For the last seven years, I've lived in Inglewood on a block bounded on the north by 109th Street. 109th Street is the latest site made instantly infamous by that tragic but all too common "urban" event, a fatal shooting. This one stood out because of the heroics: as a gunman fired, 28-year-old Fred Martin threw himself over his 8-year-old son, essentially sacrificing his life for that of his child.
The police have no idea yet who the shooter was or why this happened at all. Just in case you were wondering (because of course you were), the African-American Martin has not been connected to gangs or any kind of urban infamy himself; he was a college graduate, a married man, and a devoted father. At a press conference that announced a $10,000 reward for any information leading to the apprehension of the murderer, Inglewood mayor and former cop James Butts called the Martin family "outstanding."
(The implication that the "outstanding" victims of homicide are more deserving of public empathy and law enforcement resources than the merely average victims was clear. And it seems black folks need to make this separation more than most, partly because so many of us die unjustly and/or needlessly in our own neighborhoods, notably young men, that people truly want to believe that some deserved it and some didn't. It's kind of like emotional triage.)
This latest shooting was an unpleasant reminder that I walk 109th Street just about every day. It happened minutes from me, just west of Crenshaw Boulevard. Crenshaw is a real dividing line in the south end of Inglewood where I live: east of it are modest but attractive houses with roomy lawns and backyards. West of the boulevard are also homes but they tend to be smaller and more crowded together, punctuated by tall iron fences and window bars; "the bottoms," an apartment community reputed for gangs and drug trafficking, also lies west of Crenshaw. It is different, and I have to say I never consider walking through there. Crenshaw has long been my pedestrian boundary.
On the other hand, I don't really separate any part of Inglewood from the other because it's a small city with a single future. Wherever I am in town, whether walking or driving, I am home. Of course, it's easier to claim the things that I like (a great soul-food vegan restaurant on Market Street, a nearly invisible but lively arts district off La Brea) than the things that I don't (graffiti, gangs). But they all inhabit my space. They all belong to me. The ongoing, nearly existential question I must ask myself, especially after incidents like the Fred Martin shooting, is whether I live in a good black place plagued with a bit of trouble or in a troubled black place modified by a bit of good. Proportion is everything. For lots of blacks in L.A., settling on a reasonable proportion and balance is a very hard thing to do, no matter where they're living.
I can't help but compare all this to what happened a few days ago near USC. Two Chinese graduate students were gunned down in the South Central neighborhood around the school in the early hours of the morning. The police so far have pinned down no suspects and no motive. This double murder was unquestionably tragic. But the tragedy is being quickly compounded in the public's mind by circumstances that start with the fact that these were "outstanding" people -- young, foreign, highly educated. Their demise was tragic in a way that Fred Martin's, for all his heroics, could not really be because he was young, black, male and in Inglewood, and those facts alone put him in harm's way. His murder was terrible but in some ways inevitable; if he hadn't died, someone else probably would have, on that day or another. Me and my neighbors in Inglewood have to once more absorb the shock of tragedy and move on. But you can bet that the USC community -- as opposed to the South Central community in which it's located -- will take steps to ensure that something like this never ever happens again.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.