The scene of Saturday night's joyous baby shower, and later, the behind-the-scenes scene of a melee which claimed the life of Anthony Dunbar, and severely injured another man. One of the kittens — or gatitos — I photographed last Friday in the mulberry tree, for my blog, is seen in the background, near the back door, left behind after all the chaos. There is blood, too, near the pillar with the streamers tied low. Click to enlarge.
We have choices in life, regardless of where we live, or how we're raised. Sometimes, we screw up: it's part of life, part of learning. We are complex beings with complex needs, and the ability to react in a million different ways, depending on the minute details of our circumstances.
Black kids harassing Spanish-speaking people is common here. These kids know that the language barrier and different customs often discourage Spanish speakers from calling the police. These kids know that Latinos often carry cash, and all of this makes them — it would seem — easy targets. Even without cash gain as a motive, Hispanics are victimized again and again here in Trenton.
These kids know what they're doing is wrong; this sort of morality is programmed into our DNA. DNA is ultimately the reason why I blame the criminal for the criminal act. But there are always complicated, mitigating factors, aren't there? Many people in our society — rural, suburban, and urban — grew up in some sort of less-than-Leave it to Beaver environment; so many of us grew up in homes steeped in neglect or abuse, or drug addiction, or absentee parents. But we grow up, maybe scarred from childhood, and most of us turn out okay, despite what we went through. We turn out okay because of our surrounding environment: most of us had some decent friends, and lived in communities with a high standard of law and order, and our schools functioned very well.
In this city, Mayor Douglas Palmer has been at the wheel for nearly two decades, and while not at fault for every last horrible detail in the city, we have seen an incredible amount of decomposition occur under his leadership: the restaurants have bailed, the schools are very nearly a complete write-off, and the neighborhoods have crumbled. The city is packed with low-income residents, with no opportunities for work or a decent education, and, to make matters worse, officials often turn their backs to so much that's wrong with our city, which allows a criminal atmosphere to blossom.
This, I think, is the critical difference between most of us who came to Trenton from some place else (or came of age at a different time), and the kids who have come of age under the Palmer administration, here in the Hood. It's an example – maybe even a surprising one — about our environment playing far more of a leading role in shaping us far more than our parents ever could.
In Trenton, with our lack of enforcement, and our lack of educational and business opportunities, kids must decide to dig deep within themselves and try — despite all of the damn obstacles around them — to become functioning members of society; or they must decide to just sell drugs on the corner, like their friends are doing, and ride around ATVs in their spare time, and rob the Spanish people periodically for some extra cash. These kids know what's right and what's wrong. They also know what's easy and what's hard; they know what they can get away with, and for how much risk and effort. The life of crime is obviously alluring, or else more Trenton kids would be involved in sports or music or art, or off working real jobs.
Anthony Dunbar chose to hang out with some of his friends on Saturday night; and while we'll never know the details of what was said between friends that night, they, as a group, seemed to decide to harass a small group of Latino men, who were having a smoke after a celebratory baby shower. One of the boys slapped one of the Spanish guys in the back of the head; another kid smashed a bottle over the head of one of the Spanish men, which spattered blood all over the sidewalk in front of, and to the side of our property. I don't believe this was motivated by any sort of gang animosity, but that's not to say that the people involved weren't affiliated with any local gangs. I think the attack was motivated by racism — black on hispanic, specifically — and opportunity. We're told the Spanish guy was taken to the hospital, and we believe, is still there, recovering from his head wound. Finally, one of the Spanish guys put a knife into Anthony Dunbar's abdomen, which ended the melee, and eventually Anthony's life.
Late last summer, a small family of Latinos moved in next door to us. They were friendly: they always said hello; but mostly kept to themselves. I'd be hard pressed to say that bad tenants lived there previously, but the previous residents brought about some challenges for the neighborhood, and I'll just leave it at that. So it was clear, very early on after the Latino family moved in, that a new era was possibly afoot, and we were glad for it.
Many nights over the last 10 months or so, Glen and I would sit on the porch or out in the back yard and smell the aromas coming from the Latino kitchen next door, fantasizing (and drooling) about how we might attempt to get ourselves invited for dinner. Our envy was excruciating on the days we saw family members of our Latino neighbors show up with large pots and platters of food. We had no idea what was under the lids, but we knew it would be good. It HAD to be.
Over time, we got to know our neighbors just a wee bit better, which wasn't hard, especially since the husband was an outgoing, friendly, and friendly-faced guy. He is a hard worker, and asked us a lot about the neighborhood, hoping that things were good here, since they had come to the United States to make better lives for themselves, and because they had a baby on the way. We were honest: it is work to live in Trenton, especially in these parts, but we had seen drastic improvements in the four years we've been here. Yep, there were some jerks up the street, but most of them had been hanging on the next block up, instead of ours lately, which didn't exactly bring us complete satisfaction, but it was a huge relief to have them off our corner. And a couple of locals are obviously mentally ill and prone to semi-frequent psychotic episodes. But these conditions could occur anywhere in the whole world, no? So, ultimately, things have been good here; better, certainly, than they had been.
The couple next door also took an interest in helping out with the stray cat problem — which earns them bonus points in my book: it's been a lot of fun watching their two little kittens hang out in the mulberry tree between our property. They kept their place neat; and they, in no way, contributed to any of our neighborhood's issues.
Last week, the husband told us that their baby was due in August; right around the same time ours is due, and they wanted to let us know they were going to have a baby shower over the weekend, and we were invited to stop by, if we wanted. We loaned them a table and chairs, and gave them a punch bowl; and watched their giddy excitement as they trimmed the hedges and cut the grass and hung balloons and banners, to welcome in their new life. It made me so happy to have nice neighbors; since nice neighbors are not a given anywhere, but definitely not in Trenton. My neighbor's pregnancy helped me to think positively about my own, which hasn't been easy. Her pregnancy made me envision our babies playing together; and how cool it would be if my child could become bilingual from birth, because of this budding friendship. After losing our first child, Catherine, on her birthday last year, because of a cord accident, it is HARD to hope, and every little positive scenario I can conjure is so comforting, so helpful right now, so I am really grateful that my pregnancy is similarly timed to my neighbor's. It gives me a bit of strength.
So the preparations for the shower were underway, and the smells from their kitchen were better than ever. I heard them chopping, and scraping bowls on Friday, all day, and I could only imagine what they were creating. We heard laughter and music, and their mood was contagious.
Saturday rolled around, and their guests arrived in waves. The music was festive, and there were party games and gifts and TONS of food. The kids were all dressed up, and everyone doted on our neighbor's big round belly, full of baby. Around 8, Glen went out back to wish them well, and the husband gave him a huge plate of food for the two of us to share. Glen came in the house, and found me upstairs in the office (working on my most recent Sunday Funny for my blog); he was in a state of shock and awe, filled with quiet respect. "Babe," he said, "It's like a dream come true." He held the styrofoam plate like precious cargo, and we simply looked at it for a while, inhaling the aroma; and in silence, we walked back down to the dining room.
The meal may not sound all that special: it was carne asada, a thinly cut grilled steak, served with a chimichurri sauce (a mix of herbs, onions, tomatoes, and garlic, in this case); a salad made from green beans and carrots; some cilantro-infused rice; and some refried black beans. It was, however, some of the best food I have ever eaten in my life. We could feel the love and celebration and happy work that went into the preparation, and I believe those were the secret ingredients that made this meal taste so delicious. Glen and I talked about the meal for the rest of the evening: how it was like the best Christmas ever, after so much anticipation, and how lucky we were that we had such fantastic neighbors. We planned to give them some of Glen's Canadian treats the next day, because food is one of the best building blocks for friendship.
We went upstairs to watch some TV, and I dozed on the couch, in the air conditioning. Glen wandered off to the bedroom, after noticing the party wound down around 11:30 or so. A bit after 1, Glen came back in to get me, and said our house was surrounded by crime scene tape, and the corner was crawling with police officers. The tape very literally went right through the neighbor's backyard, mingling with the baby shower banners and crepe paper, to the tree in front of our house, to the street sign at our corner, around every tree on our side street, back around our garage, and into the neighbor's yard again.
What the heck happened?? They were having a baby shower for crying out loud. Glen took Steve, the dog, outside, and heard the officers talking: one of the party guests was hit over the head with a bottle, and someone was stabbed as a result.
At daybreak, the forensics team showed up, and marked the blood droplets all over the place, and took pictures, and we again overheard the officers discussing the situation, and are certain that at least someone in this story was in stable condition at the hospital. We assumed — incorrectly, it would seem — they were talking about the stabbing victim. We didn't know until Monday morning that Anthony Dunbar had collapsed right outside our windows, and later died at the hospital.
So much of life doesn't really make sense. Life doesn't offer proper transitions and segues, like we get in books and movies. How one minute a group of men could be cleaning up after a baby shower, and the next, a kid lies dying in the street from a stab wound, just defies logic. These things do not happen after baby showers. We don't want them to, anyway, and that desire alone should be enough to prevent them from happening. But it isn't. Apparently these things do happen in Trenton, all the damn time.
Last night, our wonderful new friends packed up their belongings and all of the glorious baby loot they received at their baby shower, and moved away, under the watchful eye of several police officers. This came about because a number of local black kids drove to our neighbor's house yesterday, slowing down in front, as well as on the alley side, and made gestures: "we're watching you" gestures. I have no idea about the affiliations or personal beliefs of every guest in attendance at that party, but our neighbors are nice, generous, decent, hopeful people, with a baby on the way, and what happened was not their fault.
Plus, these intimidating black kids are very likely the same kids who started everything on Saturday night, sending the Latino guy to the hospital. They were not just playing around; they were out for blood. And they got it, just not in the way they expected. We're told that Anthony Dunbar was left wounded outside, on our street, and a short time later, his friends came back and decided to drive him to St. Francis, where they dumped him anonymously, to die a few hours later. If they had called 9-1-1, or at least drove him to the hospital sooner, or, better yet, if they had decided to just leave the group of party-goers alone on Saturday night, maybe Anthony would still be alive right now. Instead of accepting any kind of responsibility for their own bad decisions, they drove by, intimidating a young couple who had nothing to do with Anthony's death, except, unfortunately, that the fight occurred outside their house.
It was devastating to watch our neighbors pack up; we have no idea what this means to our neighborhood, knowing that good neighbors are not a given. We can't imagine how worried they must be: they just wanted a new life here in the United States, and they have a baby on the way, and now they're going to live in fear of retaliation for something they didn't even start.
They didn't have enough room in their vehicles for all of their belongings, especially with the new, bulky baby gear, and they didn't want to make multiple trips, since the thugs and bullies were driving around watching them pack.
Glen and I had a very quick discussion and decided with no debate to pull the truck around, and to help our neighbors pack up. We know the local thuggery, as well as our (for once) silent neighbors, and a number of police officers, witnessed this, and we know the risks involved. We are tired. Tired of the wrong people walking around with the power. Tired of rolling over and just accepting the bullshit that happens here in Trenton as par for the course. Tired of knowing that good people suffer needlessly because of fucked-up priorities and bad politics; and because of that, two neighborhoods — ours, and the one our neighbors are moving to — may get worse, because of someone's misguided notion of respect and revenge. This may have very bad consequences for us, and for our former neighbors. Or it may not. We don't know yet. But Glen and I hit that "enough's enough" point, and we know that things will never improve if we just sit back, in silence, and watch events unfold.
Anthony Dunbar and his friends appeared to have made some very bad decisions the other night, but it doesn't mean that Anthony deserved to die, or got what was coming. It's maddening to me, this old white chick, to try to understand how these kids don't comprehend — or care about — the nature of violence, the permanence of death. So, even though Anthony didn't deserve to die, he and his friends ARE responsible for their actions; but Anthony, too, is a victim. Maybe, like so many other people in this world, he came from a screwed-up home. Maybe not. Either way, what makes his case so tragic is that he had the misfortune of growing up in Trenton, under the Palmer administration, where it is far more lucrative to join a gang, than it is to apply for a college scholarship. Bad politics are at least partially to blame for Anthony's death.
Greg Forester blogged yesterday about actual number of cops on the streets in the given wards, and the amount of crimes taking place in each ward. And here, in the East Ward, crime IS up, and yet, the number of officers patrolling this district is down. Dunbar's murder, and the attack of the Hispanic man probably could not have been prevented if there were more cops on our streets, but I don't really know for sure. More cops on the streets means more crime suppression. I do think groups of young thugs, who currently walk around with impunity at any given time in our neighborhoods, would be, overall, slightly less inclined to do so, if we had more officers on the streets. Crime would truly be down. I can't help but wonder if because our councilman, Gino Melone, has been voting against the wasteful and self-serving interests of the Palmer administration, is our ward is being punished? According to Greg's post yesterday, crime is down in the west ward (but it usually is, save for a few scary pockets), and there are more cops patrolling the streets there. The mayor, incidentally, has a home (which he may not live in full-time) in the West Ward, as do members of his rubber stamp block on council, West Ward Councilwoman Annette Lartigue; at-large automaton Paul Pintella; and at-large puppet, Cordelia Staton. The added police presence in their neighborhoods is a perk, perhaps, of allegiance?
We are just so very tired, but we know that Trenton is worth fighting for. We just wish the politicians who seem to so desperately want new people to move in to the converted banks and factories, and the possible new transit center, would do a bit more for the good people already here — many of whom, like us, are relatively new to Trenton. Mayor Palmer may as well dream his grandiose dreams for a colony in outer space, since a space community is far more likely to happen than any renaissance in Trenton at this point, with his screwed-up priorities. Doug, we, the current residents of Trenton, in the decent, but edgy neighborhoods, need your support and energy and focus now, before our communities crumble apart, just like so much else in this city. Can you help us for a change, instead of putting so much time, effort and energy into plans destined to fail? Please?