Eighteen Years Later…
18 years ago today, my cousin was shot and killed. And it changed my life.
18 years ago today, my cousin, Louis D. Brown, was shot and killed. And it changed my life.
If you live in the Boston area, there’s a chance that you’ve already heard the story: Louis was a “good kid,” who dreamt of becoming the first Black president of the U.S. As a member of a youth activist organization – Teens Against Gang Violence – he was caught in the middle of a shootout while en route to the group’s annual Christmas party. Wearing headphones and, as a result, totally oblivious to what was going on, Louis was shot directly in the head and died instantly.
I replay that fateful December 20th in my head over and over again, like a broken record. Few instances in my life have given me an equal or greater perspective: once you experience murder of a family member, friend, neighbor or any loved one, you’re forced to think about life on a different level. All of a sudden, you’re presented with two choices. The first is to let this brutal act kill you just the same – to live a life full of anger, sadness, regret and remorse until you wither away, losing all connection with humanity.
Or you can turn it into an opportunity to help, empathize with, and be kind to others, regardless of circumstance. Not easy, but it’s the option that my family chose. This is the example that my aunts, grandmother, mom, sister, and cousins chose. And it’s why I’m grateful to have them all as role models.
In the past 18 years, I’ve watched in awe as my aunt Clementina Chery started a non-profit organization in Louis’s name with the sole purpose of assisting family members of homicide victims. I’ve admired her ability to speak with grace, intelligence, and an unfitting gentleness about picking up the pieces of her life after burying her murdered son. I’m continuously bewildered by her ironic success that brought her all the way to the White House, advocating programs that encourage violence prevention and support families who have experienced murder. I’ve stood beside her as she forged a friendship with the family of Charles Bogues, the man convicted of murdering Louis. Since his 1997 conviction, he has retracted his guilty plea, an action that my aunt supports wholeheartedly, knowing the flawed intricacies of the criminal justice system.
In short, through her actions, I know that the human spirit is not only meant to withstand the unthinkable; it is tough and resilient, and I’m grateful to have learned these lessons from someone who is so very graceful.
Despite these lessons, my family continues to stumble and experience the same grievances as others. The holiday season brings about a quiet anxiety that keeps us in our thoughts. Celebrating my mother’s birthday every December 18th still has a bittersweet aftertaste, remembering that our last meal with Louis occurred just two days before his death. His little brother, Allen, who was only 1 at the time of his murder, struggles with having never known the boy who was his big brother. Though we are close, my small family continues to feel an unexplainable distance from one another. It’s as if a vital piece of the puzzle that connected us all has gone missing, and will never be replaced.
Today, when I hear people speak of the tragic irony of his murder, I still cringe. Though not ill intentioned, there are often references to him having been “such a good kid,” which indirectly implies that there are some “bad people” out there who deserve to have their lives taken from them. It also implies that there are families who deserve the hell that my family has gone through. No doubt that stories of gang and gun violence paint a picture of uncontrollable urban warfare led by rebel forces in the ‘hood.
But if there’s anything that I’ve learned from my aunt and through my own journey, it’s that violence in all its forms is an epidemic and that no one is exempt from its vicious current. It can strike at any time, to the “good ones” and to those who are considered menaces to society. It’s a ravaging cancer to neighborhoods and families and individuals no matter the perpetrator or the victim. And we’re all responsible for doing our parts in making this world a safer, saner place to thrive.
As I take in my 2011 lessons – professional and personal (especially the most painful ones) – in hopes for an even more awesome 2012, I’m reminded today, on this 18th anniversary of the murder of my cousin, to let the most excruciating and bitter moments in life serve as inspiration to enlighten myself, to encourage others to be their best, and to strive for greatness by exercising empathy, humanity and integrity.
Today, hug a loved one. Help a stranger in need. Be peaceful.