By Rabi’a Mirhadian
I was along for the ride so to speak. My friend called me and said, “I have to go to see the family of this boy that was killed in Richmond, can you go with me?” I suppose even among Muslims there is strength in numbers, both of us being black, so I said, “Yes, I’ll go.” I knew little or nothing about this killing except it was a young Palestinian boy. To me, as a nurse for many years and a resident of Richmond for a few, I had grown hardened around this issue. Even if I allowed myself to care, what would it matter? Each day another one is gone, and for what?
We entered the house and out of nowhere this petite, sweet faced and composed woman in a tidy hijab came to greet us. As she put her arms around my neck, our eyes met. Who was this? I wondered. She was one of many women I’d meet that night. As we settled in surrounded by kids and talking women, I found myself still trying to figure out who this boy was.
As the evening wore on, it became apparent that the woman who was making sure everyone was fed and cared for was the mother of the stricken boy. I had never seen such poise. In a corner, several women talked in conspiratorial tones; soon, klatches formed and the gossip was flying. Young men milled around outside the house. The anger was tangible. I know that anger and youth is as volatile as gasoline and fire; I prayed that these young men stayed calm even though unwittingly the people inside were whipping up the flames with hearsay.
Another friend who was present asked me something. I gave my two cents worth and before I knew it, I was included in a group of people accompanying the mother and family members to the police department. For what, I had no idea ; I don’t think anyone really knew. However, we had the momentum behind us. I said, “I’ll figure out where to go and we can talk to the police.” Why did I volunteer? Well, I had to make sense of things. It had been my life’s work to take chaos and make sense of it. In the emergency room, it was expected of one to quickly make sense out of commotion; so here I was, the nurse pulling disparate ends together to make it work out.
The boy’s mother came to me and said, “Will you come?” I had no choice then, because when someone asks for my help, I immediately start trying to find solutions.
When I got to the police station the next morning, no one was there. I thought to myself what a big mistake this was, but a friend drove up realizing that we were supposed to be at a different station.”
We both got in our cars and drove to the new station, expecting to see the family there. As anticipated, they were there already. The night before I had prepared a list of questions for the mother to ask the police; I find it always helps to be prepared. If nothing else it would forestall the angry outbursts I was expecting from some of them. We entered the police station and found to our dismay that the detective assigned to the case was not there. My friend turned to me and wondered aloud, “What do we do?” Shrugging, I said, “Ask to talk to someone else, a supervisor”. After all, one of the main complaints from the family was that no one was telling them a cohesive story about what had transpired to lead to the shooting.
I stood there wanting to put myself in the shoes of the mother for a moment so I could get a bearing on what to feel, where to go, but of course, it didn’t happen that way.
A policewoman came out and approached the group. She planned to talk to us right there in the waiting room. I asked, “Isn’t there somewhere more private where we can talk?” She acquiesced and took us into the hallway just inside the door. I said, “No, please, I think the mother of the young man who was killed wants to ask a few questions if you can give us the time.” She did not hesitate but walked us into a large conference room and sat us all down. I pulled out the piece of paper and read off each question carefully while she answered each one calmly. The family sat.
I said, “I have no more questions, please go ahead.” The family asked what exactly had happened, if the responsible boy would get a mild sentence, why they let some of the kids go, and more to that effect. The mother also wanted her son’s belongings. The Sergeant, however, said that it was too soon for the clothing to be given because it was needed for evidence. So we left that day, some feeling a bit better, others clearly very angry. Now we knew at least the perpetrator was not going to get bailed out and run; unlike so many, at least Asama’s killer was in jail.
On my way home I decided to stop by the halal store to pick up some meat. As I stood at the counter waiting for the man to ring up my purchase, I noticed something. My mind began to go back in time, years ago: there he was, a boy standing behind that counter. He had dimples and he was what we called “thick.” I teased him a bit because he was always wiping his hands on his apron. He took it kindly, and like a good Muslim boy, he would never look me in the eye; he would blush and look away, but there would always be that sly smile that told me, “Stop teasing me Auntie.”
Now I knew who was dead, the sweet-faced, dimpled kid who would ring up my purchases; the boy I had watched grow-up behind the counter of the store. My heart sunk a bit lower in my chest.
They say he had a car he was very proud of. Boys are like that, a nice car by street standards that would draw attention – nice rims, a nice stereo. He wasn’t into anything notorious; he was just a kid, proud of his ride. But it was Ju’mah, Friday, and time to be at the Mosque.
He was parked, showing off his stereo to his cousin who was along for the ride. Neither of them were aware of anything happening around them. They were enjoying their youth, their friendship, and likely making plans for the evening. Isn’t this what young boys do? Life is so good at this age.
In a van nearby, six kids with nowhere to go and no direction in life were out joy riding; Nickie was behind the wheel. Nickie didn’t know Asama, Asama didn’t know Nickie, but there was something about Asama that Nickie didn’t like: his car. Maybe Nickie thought, “That’s the car that “person x” was riding in that caused me some grief.” So he followed Asama and his cousin – maybe to get a better look, perhaps to get a better aim. The other kids in his car undoubtedly wanted out, tried to talk to him, “Naw man, that ain’t the car.”
But Nickie was hell bent on doing something, maybe he was just showing off, maybe he was jealous. Whatever it was, for some reason he pulled out a gun and fired into Asama’s car, hitting Asama in the chest and hitting his cousin in the leg. I can only imagine the pain, the shock, and the fear that enveloped the inside of that car. Two boys having fun, enjoying the fullness of life – suddenly hell bursts in on them and starts to wreak havoc. Asama tries to drive back to the Mosque, he is dying, and he knows it. He says the shahadah (the attestation of faith for a Muslim). The fact that a boy so young could have the mental fortitude to think to say these words says something about his unbelievable spirit.
And so he was buried. His beloved car now laid bare in the police evidence lot, his torn and bloody clothing neatly packed in brown paper bags in the evidence room of the police department.
Nickie sits waiting, contemplating spending the rest of his life in hell. He has confessed to shooting Asama, and according to the police sergeant, feels a great deal of remorse. But nobody cares. Nobody cares about Nickie – he is a killer, a cold blooded random killer. He has a black face which makes it all the worse for me since I am black and Muslim. I always believe that even the killers are randomly picked by fate, the same fate that placed a kid in the womb of a mother who is a crack head, or the same fate that had them born in Richmond, California instead of Orange County. Here I am a black woman, a Muslim, accompanying a family of Palestinians. People I knew but didn’t know I knew, that’s how small the community is. A boy I liked, teased and often talked to was gone. I had no idea it was him. I felt a creeping guilt.
His father is a big man. No, he is huge. He looks like he could throw a rock and knock a man out with it (without a slingshot). His fists are the size of cantaloupes. I see the anger shaking him, making him say things. I see it. I hear it. I am far beyond sad. I am still aching from the death of Oscar Grant and the verdict. He is saying everything under the sun except “I want to kill that boy for killing my son.” I have brought my video camera hoping to get the family to talk about their feelings. But the father was clearly there tonight to talk about his hate for the Richmond Police Department.
We had all gone to the Richmond City Council Meeting weeks ago, to speak during the two minute open session. “What are you going to say?” I was asked. “Hurry get your slip so you can say something for Asama.” I racked my brain. No one else said what they were going to say, how would I know what to say? So I sat there with the pink slip in my hand waiting for inspiration.
And then suddenly it came. I am a medical professional. I am a Public Health Nurse. Crime is epidemic in Richmond, like some disease, like Ebola silently taking one after another, unstoppable… There is no vaccine, no shot, and no medicine. I scribbled something on the paper. I was always conscious of Asama’s sweet mother nearby; her heart broken, tears welling up in the corners of her eyes. I had to say the right thing…
My name was called and I stood up.
“Good evening City Council members, I want to thank you, and the Police department for rapid and immediate resolution of this heinous crime. I would also like to ask you to use all your resources including your Public Health department to address this epidemic of violence in your city. If people started dropping dead of measles or cholera, you would mobilize every available doctor, nurse, policeman and paramedic. But when our kids are being killed by ‘bullets’ no one blinks an eye. I urge you to address this as a Public Health issue.”
I felt it wasn’t enough, it went over their heads. We just got to vent, that’s all.
Tonight I am at their home again. This time I am a bit lonely; no one I know is here. By now, I have met all the family. The mother Fayza is as always perfect, smiling the smile of a mother who is constantly on the verge of tears but who is being brave for everyone else. I hand her the questions for the interview we are going to do. She takes it to look it over. I have my video camera. My friend arrives with a shaykh, one I have seen before. He sits looking uncomfortable, unclear as to what has happened besides a murder. The father fills him in.
I videotape the shaykh as he makes some good points. Of course, everyone cannot get a shaykh when their kid dies. Asama’s family is lucky in this way.
But still, in the young, I sense unsettledness. I feel that need to “do” something. There is nothing to do but wait, which is not something the youth do well.
I want to comfort them by saying, I know, I know. You want to hurt them like they hurt you. You want to rip apart their lives as they did yours. You have not only the anger of the righteous but also as a brother, sister, cousin who had a beloved friend ripped from you too soon. But one thing we have heard over and over again is we know not the time that we will be called home. Some will go by bullet, some by car accident, and some by cancer. Some will go by stroke, some by unknown reasons, and some by war. But we all go. We hope it is at the end of life, when we have finished “living,” resolved a few things, and maybe even built things for others. At eighty – perhaps then we will be ready. Not in the blush of youth with vigor and strength still in the bones. We are not supposed to go in our beauty, not at the height of life. How cruel, how utterly wasteful and sad. And yet as the elders say, “Allah is still on the throne” and so He is; even today when feelings are like a Ferris wheel, round and round, up and down.
I have never had words for mourning. I have never had the ability to soothe so easily because my tongue is locked up in emotional turmoil at times like this. So there is a poem, from a movie that was said at the funeral of a dear friend who had died unexpectedly. I believe that poem is fitting here.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone
W. H. Auden
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let airplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message; He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Friday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
And so for situations where there are no words, I offer these, which seems to sum it up well enough.
Death, according to the Qur’an, is not the end of man’s life; it only opens the door to another, a higher form of life:
“We have decreed death among you, and We are not to be outdoneIn that We will change your likenesses and produce you in that [form] which you do not know.” (56:60-61).