Saunders: Durham’s sad song is unfinished

barry.saunders@newsobserver.comJuly 14, 2013 

So, this is what it must’ve been like for Dion when he sang that song.

In 1968, which I’d put up against any other year as the most tumultuous in modern American history, Dion DiMucci went into a studio and recorded a sorrowful song about three great Americans who were felled by assassins’ bullets.

The song was called “Abraham, Martin and John,” an international hit about men whose fame and achievements necessitate only a first name.

“Has anybody here seen my old friend Abraham ...”

Before Dion seemingly could get through the song, though, presidential candidate and former U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy was assassinated, requiring the song’s writer to add another mournful verse to its ending.

Writer: Hey Dion. Hold on a sec. They shot another one.

I ran into the Dion problem last week, while writing a column about the murders so far this year of 12 black men in Durham. Before I could finish, an e-mail from Durham Police Department spokeswoman Kammie Michael informed me that there’d been another one.

Two days after the column ran, there was yet another name to add to the death list. Michael said all but one of the suspects were black males.

Noting the lack of vocal public outrage was not intended as an affront to Durham city officials, but a city official wrote that morning to set me straight: the mayor and chief had held a press conference the previous week to address the issue.

Durham Mayor Bill Bell called me days later to say that city officials do care and are working on the problem.

“If I knew what to do to stop it, man, it would’ve been done,” Bell said “You’re not going to solve this problem with law enforcement alone. Coincidentally, I’ve got some ministers coming to speak with the city manager and me next week on this topic.” He also said he has a monthly meeting with city, county and community leaders to try to get a grip on violent crime.

The rate of violent crime is, as Bell stated, going down. A recent report by the CDC out of Atlanta affirmed that homicides among people aged 10-24 are at a 30-year low.

That’s no consolation, of course, when it’s your young brother, son, husband, daddy lying face down on the sidewalk inside a yellow crime-scene-taped area as a gawking crowd gathers around.

Have the homicides – 15 in Chicago is a slow week but for a Southern city known as the City of Medicine, it can be a devastating seven-month total – harmed the city’s image, I asked, noting that Realtors were once known to steer newcomers away from Durham?

“It used to be worse years ago, but now crime is trending in the right direction – down,” he said. “We’ve tried summer programs ... supporting other groups that are dealing with young guys.” He cited, among other things, a summer basketball league run by Otis Lyons, a community activist and founder of Campaign 4 Change.

The slogan for that program is “It’s never too late to be who you might have been.”

It actually is once you kill somebody. Or somebody kills you.

Bell said “It’s not like everybody in that age group is committing a violent crime. I think we’ve got a small segment, but unfortunately, that small segment is enough to do what it’s doing.”

Which is make it impossible to finish the song – or story – before it’s time to add another name.

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