The blood is still there, on the asphalt, in sad little stains. When the sun is hot, the stains seem to take color, to wet, and the kids from the neighborhood ride their bikes past and say, “That’s where he got it, man. Right here. Damn! Chester!” And then they ride on, past the rusted green trash dumpster to the basketball courts. No guards at this burial ground. This is a public high school. When a student gets shot in the middle of lunch, in the middle of the parking lot, for nothing, and now he’s dead, there is a ripple of pause and then everything goes on. Kids and bullets.
On the day after the murder, Robert Jackson, a ninth-grader who weighs maybe a hundred pounds, was sitting in a hot dog joint on West Warren Avenue across from the school, Murray- Wright High School. A newspaper was folded on the table in front of him. The headline read “STUDENT SHOT DEAD, 2 INJURED.” He stared at it.
“Did you know Chester?” someone asked.
“Yup,” he said softly. “I knew him.”
“Was he a friend of yours?”
“Did you see what happened?”
“I was in the cafeteria.”
“Do you know who shot him?”
“He was a tall kid.”
“A tall kid?”
“Yeah. Light-skinned. But I don’t know him.”
“But he had the gun?”
“What kind of gun?”
“Where’d he get a gun like that?”
“From the street maybe.”
“He bought it?”
“What’s a gun like that cost on the street?”
“Maybe a hundred dollars.”
“Was this kid in your grade?”
He fidgeted in his chair.
“How old are you?”
“Fourteen.” Kids and bullets.
The day before, Chester Jackson Jr., 17, a star running back for Murray-Wright, had been shot in the head by this tall ninth-grader. And now Jackson is dead, and another student, Damon Mathews, 18, a senior on the basketball team, is in the hospital with a bullet wound in the face. And the suspect, who reportedly tried to look tough as the police drove him away, is in a youth home awaiting a hearing.
It is the second shooting in a Detroit public school in less than three months. No one is sure why this trigger was pulled. What kind of reason do you think? The “assailant” was 14 years old. There is one story about a food fight. There is one story about a chase. There is one in which the last words Chester Jackson said to the kid before being snuffed out were, “Why are you shooting at me?”
There are stories.
Robert got up to buy some cookies. He slid his money under the bulletproof glass over the counter. Then he sat back down.
“What do you remember?” he was asked.
“We were sitting in the lunchroom, and we heard the gunshot and everybody started running. I went outside and I saw Chester lying on the ground where the kid shot him.”
“Was he still alive?”
“How do you know?”
“I saw his hands moved, and his eyes were open. The janitor was saying,
‘Don’t move. Don’t move.’
“They told us to go back into school.”
“And we went back into school.”
“And . . .? “
“And the janitor put a coat over Chester’s head.”
The kid spoke softly, but without horror. He is 14. He has seen guns before. He has even fired one. Children, you might feel, should never be exposed to such things. But this is the inner city, the veins of Detroit, a place that most of us forgot about in between headlines. Today politicians are making statements and parents are screaming for changes. But it’s the kids, the Murray-Wright students, who must endure security guards and police officers and ID checks, and none of it was enough on Thursday. A few days earlier, Robert said, a man walked into the school, into a classroom, beat up a female teacher — “she was his girlfriend” — then walked out. Untouched.
“They told everyone it was a student who did it,” he said. But he and his friends claim otherwise. Until Thursday, however, even Robert had never seen someone killed. Now he has. In cold blood. He is a member of the richest potential resource of our city: He is a student in our public schools. This is his education.
“Our security ain’t s—,” he said.
A friend came into the food store, Armondo Neal, broad- shouldered with short hair and a little goatee. Armondo was wearing a sweatshirt and a blue cap. He said he was 16. And a friend of Chester’s.
“Gimme some,” he said to Robert, grabbing a piece of his cookie.
“Not so much, man!” Robert protested.
The two walked outside and leaned against a fence, watching the cars. School was out. Easter break. The shooting had taken place just a few hours before vacation.
Robert looked sad. He grabbed the links of the fence and pulled himself back and forth. Armondo started talking about Chester, about the Public School League final a few years ago, and the football game in which Chester ran for 109 yards. “Chester was dominating,” Armondo said.
“Where did the kid get the gun that killed him?” he was asked.
“He can get a gun anywhere around here.”
“You just find somebody on the street. You see the guy, you say, ‘Hey man, I need a piece.’ Easy as that. He says, ‘How much money you got?’ You say, ‘I got 50 dollars.’ He says, ’50 dollars will buy you a .38.’ You say, awright, that’ll do. He says, ‘I’ll be right back.’ He comes back with a bag, you give him the 50, he gives you the gun. Just like that.”
“Even a 14-year-old?”
“Don’t matter how old you are if you’ve got the money.”
A car passed and the driver waved. Armondo waved back. Robert was still quiet, hanging on the fence.
“What would you do to that kid if he were here now?” they were asked.
“I’d tie him to a pole and break his ribs and his arms and his legs,” Armondo said quickly, his voice rising. “I wouldn’t kill him, but I’d make him wish like he was dead.”
“Wouldn’t that be just as bad as what he did to Chester?”
“Yeah, but there’d be a point. I’d be thinking, ‘I’m doing this for Chester.’ I wouldn’t mind going to jail for beating that boy. They’d ask me why I did it? I’d say, ‘Because he killed Chester.’ They’d say, ‘Who were you to Chester?’ I’d say, ‘He was my friend.’
“You know, when I heard the news, I cried, man! A guy crying for another guy? But we were in the same grade together. I owed the blood five dollars man, to this day! I felt for him! I didn’t want it to be him. Out of all people, it’s like, damn! Chester! Why Chester? Why Chester? Why Chester?”
Armondo paused. He cocked his head, as if listening to his words float away.
“What would you do to the kid?” the question was repeated to Robert, who was staring at his shoes.
“I’d beat him down,” he said softly.
In the street “blood” is a word for friend, brother, a fellow black. At about 3 p.m., Robert and Armondo crossed Warren Avenue to look at the blood of their blood, near the trash dumpster in the Murray-Wright parking lot. Every now and then a car would pull up, and people would get out and whisper and point, and then they’d shake their heads and get back in the car and drive away.
Robert and Armondo, who have already seen too much for their years, stared without words at the blood stains. Then they wandered over to a nearby concrete wall and lifted themselves up. Another friend, a small kid with a big head whom they called “Peanut,” came by and sat with them.
“Chester, man,” said Armondo. “He was gonna be a pro football player. Born to play football! You’d see him run into a pile of guys, it seemed like they got him and all of a sudden you’d see the blood with his head up, going down the field, sprinting.”
“He was the best,” said Peanut.
“He was the best Murray-Wright ever had!” said Armondo, gesturing with his hands. “He’d come out fired up for every game. He’d be banging on his helmet. He’d say ‘Ain’t nobody stopping me, I’m Herschel Walker!’
“He’s Herschel Walker!” laughed Peanut.
“Damn!” said Armondo. “He was gonna go to a big college somewhere, like, um, he might’ve gone to, what’s that, UCLA?”
“Yeah!” said Peanut.
“UCLA,” said Robert.
“And I can say I knew Chester a long time.”
“He’s my boy.”
“He was in the fifth grade with me,” said Armondo. “We went on a school trip to Boblo Island and I ran out of money and he give me five dollars. And he ain’t never pressed me for it.”
“Nuh-uh. He’d see me at Murray-Wright and he’d say, ‘You got my five dollars, Mondo?’ and I’d say, “Aw, Chester, man, you caught me broke again.’ And he’d say, ‘Ain’t no thing. You want a hamburger?’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah.’ And he’d buy me a hamburger.
“Damn! I wanted to see him go to college so I could brag about him. You know, like we’d be somewhere, when we’re grown up, watching the football game and I’d say, ‘Yo man. I know Chester Jackson.’ And they’d say, ‘Bull, you don’t know Chester Jackson.’ And I’d pull out a picture and say, ‘Man, you wanna see a picture of me and him?’ “
“Yeah!” laughed Peanut.
“Put your money where your mouth is,” said Robert.
“HE’S A PRO FROM THE GHET-TO!” yelled Armondo.
“And he’d never dog you, man,” said Peanut. “He didn’t care if you were small or a freshman, he’d treat you the same way. We were wrestling with him the other day, me and Robert, right, Robert?”
“He didn’t hurt us, though.”
“Blood was straight,” said Armondo. “He never used drugs, he never drank. He just had football and his girlfriends. That was his thing. He earned everything he got. He wouldn’t start a fight. If somebody called him a name he’d say, ‘I ain’t got time for you.’
“And he never failed a grade either. I don’t think he ever failed. He was smart. I failed a couple times, and when I got here to Murray-Wright you know what he said? He said, ‘Damn, Mondo! It’s about time you got here.’ “
They stopped and caught their breath, the three of them, sitting on a concrete wall, paying homage. In certain religions, it is a custom to remember the dead in a wake. This was the schoolyard wake. Chester Jackson, a good kid who should still be here today, but is not.
“He made you want to come to school,” said Armondo. “Even if it was just to play with him. You’d say, ‘Today I’m gonna chase around Chester.’ It made you want to come.”
Can there be a sweeter tribute?
As the afternoon wore on, more and more kids from the neighborhood came by. They brought basketballs. They rode bicycles. They were 14 and 15 and 16 years old, from the row houses off Vermont Street and Putnam Street and Rosa Parks Boulevard. They wore Adidas sneakers without shoelaces, and caps turned backward. Most of them stopped at the blood stains for a moment, still dribbling the balls, then continued on.
“Are you scared now?” the kids were asked.
“I ain’t scared,” said Armondo. “That kid is in jail today. I’ll bet he’s saying, ‘Damn! I shouldna done no s— like that. It was wrong.’ “
“The security in our school is so bad,” said Peanut. “They don’t ever check for guns.”
“In some ways I’m scared, and some ways, I ain’t,” said Robert.
“The way I’m scared is, if I mess with the wrong person now, he might pop me.”
“You worry about that now?”
“In what way aren’t you scared?”
“Well, if I do get away from the guy, I just live down the street, so I have protection.”
“You mean because you live a few blocks away, you think someone couldn’t catch you if he had a gun?”
He looked off for a moment. “Not if I had speed like Chester.”
“Chester had the utmost speed!” said Armondo.
“The utmost speed!” Robert echoed.
No one corrected them. What’s the point? Chester is gone. Athlete or no athlete. Star or no star. We can forget sometimes that our football heroes are human, too, in high school they are just kids, and kids should never know from bullets, but this has happened, it is horrible, tragic, and it is not new.
Today and tomorrow they will be arguing about random gun searches at the Detroit high schools. Parents will demand hand- held metal detectors, the type they use at airports. Tighter security. Constant checking. More police. More guards. Gun sweeps. Locked doors. High school. Why Chester? Why Chester? Why Chester? Here is what we have become. Kids and bullets.
“Will you go to the cemetery for a funeral?” the kids were asked.
“That’s one place I won’t go,” said Robert Jackson, shaking his head. “I won’t go to no graveyard.”
“I don’t like ’em. All the tombstones and stuff.”
He pushed himself off the concrete wall and unzipped his jacket. He walked within inches of the blood stains of Chester Jackson, the blood of their blood, which glistened now in the heat. And he continued on. He was going to play basketball.
“Graveyards give me the creeps,” he said. CUTLINE Friends thought Chester Jackson would make it to the pros.