Rethinking “Justice” in the Wake of a Violent Death Close to Home ‹ Literary Hub

Literature

We were asleep in Princeton, New Jersey, when the phone rang. My wife Aisha grabbed for it, listened—then let out a scream so loud, I was afraid the neighbors would call the police.

It was her son, Neto—my stepson—on the phone. Neto had just informed his mother that his half-brother was dead.

*

Luis Alberto Quiñonez—known as Sito—was shot to death while sitting in his car in San Francisco’s Mission District. It was September 8, 2019. Sito was nineteen. His killer, Julius Williams, was seventeen. It was the second time the young men had encountered one another. Their first encounter, five years before, also ended in tragedy, when Julius saw his brother stabbed to death by an acquaintance of Sito’s.

Local news ran with the story of the two murders for a while. Then the rest of the world moved on. But after that night when Neto called us with the horrific news, my family found moving on impossible.

I have spent much of my career studying gang-affiliated youth. I am a professor of anthropology at Princeton University, and, after that phone call, I was also a statistic. Street violence will never touch most White Americans, yet one out of 21 Black men between the ages of 35 and 39 is in prison. Fifty-six percent of Latinos have had contact with the criminal justice system or know a close family member who has. The system impacts most Black or Brown Americans, even those who are highly successful.

Many Black and Brown Americans live in constant fear of a loved one being injured, killed, or arrested. They live one phone call away from having their lives changed by a violent crime, or by the callousness of the legal system itself. Writing the book about Sito became my window into this reality.

*

I had witnessed street violence while working in Chicago as an ethnographer, but my academic career was all about analyzing and dissecting trauma from a distance.

After Sito’s murder, I found it increasingly hard to be an objective third party to grief.

Being a professor, an intellectual, an anthropologist, is fundamental to my identity. It is something I am proud of, and the source of everything good in my life—not least because I met Aisha at an academic conference. When I was a kid, schoolwork was one of the few things I was consistently good at. No wonder I decided to make a career of it. Teaching and thinking, researching and publishing, fill me with a sense of accomplishment.

My work has explored important social phenomena, like gang networks, and police torture, that are usually shrouded in secrecy. In my book, The Torture Letters (2020), I used the concept of the “open secret” to explore hidden connections between police officers, politicians, and prosecutors who perpetrate violence. An open secret is one which people in power know—and know that each other know—but will not discuss. Knowledge is power, and concealing the truth of knowing, I learned, allows the powerful to retain their authority and evade sanction.

Many Black and Brown Americans live in constant fear of a loved one being injured, killed, or arrested. They live one phone call away from having their lives changed by a violent crime.

In the process of researching that book, I began to regard all secrets, even harmless, private ones, with disdain. But in the aftermath of Sito’s death, I started keeping a secret of my own. My secret was an unconfessed feeling that all my professional accomplishments and expertise were mocking me. After Sito’s death, I wanted justice to be done, but I had not troubled to develop any real ideas of what “justice” in such a case, for a seventeen-year-old perpetrator, could or should look like.

Twelve years earlier, living in Chicago, I conducted research at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. It was a massive gray building, the third‑largest jail system in the nation after LA County and New York City. Before I went there, the stories I had heard about the kids inside were unrelievedly depressing and intimidating. And before beginning research, I had to sit in a conference room, and watch a video of a man in a suit explaining what to do when fights broke out. When he stopped talking, the screen transitioned to animated stick figures acting out a strategy for exiting the cellblock. The graphics reminded me of plays my high school football coach used to draw on the whiteboard.

In my two years visiting at Cook County Juvenile with a church group I never saw a fight, though I did see Black and Latino boys shoot dice made of cardboard and glue. They placed their bets on the floor, using Monopoly money, and rolled the paper dice against a wall.

Sito’s family needed the system to respect them and to deliver justice. Only, in pursuit of that justice, they didn’t want to become vengeful themselves. The problem was that having a child murdered does not incline a parent to calm, thoughtful reasoning.

Sometimes I recognized a kid from the low-income neighborhood on the westside where I was living at the time. At the thirty‑minute mark, Pastor Phil, the leader of our group, would try to gather the teenagers around a table for Bible study. Most didn’t participate, but there were always a few who were willing. The kids slumped in their seats when the pastor broke out his box of tattered Bibles and asked them to turn to the bookmarked page. When boys refused to read aloud, Pastor Phil would recite the verses himself.

I remember one rail‑thin boy who didn’t look old enough to be there. “I try to do right. I swear I do,” the boy was saying to the pastor. “But I always do wrong. I don’t even know why.”

“It’s common to feel that way,” Pastor Phil told him. “It’s like you have two Rottweilers inside of you. One’s good and one’s bad! And you keep feeding the bad one. You feed him negative thoughts—with that music you listen to, and the TV you watch.” Pastor Phil’s preacher voice was lifting into a sermon. “And your friends? They come over. And they feed the bad dog, too, don’t they? They always have something for him!”

Other kids at the table were watching and listening.

“And you starve your good dog! You don’t feed him right, do you? He’s hungry, skinny, neglected.”

The boy nodded, yes.

“Then you face temptation, and that evil dog, why, he runs wild! And that is why I am here, son. To nourish the good inside of you.”

For a long time, I thought my mission as a scholar was to prove that the so‑called bad kids weren’t born that way, so making a mistake should not scar them for life, crush all their prospects. I wanted my work to speak to the beauty and brilliance I sensed within the young people I was encountering at Cook County Juvenile. But perhaps my optimism was reflecting my own hopes, my own experience, not theirs. Back then I refused to accept—would not allow myself to believe—that their time in juvenile hall would follow those young men like a dark shadow, relentless and oppressive.

Did my research really reflect the hardships that those young men—those children—and their loved ones were living through?

Today, I can’t be sure.

Not until Sito’s murder did I entirely grasp how worthless a victim’s family can be made to feel in its encounter with the criminal justice system.

“The SFPD wants us to kill each other so they don’t have to,” Sito’s father, Rene, once said to me.

I understood that the prospect of seeing his son’s killer back on the street in five years (the limit for juveniles Julius’s age, according to California law) might seem like proof of that to Rene. I also knew that locking up a seventeen‑year‑old boy for the rest of his life was not going to solve anyone’s problems. And, as my stepson said, it wasn’t going to bring his brother back.

But in my heart, I shared their pain—and some of their rage. Sito’s family didn’t need structural analysis, or statistics. They didn’t need me to help them navigate the criminal justice system. They needed the system to respect them and to deliver justice. Only, in pursuit of that justice, they didn’t want to become vengeful themselves. The problem was that having a child murdered does not incline a parent to calm, thoughtful reasoning.

James Baldwin wrote that “Hatred…never failed to destroy the man who hated.” Since the night my stepson called us with the tragic news, I have learned that the human being within the writer can only ever cope with grief through an intimate and introspective kind of empathy. My work on Sito’s case has been different than anything else I have undertaken. By researching and writing about his life and death, I hoped to add to the understanding of crime, violence, and injury—because that is what I do, it’s my profession, it’s my field. However, what I really needed to do—and what actually drove the research and the writing—was to help my own family heal, before the cycle of vengeance could claim another victim.

______________________________

Adapted excerpt from the book SITO: An American Teenager and the City That Failed Him by Laurence Ralph. Copyright © 2024 by Laurence Ralph. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved. 

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