We'd met years earlier, when I'd written a column about mothers trying to protect one of society's biggest long shots: black sons. She was unluckier than most; she was trying to raise four boys and had already lost one when he was shot and killed in Hartford.
And now here she was, calling me years later about another son, hoping I could somehow better her odds.
Just a few weeks earlier, he'd come home holding his mouth, blood gushing through his fingers. He'd been pistol-whipped by another boy who was after a mutual friend but turned on her son instead.
Call the police, she demanded.
No way, he said. He was no snitch.
She could barely contain herself; that insipid snitching code was why her son's murder remains unsolved. As a cruel sidebar, one of the young men rumored responsible is buried in the same cemetery.
She bluffed and said she wouldn't take him to the emergency room if he refused to talk to the police.
He ended up going with another relative, but when he got back from the hospital, she told him if he didn't call the cops, he was out of the house.
Reluctantly he did, and the police arrested his attacker.
But as soon as he was out on bail, things got bad.
First, there were the calls; warnings that life for a snitch wasn't going to be easy. Then the mother was walking down the street when a hand came out of a passing car, pretending to cock a gun. Another son's car was shot up.
Talk to the cops? Her other son could barely believe she was suggesting that again. Talking to cops is why they were in this mess. And, he wanted to know, what death wish did she have by talking to a reporter?
I'd written stories like this before, convinced that cops might be a little more attentive, that the bad guys would maybe back off, if they knew people were watching, that someone cared.
But there was something about the way she wavered when I told her I needed to use names. Without them, I explained, her family's situation was too easy to dismiss. Let's be honest, even plastering victims' names and faces in the paper was no guarantee anyone would care.
But she was scared, really scared, so I said I'd hold off until I knew more about who she was so afraid of.
Everything I needed to know was right there in the guy's court records, a blueprint of escalating chaos: drug dealing, burglary, assault. As I read through his files, I couldn't understand why his bonds were set so low. Each time he broke the law, he just waltzed out of trouble.
After the last rash of violence in Hartford, wasn't our officials' latest, greatest idea to target people just like him?
The next day, he had a court appearance on a different case, so I went. There's something about people not realizing they're being watched that gives you all kinds of information you'd never get by talking to them.
I don't know what I expected, but I didn't expect what I found.
He was tall and thin, gawky even. A guy you'd pass by without a second thought - and that made me nervous.
If he'd been big and menacing, at least you could see him coming. But this guy, he was ordinary. The kind of ordinary that makes so many kids in the city desperate to do whatever it takes to make them stand out, to stop being invisible.
I left court feeling frustrated and cornered.
We were all trying to do the right thing, to play by some set of rules.
The mother demanded her son call the police.
He did, however reluctantly.
I was trying to get some attention for this family.
But this guy, he wasn't bound by any rules. In fact, he was free to flout them.
And that was infuriating - not just because it left this family trapped, but because it so pitifully demonstrates how this pathological phenomenon of silence paralyzes this city.
I've fought against it; always insisting that the benefit of stepping up and speaking out outweighs the harm. But here I am pulling a punch, leaving names and details out.
So what happens when doing the right thing can hurt the wrong people?
No matter how much I thought about it, I couldn't find a good answer.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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