Gunshots rang out a few doors from my apartment one night recently. Five of them. Or maybe six. I am culturally and temperamentally indisposed to count gunshots.
What made these shots so unusual was that they were early in the evening — about 10:30. The shootings which have plagued so much of the Charleston urban environment in recent months usually occur between 1 and 5 a.m. I am usually asleep during much of this period, but I read the names and details in the paper a couple of days after the fact.
The second unusual thing about this incident is that there were no bodies. The police swarmed through the neighborhood, knocked on doors, stopped pedestrians, and asked anyone they could find what they knew. When it was over, there was nothing to report — no bodies, no charges, no arrests.
I wish it always ended so innocuously. The first notice that I had crossed a divide, that I had entered a new culture and a new phase of my life occurred on an August night in 2002, about four months after I moved to Charleston.
Walking home from a local tavern, I approached the intersection of Rutledge Avenue and Sumter Street, which was cordoned off. Blue lights flashed as an anxious crowd gathered in the sultry night. It was the night 13-year-old Velvet Brown died, gunned down in a drive-by shooting. Looking up Sumter Street, I could make out the covered shape of her body on the street, more than an hour after she was killed.
A few days later, 23-year-old Earl Allen was charged with the murder, after he had been named by four eyewitnesses as the shooter. But when the case came to trial 15 months later, the witnesses had recanted their statements and the prosecution was forced to drop the charges. No one has been tried for Velvet Brown’s murder.
The death of this 13-year-old sparked weeks of soul-searching in the community. There were speeches and sermons and pledges that we would get to the bottom of this, we would root out the problem of violence in the community. We are still praying, talking, and wishing.
Of course, the vast majority of the murders in the Charleston area are black-on-black crimes. To most white residents, reading about the wave of black murder victims is like reading the news from Darfur or some other exotic killing field. It doesn’t happen to them. Street crime is one more cultural wedge that is driving blacks and whites apart in Charleston County and throughout the nation.
But this is not social theory to the people whose sons and daughters are dying on the streets in senseless feuds, turf wars, and drug deals. Prayer has carried black people through some terrible times in the past. It remains to be seen whether it will deliver them from this plague of self-imposed carnage.
There was a “rally against violence” downtown last autumn. The 500 block of King Street was closed to traffic while rappers and blues singers performed, community leaders spoke and prayed, vendors sold food and CDs. A month later, at 3 a.m. on Nov. 12, Graylin Milligan was killed in a hail of bullets in front of LJ’s Soul Food Cafe, on the very spot where the rally had been held. Milligan’s death broke Charleston’s record of 20 murders, set in 1969.
It seems to be a season for irony. Two weeks ago, politicians and preachers gathered at Nichols Chapel AME Church, to plan another rally against violence. The church stands at the intersection of President and Bogard streets, where Terri Lynn Melendez was shot to death on March 15. And the good citizens of North Charleston rallied and prayed against violence on Saturday, May 26. At 2:30 a.m., 36 hours later and a few blocks away, 21-year-old Harri Singleton died of multiple gunshot wounds.
As for Earl Allen, he died at 2 a.m. on the morning of June 4, 2006, near the corner of Rutledge Avenue and Strawberry Lane, six blocks from the place Velvet Brown died four years before. The man who killed him was awaiting trial on another murder charge.
For blacks, the answer to this bloodshed is more prayer, more rallies. For whites, it is escape.
I was on Daniel Island for the first time two weeks ago and was shocked by the sterility, the blandness, the whiteness of the place. But one thing you’ve got to say for Daniel Island — there are no street killings there and every time one punk dispatches another somewhere in Charleston County, Daniel Island becomes a little more appealing to white families who just want to live in peace. And the racial divide in Charleston grows a little wider. That is the other tragedy in the body count on Charleston’s streets.