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Tears Don't Stop Death

Commentary by Stan Simpson
June 18, 2005

The olive-skinned elderly man, dressed in his Sunday best, is laid out at the Henry L. Fuqua Funeral Home. He was 90. Dead of natural causes.

"This is what you expect when you come to a funeral," said Funeral Director Chris Pender. "He lived a full life."

In the back room of the North Hartford funeral home, a teenage girl fresh from an autopsy was ready to be worked on. She was a casualty of surgery complications. Though an untimely death, hers was not the gun-related fatality suffered by too many of her peers in recent months.

For a growing segment of Hartford's youth, living a long life is unrealistic. Just getting to 21 is considered an accomplishment.

"If you aren't dead by the time you're 16, you haven't lived," said Pearl Dash, sarcastically, summing up the attitude she sees from some of the young toughs who come to mourn their homies. Dash worked for 30 years as a state parole officer and now does community relations work for Fuqua.

Since 2003, 38 people under 21 have died in Hartford - 30 by gunfire. Six are already dead this year, including Weaver High School honor student Lorenzo Morgan Rowe, 15; and 19-year-old Derek R. Benford Jr., the Hartford Public High dad-to-be who was punched in the face after a high school prom, fell and suffered a fatal head injury.

A new city shuttle is making the rounds these days, carting dead youths from the hospitals to the funeral homes.

Even the professionals who make their living dealing with this stuff say it's nauseating. The cycle of violence starts with a perceived slight, escalates into a confrontation, then is followed by retaliation. A young life is snuffed out. Heartfelt emotions are expressed. The community is outraged. The politicians and police say a plan is in the works.

Then, BANG! Another victim.

"You see the same thing over and over again," says Pender. "All the kids will come out and pack a funeral. They say they will miss the person very much, but when they leave here, they go out and do the very same thing again."

Pender, 34, grew up in New Haven and has been in the funeral business for 15 years. Bald, rugged and sporting a goatee, he's the father of two young daughters. He understands the allure of the streets for some wayward young men as a way to establish a reputation and bolster their manhood.

"It's bothersome to me as a young black male myself. I know what it's like for some young guys out there on the streets. They're looking for the wrong kind of respect."

At Fuqua's funeral home, in business for more than 30 years, the staff is warm, street smart and exceptionally frustrated by what they see as a form of genocide in Hartford. A generation of young men of color are getting capped gangsta style, sometimes because they looked at someone wrong, treaded on the wrong turf or messed with a girl.

"What troubles me about it is that the youngsters don't learn from that experience. And recently, it's proliferating," says Henry Fuqua, funeral home founder. "It's a mindset. And it's going to take a long time to change it."

Katherine J. Smith tries to put a stop to the madness with her Violence & Injury Prevention Program at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center. She brings in speakers whose lives have been disrupted by violence. She also has high school students visit the trauma room, where they get a mock view of what it's like to save a life. She says its been difficult getting participation from the Hartford schools.

Dr. C. Steven Wolf , acting chairman of the hospital's Department of Emergency Medicine, is one of those folks in the trauma room. He gets so preoccupied with saving lives that he doesn't get too caught up in how young people wind up at his hospital in the first place.

Two of the six Hartford kids killed this year were his patients.

"It doesn't seem to be taking too much to pull the trigger," Wolf says. "A lot of what we're seeing seems to be ambushes, [young people] shot from behind, shot within the car from the outside. I'm not privy to how it all happened, but in getting bits and pieces from the police, it seems like a lot of it is planned."

You can double the number of cops on the streets, but if you can't get these young men to place a higher value on human lives, including their own, it won't amount to much.

Young men aren't learning that it's OK to avoid confrontation. Rather than getting labeled a "punk," some would just as soon come across as "hard," even if it results in taking a life and doing time.

"We have to change the societal norm that not only is violence not accepted, but non-violence is expected," Smith says.

Fuqua's frustration is that he has a captive audience at his Granby Road business when a youngster is murdered - hundreds of young folks coming out to mourn - but is unable to make a meaningful change in their attitudes.

"The genesis of all this is that you don't find people with Ph.D.s, master's degrees and four-year degrees killing themselves," Fuqua says. "It seems to me that the answer is pretty obvious. Let's educate them. And let them know that there is life beyond the street and that there is a better life for them."

Indeed. Frequent visits to the funeral home shouldn't embolden young people, but remind them of the consequences of retribution.

And to take heart of that old adage: The graveyards are full of tough guys.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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