There is a familiar grief ritual when a young person dies, especially from violence, especially in poor, black communities. It is communal, emotive and performative, as black people are wont to be, and much the same the world over. After news of the death spreads, people pour out of their homes to a common area—a park, or to the place where the blood has dried.
They weep. Tell stories. Laugh. Smash bottles. Drink bottles. Pour out some liquor and get loud. They light candles, offer teddy bears, photos and prayers. Get louder. It is a catharsis of the first kind, a loosening of our deepest emotions, just to get by.
When the police do the killing, there is a palpable anger and tension. There is a visceral heartbreak, especially when the death feels tragically unfair. When police kill a young person, a kid you see every day, there are never answers; there is no reprieve. The hand-wringing sorrow stays trapped in alleys and bodies. It is exacerbated by cops and their unions who smear these young victims to justify their mistakes, their deadly prejudice, their ever-present violence.
The chaotic presidency of Donald Trump may have shifted the lens from the police violence that once dominated headlines, but unfortunately, it doesn’t stop. It never stops. Nor does it prevent the collective trauma of a community reeling with grief and frustration in the aftermath—a trauma that one Los Angeles community is reckoning with after another one of its sons was stolen, swiftly and irrevocably.
On Feb. 4, Super Bowl Sunday, dozens of residents of one community in the Westmont neighborhood of South Los Angeles poured out into the 80-degree heat to decry the shooting death of 16-year-old Anthony “A.J.” Weber. He was killed by a member of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Anthony was reportedly outside with his neighbors celebrating the Philadelphia Eagles’ win when, police say, he matched the description of a man wielding a gun in the neighborhood. Although details are sketchy, the LASD says that deputies confronted Anthony, saw a weapon, gave chase and shot him after he turned toward them.
As it now stands, no one knows if A.J. was shot in the back; no one knows how many bullets penetrated his young body. No one even knows the names of the officers involved (The Root has reached out repeatedly to the LASD since last week, to no avail). The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, notoriously secretive about any investigation involving an “officer-involved shooting,” has not released much information, and the information it did release raises more questions than answers.
The day after Anthony was shot, the LASD convened a press conference that barred activists and members of the community; there, the police played an “edited” version of the 911 call that described a “call for service” that described a black man in a black shirt and blue jeans, with a black handgun, about 20 years old. Police contend that this was Anthony Weber.
During the press conference, though authorities couldn’t release Anthony’s name because he was a juvenile, Sheriff’s Capt. Chris Bergner was sure to note that A.J. was “a local gang member in the area,” something his father vehemently denies. The captain went on to say that after A.J. was shot, 30 to 40 people from the neighborhood overwhelmed police and took the alleged weapon, and he referred to the area as a “high violent-crime area,” what the Los Angeles Times called “death alley.”
Community activist and Black Lives Matter Los Angeles member Melina Abdullah calls the police version of the scenario “highly unlikely,” and said that one of her biggest concerns is how this extrajudicial killing affects not only Anthony’s family but also an entire neighborhood.
“First they assassinate the body, and then they assassinate the character,” said Abdullah. “And so [LASD] is alleging that [Anthony’s] a gang member, that he had a gun. But they’re not listing the fact that this is a 16-year-old child, who the entire community saw all day long, walking around the neighborhood with no shirt on.”
Abdullah says that she got on the scene about an hour after Anthony was killed, and was disgusted at how the police continued to reinforce pain on an already distraught community.
“So when we got there, they had at least two city blocks completely cordoned off. There had to be at least 30 officers standing at the line, with billy clubs out,” she recounted, saying that she stood outside the cordoned-off area with a pair of sisters, 12 and 13 years old, who kept saying that they wanted to get home to their mother.
“This is also community trauma,” said Abdullah. “We were out there with those little girls until 3 a.m.”
Members of the Westmont community report that one of A.J.’s brothers (he comes from a family of 10 siblings) was arrested for having a breakdown on the scene. Other witnesses say that A.J.’s father was just aimlessly wandering the street, “out of his head” and talking with people just following behind him at a distance because they didn’t know what to do.
Trisha Michael, a Black Lives Matter Los Angeles member who has lived in the neighborhood for three years, said that her entire family has been floored by Anthony’s death. Michael said that she has tried to be there for the family because she can sympathize. Her sister was killed by Inglewood, Calif., police two years ago. She helps her mother raise her sister’s sons.
“A.J. ... used to be in front of my house, and my daughter knows him very well. She told me he used to pull up and say, ‘Be careful in the neighborhood, It’s a lot going on,’ or ‘Be in the house at such and such time because it’s getting dark early,’” said Michael. “I’m sad, my kids are sad, my nephews knew who he was. I mean, we all live on the same block.”
Michael continued, clear that she wants to focus on A.J.
“But it’s not about me; it’s about a 16-year-old kid,” she said emphatically. “It just brings me back to my situation, you know? It takes me all the way back to these kids, and how these kids are feeling about A.J. getting killed at such a young age. And the amount of times he got shot; their mama got shot 13 times. They just were hurt.”
Dr. Imani J. Walker, a psychiatrist and mental health advocate, says that the grieving process for a community inundated by violence, especially at the hands of police, is ongoing.
“When a community such as this one is so justifiably upset by the death of a child at the hands of police, the grieving process often doesn’t get time to be fully completed,” Walker explained. “You’ll have a large group of people going through each stage [of grief] at their own pace. [What] this effectively creates are people who may be at this stage of anger while someone else may be at the stage of depression. So in effect, there are members of the community at various stages who are all pulling each other back into earlier stages of grief. All of these confused emotions generally lead towards feelings of anger and mistrust of their surroundings.”
She adds, “Shared trauma within an affected community can linger for several years, especially if resources are not in place to immediately help manage the feelings generated by the traumatic event. This can cause an affected community to experience not only symptoms of PTSD but depression and anxiety for years to come.”
“The community is taking it hard right now. The community don’t know where to go, how to go,” said Michael. “This community is so used to police invading, instead of [...] working with us, or talking to us instead of targeting young black men in so-called dangerous neighborhoods.
“Yes, I do feel like A.J. was profiled,” Michael continued. “Everybody is not a fucking suspect. You better know who and what. Because my daughter is standing there, she’s 5 feet away from a suspect. What the fuck you gonna do, shoot her, too, because she’s next to him?”
“Our neighborhoods sometimes become like reservations,” conceded Abdullah. “Like, they put us on these little, impoverished tracts of land and try to impose rules that are not laws and treat us like colonial subjects. Saying that 16-year-olds and children don’t have the right to celebrate the Super Bowl if they live in a poor black neighborhood. But we have to remind people that we’re not subjects, we’re people. We’re entitled to our humanity.”
To donate to Anthony “A.J.” Weber’s funeral expenses, go here.