Barry Saunders

Durham vigil seeks peace while grieving for slain clerk

Danny Swain couldn’t think of a single word to describe Amer Mahmood, the clerk who was shot and killed July 4 while working at the Joy Food Mart on Roxboro Road in Durham.

Swain has lived in the North Gate Park neighborhood for close to 30 years, he said, and, because he was a frequent customer in the store, had known Amer for at least six.

So why couldn’t he think of one word to describe the man with whom he chatted almost daily?

Because he thought of several, all of which he said described the man he called a friend.

“Integrity. Patience. Respectful. Honest.”

And he went on as he addressed the couple of dozen people standing with him in the parking lot next to the gas station Thursday evening. They’d gathered for a vigil against the type of violence that ended Amer’s life at 48.

“He was a good guy,” Swain said. “The pall in the neighborhood still hasn’t lifted” in the weeks since his death.

The vigil was organized by the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham and consisted of reminiscences of Amer, such as the one told by Swain, and prayers – powerful prayers – for Amer’s soul and family.

Pastor Bruce Puckett of Duke University opened the vigil with one of those powerful prayers in which he lamented “the howls of Amer’s orphaned children... We remember Amer as a friend, a co-worker... Tonight,” he said, “We claim that Durham is less” because of his violent death.

Sure, remember Amer, Rabbi Larry Bach said next, but remember him as “someone who is more than the way he died. Our tradition teaches that whoever destroys a life destroys a world, and whoever saves a life saves a world.”

Too bad the world-destroyers weren’t in the parking lot to be touched by those prayers.

There was also a prayer for Durham to be delivered from the violence for which its name is, to many, synonymous.

“We’ve got to stop letting these people steal our neighborhood,” one woman said. “What we are doing right now is not living: It’s existing.”

It’s hard to argue otherwise when it often seems that certain communities roll up the sidewalks at dusk and residents cower behind closed doors out of fear – sometimes imagined, too often real.

For Amer, it was too real, but it was something he felt he had to do to take care of his family.

“He told me, every time I talked to him, ‘My kids mean the world to me,’” David Bogar of Cary, a friend and former neighbor of Amer and his family, said in an interview after the vigil. Speaking during the vigil, Bogar cried as he told the rapt crowd, “He had such family values. He was a really good man. He sacrificed everything for his family.”

Even his life. Many of us are leery of even entering a small gas station late at night to get a bag of Funyons or a honeybun or $2 worth of unleaded, so dangerous are they presumed to be. Yet Amer worked in one most nights. He was working in one when, police say, 26-year-old DMarlo Johnson entered the store, pulled a gun and demanded money. Mahmood put the cash register on the counter and raised his hands, police said. The gunman shot him anyway.

Johnson left the store, put the stolen items in his car and returned.

Police, citing surveillance video inside the store, said the gunman took more cigarettes and shot Mahmood again. He died at the scene.

“How,” the Rev. Puckett asked, “do we turn our grief and rage into light?”

He called the parking lot where people stood solemnly considering the answer to that question a “holy place.”

For about an hour it was – a holy place with crushed cups and cigarette butts, a holy place stained with tears.