Sakia Gunn was murdered on May 11, 2003, in Newark [link to documentary]. I wrote this after attending a sparsely attended vigil for her on the piers of the West Village where she was hanging out with her friends that night. In striking contrast to Matthew Shepard, who garnered 113 stories in the New York Times—three with their lead on the front page—this much more local story failed to elicit more than the following headline under the rubric Metro Briefing, New Jersey; Newark: “Warrant Issued for Arrest in Stabbing”. A grand total of 98 words.
They come here, to hang, to laugh, to be, to be themselves, selves often split, splintered, shattered; pieces often hidden, parts not often shown to family and neighbors shown here, aspects sometimes seldom seen by family and neighbors seen here, seen by new family, new neighbors; “the Village” takes on new meaning as it takes on new villagers from outer boroughs, from nearby towns, from places near and far away, from near and far away they come here to hang, to laugh, to be. And so they came, Sakia and her friends, hanging, laughing, being; for a brief time, an evening on a pier, bathed in the light of a city all around, surrounding them; a brief time, enjoying themselves, the soft lamplight casting their shadows long, blending their shadows one with the city street that shelters them; a brief time spent before heading back home, a trip on the train, a trip on the bus, waiting for a bus to take them home. The buses were few, the hour, early; and here a car pulled up, and some men, taunting, beckoning; the white car pulled up and the men taunted, “come here!” Commanding. Demanding. Yet a young girl should not have to confront a man, should not have to defend herself, her young self, from a man in a car, should not have to justify herself, her standing with friends, her hanging, her being, to men in a car pulled up alongside; yet she faced them, her voice strong, “We’re not like that”, she said with no falter; a young girl of fifteen with such a voice, so loud, so strong, beyond her age, her voice rising proud in the early morning air: “We’re not like that”, she said, which should have seen it end, the taunting; “we’re not like that” should have been its end, the beckoning; “we’re not like that”, she said, the rock of her family firm under her feet supported her voice proud, her words speaking volumes, this girl of fifteen, defending herself where need be no defense; justifying herself to one deserving no justification, this one who would exact justice, would appoint himself deliverer of justice, his revenge, his vengeance, for himself. We hear his words as he got out of his car, we know his face as he confronted them; this is what the children hear, this is what the children listen to day in, day out, growing up, day after day, these words; this is what the children see, day upon day, this face; this is what the children fear, cry endlessly over, take their own lives for, a revenge, endlessly replicated. And yet she stood there, strong, herself, dressed as none but herself, speaking with friends, all themselves, all beautiful, all proud, as he exited his car laden with his words of hate, bearing his countenance of rage. “Come here,” he ordered Sakia, she refused; “Come here” he stated again, grabbing her friend round the neck, her friend now choked, her friend’s sister turning to see her sister choking, her mouth afoam; “come here” he demanded, the girls’ spirit angering him more, spiting his vengeance, “come here!” he commanded; and their answer came loud: “NO”, they screamed, their voices screamed, their actions screamed, their anger, screaming, as they fought, Sakia now choked as she swung at him, her anger, fighting back; “NO!” We will not fall for this, we will not lie down for this, we will not run from this; “NO!” again, as Sakia swung again fighting, her heart burning from being choked, her heart burning with the anger of the innocent unfairly judged, her heart burning from the knife now coming to judge her, the knife now coming to lay her down, her blood, now running, she, now falling. And one car sped off, and another car stopped, and another man brought them to a hospital where they tried to save another life, to save a bright life, a future light, perhaps a star; where they tried. And word went round, and the why, and the how went round, it all went round; and here another square of concrete bears another memorial across the street from where no police witnessed, on a block where no media witness, near a city hall where a mayor’s absence bears witness to guilty silence, in a town where a young Black woman refuses to die unwitnessed, as her village comes round, to see, to hear; her family, her neighbors, her friends, her church, her school, her new neighbors, her new family, all come here to witness, come here to say: “NO!”; all come here to set candles lit by her light on a square of sidewalk, candles casting long shadows that blend as one with the city streets, streets that begged for but offered no shelter, streets that promise to promise shelter now; from near and far away they come here to hang, to cry, to be; her village come to proclaim its child, to reclaim its child who lived here, if only for a short while, if but for a brief time, if only for too, too brief a time.