The last word

On a recent Saturday afternoon that was brilliant with sunshine, I went to the funeral of a young man killed in a drive-by gang shooting.

I had met the handsome young man. He struck me as polite and reserved. I know his hardworking and honorable family. I had come to pay my respects to them.

A line of law enforcement officers stood at the chapel door. Police cars were parked across the street.

The chapel was full to standing-room only, about 400 people. I was one of five white faces there. Some of the young men looked at one another suspiciously; some looked back with eyes like blades. A few of them wore red pants or shirts as a defiant display of gang colors: the Bloods.

This funeral began like those at my Episcopal church: A minister led the processional, reciting, "I am the resurrection and the life," followed by a white casket and the family. From there, everything was different to me.

Throughout the service, a pianist noodled background music. People walked in and out, women taking small children to the bathroom and teen girls changing seats. But there was nothing relaxed about the rest of the funeral.

An aunt of the deceased delivered a fiery testimonial. She raised an arm above her head and shouted that this violence has got to stop. This street killing of our young men and women must end. She said she had already heard rumors of revenge. "Don’t do it," she told the young mourners. "Take your guns to the church and leave them there."

Sitting beside me was a young black man in sunglasses. Sometimes he was angry and cursed another mourner, "Who the (bleep) does he think he is?"

Sometimes he held his head in his hands and wept quietly. Later he told me he was a friend of the dead gang member.

The preacher’s sermon shook the walls.

"We must make a change in the way fathers raise their children," he said. "This death must be a detour for the young men present. All of you who pledge to make a change, stand up."

Throughout the chapel, men began to stand. Some older, some younger. The young man in sunglasses stood up. 

Then the preacher said, "Those of you standing, take the hands of the people sitting to your left and your right." The young man took my hand. "Now," the preacher said, "look at those people and ask, ‘Will you help me make this change?’" The young man did, and I answered that I would support him.

At the front of the chapel, a young man wearing a red-and-white sports shirt paced about during the service, clearly agitated and upset. When the casket was opened for viewing, he was the first one there. Everybody sat back and gave him time and space. Time and again he leaned over the casket — talking? praying? — then strode away. Then he walked back to the casket, leaning close again. Finally, he left, walking outside quickly and followed by several law enforcement officers.

I whispered to the young man in sunglasses, "Why did they escort him out?"

"That’s his brother," he answered. "He’s in the penitentiary. They let him out to come to the funeral."

My heart broke. Again.

When I walked out of the chapel, I stepped into a mob of about 30 young men from the funeral, young men about to explode with anger. They pushed and shoved and shouted at one another. A man told me, "You better go on and go. These kids are acting stupid." A woman said to me, "Some of them have guns."  

Adult men waded into the mob, separating the boys and trying to calm them. Just before driving away, the last thing I saw was my young man in sunglasses. He was in the middle of the roiling crowd of youth. He was butting his chest against another young man. Defiant. Challenging. Threatening. No longer was he weeping and pledging to change. At this moment, he was solely an aggressive young male full of rage. 

Why do young people in Tulsa join gangs? Why do neighborhoods in London riot? 

We know the answers. I’m not sure we know what to do about it. I don’t.

So we bury our young people and mourn.

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Connie Cronley is the author of four books, commentator for public radio 89.5 FM and a columnist for TulsaPeople.

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