by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The porch light is off. His mother says if you turn it on, “It just gives them something to shoot at.” Same goes for the lamp in the den, which can be seen from the street. Off. They sit here — on an old couch, in front of bare walls and a TV set — in semi-darkness. Hiding in their homes.

“You’ll want to move away from that window,” the mother suggests.

“How many nights a week do you hear shooting?”

She blinks, as if surprised by the question.

“Every night. They shoot like it’s their job or somethin.”

Every night. We are not in Beirut or Bosnia. We are on Faircrest Street in northeast Detroit, where half the houses are burned beyond repair, and the winter wind brushes the sidewalks with loose trash left by sanitation workers in a hurry. Nobody stays long in these parts. No one takes a stroll around the neighborhood. If you try to live a normal life here, you may not live long. Every night. Like it’s their job.

Jemale Jackson, age 16, watches his mother, then glances at the TV. It flashes without sound. He flicks the channels. A sitcom. A car commercial. A football game — he holds there for a moment. Football. There was a time Jemale saw himself through football. He played at Denby High, played both ways, left guard, defensive tackle, he dreamed of a scholarship, maybe had a chance.

“I played baseball and got a trophy once in basketball,” he says with teenage assurance, “but football was my life.”

His old life. The one that ended June 22. Now his legs are limp and his feet don’t move and he plays football only when he sleeps. In his dreams, he feels the air rush past his face, he feels motion, contact, speed. Once, he could run so fast. But he made a mistake, he behaved like a normal kid, he went outside after dark, Bullet Time. And he just couldn’t run fast enough. Out of nowhere, a gunshot

“Why did I walk up that block? I ask myself that all the time. I knew it was past my curfew. But my cousin Mario was over and I didn’t want to be a sucker or nothing. . . .

“It was summer. Friday night, just before 11 o’clock. We went to the store, me, my cousin, some girls, about six of us. We didn’t even have any money. So we didn’t get nothing. We started walking back, and we were halfway home, we were on Glenwood, when it happened.”

He pauses, shifts his neck. His face is soft and round, and his sweatshirt sags on his now-thin body. Jemale Jackson tells his story with the deadened tone of a prisoner already tortured. What can they do to him now? He assigns no blame. He does not cry. You asked, he tells.

“One guy in our group, Phil, he stopped to talk to these girls. We yelled
‘Come on, Phil.’ Then we heard a gunshot, and nobody even looked, we just started running. Then I heard another shot. I tried to run, but I felt funny, and then I fell down on my face. My forehead hit the street.”

Jackson had just become one of 277 kids under age 16 to be shot in Detroit this year. Thirty-three are dead. The others, like Jemale, are left alive to wonder why.

The bullet, a .25 caliber, entered his back below his neck and lodged in his chest. No reason. No motive. The shooters — believed to be a local gang that wore red scarves — scattered quickly.

Jackson never saw them.

“When I went to move, I couldn’t. . . . Then this kid, he came riding up on his bike. He saw what happened, and he rode away to get my stepfather.”

And you?

“I just lay there.”

People watched from windows. People watched from porches. Peeping eyes, awaiting the next round of horror. Jemale Jackson, a decent kid who was going to high school and wanted to go to college and whose big, tragic mistake was going to get some snacks at the store, lay paralyzed on Glenwood Street, in his Florida Panthers jersey and black denim shorts.

The future of this city nailed to the street. Word got around who did it

The police never spoke to Patricia Jackson, Jemale’s mother, or Robert Schell, his stepfather. Although there was a squad car at the site when the ambulance took Jemale away, no officers came to St. John hospital or Children’s Hospital, where Jemale stayed for nearly two months. Eventually, Patricia, who was working two jobs to try and make ends meet, had to go to the 9th Precinct herself. She told them the story.

“It took about an hour,” she says.

She has heard nothing since.

“As far as we know, there is not even an investigation into this,” Schell says. He shakes his head. Who is he supposed to see? He works in a paint store in Sterling Heights, has been a father to Jemale since the kid was 7 years old. Jemale’s natural father was never around. Spent a lot of time in jail. He is dead now. All Patricia knows is that “he died of natural causes.”

He was 29.

Natural causes?

“That’s what I was told,” she says.

If you find this incredible, you are lucky to live where you do. The truth is, young black men go down at an horrific rate in this city. There is not always a good explanation.

There is rarely justice.

So when Jemale, the ex-football player, came home from the hospital, paralyzed from his chest down, needing help to do even the simplest things — he had to wear a diaper, be bathed, have his limbs worked — he also had to suffer this indignity: to see his assailant, walking around, free as the breeze.

“Word got back around who did it, who shot me,” Jemale says. “It was this guy, real dark skin, he’s like one year older than me. He’s in one the gangs, maybe PPG, Pimps Players and Gangsters, or PDQ, Put ’em Down Quick, or CSC, Corner Street Crips.

“Anyhow, I seen him one day, by my street. I was in my wheelchair on the porch, and I saw him. My uncle was over, and he saw him too.”

Did he look at you?

“Yeah, he looked at me, and then he got in his van real quick and left.”

What did you feel?

“Me? I wanted to shoot him. See how he liked it.”

His eyes go thin and steely, for a moment he really means it, then he loosens and sighs. He is still not that cruel. He has never fired a gun. He has never been in a gang. He has been shot and he has seen others shot, and he once witnessed a man executed right across the street. Shot at close range, in the head, by two men who then ran away.

After all this, Jemale Jackson says, “Guns are stupid.”

And he’s the one with a bullet in his chest. Keeping the faith

“All I want to do is move to someplace safe. Someplace where there’s no shooting on your block or the next block over. That’s all. That’s good enough. Just two safe blocks.”

Patricia Jackson exhales. “As soon as I can make the money, I want us to get out of here to a place like that.”

She sits down next to her son, adjusts his Michigan cap. She works for the board of education but can only get part-time hours. She has held second jobs as a nurse’s aide, a cashier, a cook. Maybe, between her and Robert, they make
$20,000 in a good year. Patricia was once beaten by a man with a gun — there is almost no one in this neighborhood without a story — and she refuses to have a weapon in the house. She had taught this to Jemale and was proud he had learned it. Just as she was proud of his football and proud of his dream to attend Southern University one day. She remembers — on the day he was shot — his report card arrived in the mail. One A, two B’s, three C’s.

He’d been promoted to the 11th grade.

The next time she saw him, he was lying in the hospital.

“The only thing that helps me keep my faith is that Jemale is still here with me. He didn’t die. He’s still alive. A lot of mothers around here don’t have that.”

She slides a little closer to Jemale.

“At least he wasn’t killed.”

You want to scream. No answer to the big question

In Congress they debate a crime bill. In newspapers and on radio they debate “how to tackle the issue.” Meanwhile, inside the decaying white frame house on Faircrest, Jemale Jackson squints to make out a brochure for a new wheelchair. He is due to get one sometime soon, hopefully before the money runs out. With improved movement in his arms and neck, he is planning to return to a new high school next month — most likely Osborn, one of the Detroit schools equipped with facilities for the physically disabled.

Still, there will be no sports. And none of the old dancing around. Jemale, once a popular, jovial teen, does not seem excited to leave his lonely routine of video games and TV.

“Are you worried people will look at you like ‘the kid in the wheelchair?” he is asked.

He shrugs, then looks at his mother, who is nodding sadly, and he nods, too.

Did you know that throughout this ordeal, Jemale Jackson cried just once? He did not cry when he was shot. He did not cry in the ambulance, nor at the hospital, nor when they poked him with tubes, or bathed him with a sponge, or wiped him like an infant. He did not cry then.

But when his mother came one day and he asked her, “Why did I get shot?” and she said no one knew, and the police, well, the police wouldn’t do anything, Jemale thought to himself, “That’s it. They threw my file away.”

And he burst into tears.

He cried when he felt he didn’t count.

The truth is they all count, every kid like Jemale, every last one of those 277 with a bullet wound and a story. They are the soil of our city. We have no future if they keep dying. How many more? This is only a few miles from all of us.

There’s a story this week about a new bullet that is so destructive, it rips through bulletproof vests and tears a hole in your body the size of a baseball. Some guy invented this for “the protection of our citizens.” These maniacs, with their logic of more guns, more bullets. And for every one person who actually stops violence with a trigger, there are a hundred kids going down face-first. This is where we’re headed, folks, right here, lights out on Faircrest Street, our own wild west, where Patricia Jackson says, “I’m at the point where I don’t even jump when I hear a gunshot. We’re so used to it, we expect it to happen.”

Jemale misses this. He is still on the brochure of the Action-Pro Wheelchair. He studies the wheels, the shape of the seat.

“It’s gonna be lighter,” he says. “So I’m gonna be able to move faster, right?”

He stops on this word “faster,” perhaps realizing it doesn’t mean what it used to. He puts down the brochure, turns up the TV, and his mother and stepfather find a safe place to sit, away from the window, in case someone else wants target practice tonight. Lights out on Faircrest Street. How many more? How many more?


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!