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No easy answers in tragedy

March 09, 2008|Kurt Streeter

Hardy Williams was angry. So was I.

We walked slowly across the weedy football field at Los Angeles High. "It's just not right," he said, shaking his head. "It's just not right."

We were talking about Jamiel Shaw.

Until last week, Jamiel had been one of Williams' players at Mid-City's Los Angeles High. By all accounts, Jamiel was a stand-up kid who kept clear of trouble. He was also a superb athlete: a football player, best in his conference, among the best in town.

Last Sunday night, he walked from a bus stop toward his home. Someone confronted him and blurted out the insane question gang bangers use when they prowl: Where you from?

Translation: What gang are you in?

Jamiel had no answer -- he was not in a gang. In a heartbeat, gunshots split the air. Jamiel lay in a pool of blood, dying. He was 17.

When I heard about this it put a knot in my gut. Jamiel could be my cousin, my niece, your daughter, your son. I wanted to know what I could do to help. What can any of us do to help end the violence that grips us -- no place more than in the heart of our cities?

Searching for answers, I found Williams. He is on the front lines: a football coach at L.A. High for 30 years. In that time, he told me, so many of his players have been murdered that he must dig deep in his memory to count them all. "I would say at least 10," he told me. Think about it. Ten.

Jamiel was the latest. What was he like?

"He was Houdini on a football field," Williams said, his voice shaky. "Completely special."

We walked the beaten football field where so many of Jamiel's great runs took place. Williams looked at the north end zone. He pointed. That is where Jamiel turned a broken play into a miracle run. We walked toward the sideline. That is where Jamiel bolted 70 yards for a touchdown.

We stood in the middle of the field and Williams spoke of how hard he had been on Jamiel, a player so talented that the coach thought he had a shot at college stardom. Trying to make sure that this talent would not be wasted, Williams twice kicked Jamiel out of practice for loafing, if only just a bit.

"I would tell him, 'You can't just glide through practice,' " Williams said. "I would get up in his face and yell: 'Hey, you can't just turn it on or turn it off!' I never admitted this, but he could, really, he could turn it on and off. And the thing of it was, all my yelling, the kid never pouted, not once."

Indeed, it was more than the way Jamiel played that caused Williams' throat to clutch as we spoke.

The kid never got in trouble at school. He was bearing down on his books. Stanford had just called, Williams said. Instead of a cocky strut, Jamiel had humility and empathy. Before games, the team would surround him and the players would kneel as he led them in prayer. The coach remembered: "He would say, 'Jesus, please don't let anyone on the other team have any injuries today.' "

He looked down at the weeds. His eyes glistened. He rubbed the back of his neck.

Williams, 61, grew up in L.A.'s tough, southern parts. He remembers a time when there seemed to be much more of everything: more community centers, ball fields, jobs. More for kids to do. Maybe if it were like that again, he told me, the gangsters would lose their pool of recruits.

"I don't have all the answers," he said, shaking his head. "But I've seen enough. I have seen enough."

So have I.

Like too many others, particularly African Americans, violence has hit my family. Just a few years back, a cousin in Compton was caught in crossfire. She was a baby.

In Baltimore, where I covered the inner city for The Sun, murder was a constant. It happened mostly to black folks and mostly to poor folks: the 'hood in Baltimore is a Godforsaken stitch of earth. Make no mistake, it also happened to everyone else. All races, all backgrounds.

The pattern continued when I came to Los Angeles eight years ago. One of the first stories I wrote for The Times was about a little girl who was shot to death in Boyle Heights while she played hopscotch. A few weeks later, it was a former high school basketball star, murdered near his mother's home. In the alleyway where he died I scribbled in my note pad as a clean-up crew washed away blood and brain.

There were others. Among them was Christopher LeBlanc, a great kid shot for no reason as he drove down a street near L.A. High.

In December, I was in Washington, D.C., writing about Sean Taylor. The Washington Redskins' safety had been gunned down in his home during a botched robbery.

Too much death, too much suffering.

Is there a solution?

I've long thought we need to start thinking deeply about our culture: its propensity for violence and love of aggression.

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