Op-Ed: What if 40 Tourists a Year Were Dying on Our Streets?

(Image provided by Barbara Young)

On Saturday, another Virgin Islander was gunned down and three others shot on St. Croix.

Five hours after the midnight killing, a friend who knows my passions well sent me a news article posted to the web page of News 10, a television station in Rochester, New York, where I lived for many years.

“If the police were killing us at the rate we’re killing ourselves I suspect this town would be on fire,” said Rudy Rivera, CEO of the Father Laurence Tracy Advocacy Center on North Clinton Avenue. “But yet, when we kill ourselves I say to myself, ‘Where are the protests lining this street?'”

When I read the article, I thought about a different “what if” that applies to the Virgin Islands.

“What if 40 tourists a year were being shot down in our streets?” Answer: Public officials would have wasted no time in pulling out all the stops to find a solution to the unchecked gun violence a long time ago.

The community has a part to play as well. It needs to register outrage, as Rivera said in the News 10 report. And it doesn’t. Those most closely affected cower in their homes surrounded by the cacophony of gunfire, praying it won’t be their loved one shot down in the street; that it won’t be their phone ringing at 2 a.m.

While public safety officials call upon those who know something to say something, many sit behind their heavily tinted, rolled-up car windows, probably hoping they don’t get shot on any given night.

Meanwhile, most everyone else who has some power to do something, like the governor, the police commissioner and senators, believe with all their hearts that they are safe. Whew.

For a very long time, I have suspected those of the upper castes don’t really think much about the individual people who are dying, unless or until it is someone they know – someone of value, therefore. And for a very long time, I have read and researched and talked to people who are or have been on the front line wondering how it is possible that in a Black run community, Black bodies are buried at a rate of more than three a month, and the beat goes on.

casket, coffin, funeral,
(Shutterstock image)

In those conversations, I have heard upper caste people actually sigh and say things like, “one more problem solved,” or in the case of multiple deaths, “two more dead thugs, oh well,” when discussing yet another homicide.

Finally, a few months ago, there it was. I was listening to a live-streamed event with Eddie S. Glaude Jr., author, and James S. McDonnell, distinguished university professor of African American studies at Princeton University and author of “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s American and It’s Urgent Lesson for Our Own.” As an aside, it is one of the best books I have read in a very long time.

During the discussion, Glaude mentioned the last book that Baldwin wrote before he died. First copyrighted in 1985, “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” is Baldwin’s reportage on the Atlanta child murders that had taken place between 1979 and 1981, during which time 28 mostly Black children were killed. Glaude pointed out Atlanta was run by a Black administration during the years that Black children were turning up missing and dead. I immediately bought the book and began to read.

In the forward to the 1995 edition of the book, Derrick Bell (1930-2011), the first tenured African American professor of law at Harvard Law School and civil rights advocate, wrote, “In this reissue of his 1995 essay on the Atlanta child murders, ‘The Evidence of Things Not Seen,’ Baldwin presents a painfully revealing portrait of a city’s crises. He lays bare the pervasive presence of race that moved so many to protect the image of the city rather than address the conditions that led to the deaths of many young Black people.”

Reading Baldwin is always a mystical experience for me. His prescience, fascinating and compelling sentence structure and willingness to lay bare his own pain while fearlessly calling out those racist persons and systems who have caused it are breathtaking. I am always struck by the timelessness of his prophetic prose.

And there it was on page 54; my personal evidence of things not seen or said. Baldwin writes, “I met Ms. Bell twice or three times, briefly and publicly, and I found her to be an impressive and very moving woman. She was blunt and handsome, clearheaded, outgoing. I could not interview her because I simply did not know what to say to the mother of a murdered child, still less what to ask. I was certain that some kind of ghoulish curiosity was in my eyes and in my voice. I, mainly, listened. Her concern was what she took to be the official indifference to the slaughter of the children, which connected, for her, with the economic status of the victims.”

I have read those six sentences out loud and to myself dozens of times while waiting for the opportunity to expose our own homegrown ambivalence. Ms. Bell was clearly on to something – 36 years ago – something I have long suspected. The official indifference is connected to the economic status of the victims.

Time and again, Virgin Islands administrators and officials have had a chance to do something that has worked in many places far more complicated than the Virgin Islands. Time and again, they have balked, forgotten or downright refused to go forward. Time and again I have questioned and interviewed those here and abroad about whether the strategy developed and applied by David Kennedy of the National Network for Safe Communities could work here. These are former police commissioners, current law enforcement officers and experts, and Kennedy himself. “Yes,” has been the answer 100 percent of the time.

So, what’s stopping us?

– Homicide Is-Calculable and Curable: Part 1
– Homicide Is-Calculable and Curable: Part 2