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A Killer Summer

in_memoriam_coverA Killer Summer

Makeshift memorials for victims of fatal gunshot wounds became an all-too-familiar sight in our city this summer.

PHILADELPHIA WEEKLY (SEPT. 1, 2004)
BY KATE KILPATRICK // PHOTOS BY JEFF FUSCO

A note written on loose-leaf and posted to a telephone pole at the corner of 56th and Diamond this August
morning reads:

Raqueen,
God has come to take you home to a much better and peaceful place. One day we will be together again. I
have God on my side to keep my spirit alive. You’ve blessed me with a beautiful son, we will keep your memory alive. … R.I.P. My Love.
Love, Nydrea.

Twenty-two-year-old Raqueen Mack, who lived a block away, was shot on this corner three nights earlier on his way back from the store. Two bright memorials have already taken shape on opposite corners, proof that his tragic death won’t go forgotten.

“I’m hurt about this,” says a young man in a long-sleeved gray Enyce shirt and jeans, removing the baseball cap from his head as he approaches the corner. “We were all just out here the other night.”

On one corner a giant orange teddy bear leans against a pole, a camouflage army hat and white gym towel resting on its head. The posterboards above it are covered with scrawled messages. The brevity of the notes doesn’t mask the pain:

Young Guns, 56th St’s finest, R.I.P. Dad, One Love Your Nigga Pook #1.

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Making time: A friend signs Raqueen Mack's memorial in Overbrook.

On the other corner, a dozen or so balloons are tied to a pole. The messages read “I’m Sorry” and “Miss You,” sympathies that seem better suited for a breakup or a broken leg. Stuffed animals form a neat circular pile on the pavement beneath. A small brown teddy bear’s arms are wrapped around a miniature basket that holds seven honey-flavored Dutches. “R.I.P. Roc” is scrawled across the front of a bottle of E&J brandy. A half-inch of liquor remains, saved, presumably, for Raqueen.

“I’m so sick of these,” says a woman who knew Raqueen, referring to the proliferation of memorials that have become a constant reminder of the fragility of life in the ’hood. “He wasn’t like that—like those hoodlums. He may have got in a little trouble, but he was a good kid. They don’t even care. They don’t even value life. It’s just sad.”

The neighborhood used to be good, says the woman, glancing around at the surrounding big suburban-style homes with neat lawns and litter-free sidewalks. “Used to be.”

CoverAs police cars circle the block, two young men Raqueen’s age pull up and stop their car in the middle of the street. Large raindrops have started to fall, but they take their time rearranging the stuffed animals and adding their dedications to Raqueen on the posterboard and brandy bottle.

Philadelphia averages more than six murders every seven days, most of them resulting from gunshot wounds. Last year more than half the victims—187 people—were African-American men between the ages of 15 and 29.

According to the city’s Report Card 2004, a study of children’s health and safety indicators in Philadelphia, already “problematic” conditions for children and youth across the city are getting even worse.

The report’s most disturbing trend is an escalation in the number of young homicide victims. While major crimes like murder, rape and aggravated assault have declined significantly in recent years, the number of juvenile victims of those crimes has increased. Gunshot wounds caused 90 percent of the homicides of young people in the city last year.

The ritual of death by gunshot has become all too familiar in the city. Police pick up shells and tie crime tape while the community lights candles and builds shrines.

Friends, family, loved ones and neighbors make their way to the crime scene to pay their respects. Often there are two memorials within a single block—one on the corner where the deceased hung out with their friends or was gunned down by their enemies, the other on the porch or pavement in front of the family’s home. Biographies are scripted in the shrine’s details: a black bandanna, an Islamic prayer rug, a pair of baby sneakers.

No murals are painted, no park benches dedicated or stories written for the vast majority of these fallen soldiers. Many of the murders don’t even merit a blurb in the newspaper or a 10-second spot on the local news. The memorials—sincere and spontaneous—help families grieve, but fill only a small part of the void left behind. They help because it’s a collective recognition of the loss, a mourning of the tragedy, a place to put the hurt.

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Bear hugs: Family members and friends leave heartfelt messages for Kareem Neely.

On a gray Tuesday afternoon on a tiny street near the Golden Block—a commercial stretch of Fifth Street heading north from Lehigh—in the Fairhill section of North Philadelphia, a memorial is building. A framed photo shows a young man with a shaved head and a beard holding a smiling baby girl in his lap.

A long gold chain is draped over the shoulders of both father and daughter. Next to the photo sits a big stuffed gorilla on which someone wrote “WE WILL ALWAYS LOVE AND REMEMBER BOTH OF YOU” neatly in black marker.

A man in a beer distributor van drives down the narrow block and pauses a few seconds to look before continuing up to Lehigh Avenue. A man in a gray Mazda nods his head back and forth a few times before accelerating away. A teenager, 14 or 15, in a T-shirt and basketball shorts, pounds his fist against his chest two times as he walks past.

The tranquility of the moment is suddenly disturbed by a blasting car stereo as a maroon Grand Marquis—with “IN LOVING MEMORY OF AMO AND JOSIAH” written in white paint across the rear windshield—turns onto the quiet block.

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Fatherless Philly: Marlon Henderson left behind four children, including Marlon Jr., front.

The car pulls up and stops beside the shrine. “Amo” is 22-year-old Joseph Cruz, who two days earlier shot his six-month-old daughter, Josiah, in the head before turning the barrel on himself, here in his mother’s home.

The music blasting from the stereo is Cuban Link’s “Flowers for the Dead,” a song the Latino rapper wrote for his friend Big Pun.

Flowers for the dead
At times I hear your voice still in my head
Wishing you were here instead
These precious memories I can’t forget
Unas flores para los muertos

Inside the car, a young guy, tall and thin with a big ’fro and a bright orange Akademiks T-shirt, throws his car into park with the engine running and the volume on full blast. Opening the car door, he swings his legs out onto the street but remains seated in the car, his elbows on his knees, motionless except for the slow and steady movement of cigarette to mouth. His eyes stay focused on the memorial in front of him.

The song is on repeat and starts over several times:

Twin, we’ve been best friends
Ever since we were little kids
So I sit and reminisce
On all the things we ever did …

The young man breaks down, weeping, his long torso shaking uncontrollably as his silent tears spill onto the street between his spotless white sneakers.

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Family ties: When Marlon Henderson died, his 20-year-old twin sister Marcie became a mother of five.

“I promised myself I would never bring a child into this world. It’s not a real world. It’s not. I don’t feel real at all now,” says 20-year-old Marcie Henderson, whose twin brother Marlon died two days earlier from two bullet wounds to the head.

But Henderson did have a child, a son, and now she has her brother’s four children to look after as well. The oldest is 4.

Children are playing everywhere on this close-knit block—riding bikes, passing a football, running in and out of the house. Most of the families here grew up together.

Henderson is still not sure who her brother’s killers are, or why they did it. She says her brother never sold drugs. He was in a fight years ago, and it’s possible those people were still holding a grudge. Or maybe it had to do with the friends he was hanging with. “I used to tell him all the time,” she says, “you don’t need no friends but your family.”

Most of Marlon’s friends are at the shop right now, getting T-shirts printed and dog tags made. From the number of messages on the plywood board outside the family’s home, it appears there are many.

R.I.P. Marlon. I love you dog. Drew
Mall you with “Allah” now. Carol

But Marlon must have had enemies too. And in this city, enemies can prove deadly.

“A lot of guys don’t like to see other guys with nice shit,” Marcie says. “They think they’re taking their money. That’s the problem.”

Jealousy ends the lives of young people caught up in grudges. Sometimes the grudges aren’t even against them, but against family members or close friends. The violence leaves behind a whole community of innocent people. Children
grow up without their fathers, mothers without their sons, sisters without their brothers.

“I still can’t believe he’s gone,” says Marcie Henderson of her twin brother. “I’m never gonna get over this ever in my life. Never. I will never in my life until the day I die. I will never get over this.”

“I fear God,” says Dante, 26, Marlon’s brother. “I don’t fear nobody else but God. I’m not hiding from nobody. The enemy want me, he can come get me.” ■

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The Victims
1) Andre Bowie | Age: 20 Date murdered: June 27.
Where murdered: 4100 block of Brown Street, Belmont.
Details: Shot unarmed after a staring/shouting match with
two gunmen standing in front of a speakeasy.

2) Malik Upchurch | Age: 15 Date murdered: July 1.
Where murdered: 28th and Wharton streets; memorial at 27th and Earp streets, Grays Ferry.
Details: Shot by a group of young men warring with a group from Malik’s block. At least two males on bikes came up and shot him in the chest with a .380 semiautomatic. A week later Malik’s best friend Joey Smith, 14, was shot in the neck, caught in the crossfire of bullets intended for someone else.

3) Kareem Neely | Age: 26 Date murdered: July 6.
Where murdered: 4500 block of North Gratz Street, Nicetown.
Details: Police found a total of 30 shell casings from 9 mm, .45-caliber and .40-caliber weapons.

4) Christopher Lock | Age: 18 Date murdered: July 9.
Where murdered: 3000 block of West Dakota Street, North Philadelphia.
Details: Gunshot wound to the stomach.

5) Khalif Gallashaw | Age: 19 Date murdered: July 9.
Where murdered: 100 block of East Sharpnack Street, Mt. Airy.
Details: Single bullet wound to the head.

6) Zakee Robinson | Age: 20 Date murdered: July 24.
Where murdered: 1700 block of North Newkirk Street; memorial at 2900 block of Jefferson Street, North Philadelphia.
Details: Bullet to the upper chest.

7) Josiah | Age: Six months.
Joseph “Amo” Cruz | Age: 22
Date murdered: July 25.
Where murdered: 3000 block of North Orkney Street, Fairhill.
Details: Murder/suicide.

8 ) Raqueen Mack | Age: 22 Date murdered: July 31.
Where murdered: 56th and Diamond streets, Overbrook.
Details: Suffered four gunshot wounds to the side and right arm while on his way back from the store at night.

9) Ameria Walter | Age: 7 Date murdered: Aug. 2.
Where murdered: 3200 block of D Street, Kensington.
Details: Allegedly beaten to death by her mother and her mother’s boyfriend at home.

10) Niya Burrell | Age: 3 Date murdered: Aug. 2.
Where murdered: 1500 block of Peach Street, West Philadelphia.
Details: Allegedly beaten to death at home by her father.

11) Louis “Goya” Bonano | Age: 19 Date murdered: Aug. 13.
Where murdered: 600 block of West Butler Street, Hunting Park.

12) Laquickta Robinson | Age: 26 Date murdered: Aug. 13.
Where murdered: 800 block of West Bristol Street, Hunting Park.
Details: Mother of four allegedly shot in the head by her ex-boyfriend.

13) David “Tycoon” James | Age: 24 Date murdered: Aug. 14.
Where murdered: 2700 block of Bonsall Street, North Philadelphia.
Details: Shot in his home.

14) Tyrone Blue Jr. | Age: 16 Date murdered: Aug. 16.
Where murdered: 5500 block of Poplar Street, West Philadelphia.
Details: Shot once in the back and staggered to his uncle’s house a half block away, where he died in his uncle’s arms.

15) Marlon Henderson | Age: 20 Date murdered: Aug. 20.
Where murdered: 5800 block of Christian Street.
Details: Father of four died of a gunshot to the forehead and left eye.

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