But This Time, City Woman Knew The Young Victim Well
December 11, 2005
By SUSAN CAMPBELL, Courant Staff Writer
For Elaine Hightower, the ritual starts just after the shooting stops.
First, she sees if she knows the victim.
Then her phone rings. It's almost always one of her children. This last shooting, it was her son, a Hartford firefighter.
No matter who calls, the conversation is the same: Ma, are you all right? Followed by: When are you going to move?
In apartment upon apartment in Hartford, the ritual is the same. And every time - so far - Hightower, an outspoken woman prone to chasing strangers from her North End building's hallways, answers, "I'm fine," and, "I'm not moving." She says she can just afford her Vine Street apartment, but there's another kind of cost.
On Friday, another young man was shot and died out front by the street.
The ritual is the same, but for Hightower, this one was different. She knew the victim, and he was gunned down in broad daylight.
"I called him 'My Jermaine,' " Hightower said. "He's not mine, but he's a neighborhood kid I tried to keep from coming here." On Friday, Jermaine Lawrence, 18, fell in front of Hightower's building after being shot. Police are still looking for his assailant. Shortly after he was shot, police said, another Hartford man was shot in the leg nearby.
The ritual doesn't stop there, and the next part has Vine Street residents - many of whom don't want their names published - worried. Shooting follows shooting in the urban tableau of retaliation. A young man screams a name, there's a sound like firecrackers, blood soaks into the ground, and then it happens again.
Residents repeated the litany Saturday as they gave wide berth to a nearly empty Hennessey cognac bottle that marked the place where Lawrence fell. Across the street, a police cruiser sat idling. Grandmothers walked grandsons out into the buildings' snow-covered yards, and watched over them like guard dogs at a gate. Said one woman, who asked not to be named: "You know they're coming back. They always do."
The Rev. Donald R. Steinle is executive director of Christian Activities Council, with offices across Vine. He called the shooting "devastating." Thirty-five years ago, his organization renovated those apartments. Two years ago, they rehabilitated the Deerfield house bought by Lawrence's mother, he said. A young man answering the phone at the house said only that he was one of Lawrence's brothers, and that Lawrence was a good man. "I can't talk about this now," he said.
Steinle said he's talked to members of the Men of Color Initiative about installing lights in the apartments' alleys. On Thanksgiving Day, the Rev. Cornell Lewis, the group's founder, and others spent 24 hours in the pockmarked lobby at 40 Vine St. They fasted to call attention to inequality in the city, he said. Their presence ushered in another urban ritual. Lewis said after groups pay attention to the area, crime decreases.
But "people have a little success, and then they go back to doing what they do," he said.
Andrew Woods, executive director of Hartford Communities That Care, also spent Thanksgiving in the building's lobby. He called the shooting frustrating. "We make a lot of inroads with the community, we devote a lot of our attention to it, but you can only sustain that so long without the proper resources," Woods said.
James E. Willingham Sr., president and CEO of Urban League of Greater Hartford Inc., agreed that the crime is frustrating. His organization is part of a partnership that owns some of the buildings on Vine, which he said are at 60 percent capacity. People don't want to risk living in a neighborhood with a rough reputation, he said.
"What has happened between the shooting and the drugs, we can't seem to keep the building full," Willingham said. "We can't put a lot of money into it; it's losing money."
He said he's talked with the police chief and the mayor. "We get a lot of support from everybody," Willingham said. "They are really trying." But drug dealers show little fear and it's hard to keep attention on one neighborhood, even a troubled one.
"I don't have to tell you that where there's drugs, there will be crime," Willingham said.
Woods said his community group had identified Lawrence as a youth with leadership potential.
"We believed he could help us influence the behavior on the street," Woods said. He said part of the ritual must be changed. Officialdom can't just focus on preventing retaliation.
"How we normally respond to a Hartford shooting is from a crisis management standpoint, not a mental health standpoint," Woods said. "We respond by making sure it doesn't spill over into the schools. We're conditioned that way. I have to admit: We haven't done well with dealing with it from a mental health standpoint."
When Hightower realized she knew the victim, she said she broke down.
"I tried to tell him, 'Go to school, Jermaine. Try to get you some kind of education.' When he talked to me, he never sassed me," she said. He'd say, 'Miss Elaine, I'll be all right.'"