than a “gang member,” for whom they don’t feel sorry.

Chicago Humanities Festival, DuSable Museum of African American History and Chicago Urban League recently partnered to bring Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin to Chicago for two programs exploring the life and legacy of their son, detailed in their new book Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin. Attendees were invited by The Huffington Post to write about social justice experiences that have impacted their lives. This blog is one such response and does not reflect the views of the organizers.