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Slain Youth Wasn't Allowed to Be Neutral

Daniel Fitzgerald, 16, tried to ignore taunts and was gunned down. A reward is offered.

October 03, 2003|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

Now and then, David Williams, 18, and his brother Daniel, 16, would try to get a straight answer: Why us? they asked the gang members who challenged them almost every day. Why were they targeted? Why were they always pressed to name a gang affiliation as they tried to walk to and from school?

"What is it?" David, 18, recalled once asking his tormentors. "Is it my clothes? Is it that you guys are just bored? You see me so often I'm like your little brother; why do you do this?" He never got an answer. And this week, more than a month after the murder of his younger brother Daniel, a center and power forward on the Washington High School basketball team, David was still seeking answers.

Los Angeles police announced a $25,000 reward Thursday for the killer of Daniel O'Neal Fitzgerald. At 3:45 p.m. Aug. 23, he was walking to a store to buy potato chips when a gang member on a bicycle approached him in the 600 block of West 104th Street and demanded to know his gang affiliation, according to Det. Donovan Nickerson.

Daniel responded that he didn't belong to a gang, and kept walking. The bicyclist circled back, challenged him again and killed him with one shot.

Daniel was not a gang member, police said. "He believed in himself," said his father, John Gardner, crying at the news conference Thursday. "He had no problems with anyone. He was working hard for what he wanted, and he truly believed he was going to pull his family up."

But although Daniel and David were single-mindedly focused on school and on getting out of the neighborhood, David said, the neighborhood wasn't going to let them go without a fight.

The brothers negotiated a gantlet of threats wherever they went, David said, an experience typical for many young men in the neighborhood around 104th Street and Hoover Street where they lived.

Theirs was the burden of trying to stay neutral where young black men are not permitted to be neutral. The two boys adopted a variety of strategies: David was a soft-spoken negotiator, who sized up each situation carefully, tried to gain allies where he could, and fled when he judged it necessary.

"I don't want to endanger my family," he would explain patiently to gang members who questioned his neutrality.

Daniel, nearly 6 feet 3 and muscular, tended to attract more attention -- and more aggression, his brother said. He more often adopted the pose of a fighter, trying to stand down those who threatened him or blithely ignoring them.

Some measures were second nature. David described how he and his brother nearly always wore white T-shirts and black pants to avoid appearing in gang colors. Each had a mental map of South Los Angeles -- places where one gang territory ended and another began, the areas they had to avoid. At night, they never left the house.

Close since childhood, David and Daniel had a goal. They had moved frequently as children, living for a time with a relative. Ensconced at last with their father, they were eager to take advantage of their newfound stability. They talked out a plan: They would do well at Washington High School and get out of South Los Angeles -- through the military or, in Daniel's case, with luck, through basketball.

David had a been a football player. But as the boys grew, he saw that his younger brother was sprouting in height and displaying ever more talent for basketball. So he abandoned football to work out with Daniel and help their plan succeed. Listening to Daniel practice free throws late at night in the backyard, David thought how he admired his younger brother, who seemed to excel at things and to have so much drive.

By their late teens, David was the smaller of the two, with a retiring manner and a tendency to speak with his shoulders drawn forward and in a voice so soft as to be barely audible.

He said the harassment he and Daniel endured began in junior high. He recalled his first initiation to it: He had innocently mimicked a gang member. A group accosted him: "You must be from somewhere," they said. "You must BE somebody." There it was: the importance of being from somewhere. David wasn't from anywhere, and he felt scared.

Later, there were small and large confrontations. Some guys once threw a soda at Daniel. Gang members would repeatedly ask the brothers, "Where you from?" even though they saw them every day.

David had a tool box of coping mechanisms. Sometimes gang members would stand in a row, blocking the sidewalk in front of him.

"You try not to stare too hard at someone and you stay calm," he said. "You tell them your situation, then you step around them off the sidewalk, and keep walking, and don't look back."

But Daniel "was more of a target because of how he looked," David said.

Sometimes he would fight them, other times not. He was more careless, David said, less inclined to be intimidated.

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