WASHINGTON – It started the way it too often does: with a pair of shoes.
The 17-year-old had taken care of his five younger siblings all summer, without complaint, so his mother bought him a pair of Nike Air Uptempto ‘96 sneakers. The USD160 wasn’t easy for the hairdresser to spare, but she felt he had earned those shoes – and he loved them. The day he got them, he took a video of himself wearing them.
Then a few days later, as his mom waited for him to get home from a job interview, the teenager walked into the family’s suburban Maryland home wearing only his socks.
“Mom, I’m sorry,” he said before telling her that he was robbed at gunpoint. The shoes he had worn only twice and a backpack that had held his school uniform were gone.
“Baby, you could have lost your life,” she told him.
As the teenager described the robbery to me on a recent night, detailing how two men sat in a car as a third man stepped out and aimed a small black handgun at him from “two feet away”, his voice dipped to almost a whisper. His mother sat nearby, nearly crying.
“I told you once and I’ll tell you again, if that ever happens again, you do the same thing,” she said. “I don’t care if those shoes was a million dollars because I only have one of you. You did the right thing.” The right thing. It’s a phrase that comes up often when we talk about crime. The generally agreed upon right thing to do during and after a robbery is the same: cooperate. Don’t fight for things that can be replaced. Then call the police, give a witness account and, if needed, testify in court.
It sounds easy. But in some neighbourhoods, where fear is already part of the backdrop, the fallout of doing the right thing can carry a price higher than what was stolen.
To see that, we only have to look at how the teenager and his family spent the holidays.
On December 25, more than three months after the robbery occurred, his family passed the holiday in the borrowed space of a relative, too afraid to return to their own home in Prince George’s County.
After he was robbed, the teenager walked for about eight minutes in his socks to his front door.
That night, his mother decided not to call the police. She was scared the men were still watching or knew one of her neighbours and she didn’t want anyone to see the officers pull up. She waited until daylight.
The next morning, the teen told the police what happened and agreed to cooperate with the investigation. He later identified two of the three men in the car. None had even bothered to put on a mask.
I met him and his mother two years ago while reporting on a story that had nothing to do with crime. It had to do with the struggle working parents sometimes face to provide for their children. I am not identifying the family here to protect their identity. The teenager asked to be identified only as VJ.
VJ said he talked to the police because he wanted those men caught. He feared for himself but also for his five younger siblings.
Soon after the robbery, their mom stopped sleeping in her room. Her bed became the couch in the living room so she could listen for any sound that might indicate the men were trying to break in. After several weeks of doing that, she and her husband, a construction foreman, packed up the family and left their home.
Since October, while they have searched for a new place, they have tumbled between friends’ and relatives’ homes, squeezing eight people into living rooms and bedroom nooks. And those friends and relatives have made room for them in already crowded spaces because they understand the risks that come with speaking up. They understand that more than a backpack and a pair of shoes were lost.
“I watched my son shut down after this,” VJ’s mother said. He’s a high school senior who loves to play sports, she said. “When he said, ‘Mom, I’m not going to go outside anymore,’ right there, I said this isn’t going to work. He’s 17. He should be going outside. He should have a girlfriend. He should be shooting hoops. But mothers are losing their kids so frequent, so fast now that I’m also afraid to not know where he is at all times.”
Just this year, she has been touched by the deaths of two children who were killed in a spray of gunfire.
Days before the holidays, the family also hadn’t bought a tree or presents. Their space was already crowded enough. Even so, VJ and his mom said they were grateful for that temporary housing because it offered what no longer existed at their old home.
“I feel safe now that we’re not there,” VJ said.
“It’s uncomfortable,” the teenager’s mother said. “We’re living out of suitcases. But I’m with family. And I still have my son.”
The family planned to move the first week of January into a new apartment in a new neighbourhood. They know crime will still exist there. But at least none of their new neighbours will know who they are, or that they did the right thing. – Text by The Washington Post