"Head Shots" / The curious case of Afrika Owens and the 137th street crew

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Head Shots
by Frederick B. Hudson (Guest Contributor, The Liberator Magazine)

Easy come, easy go
That’s just how you live, oh
Take, take it all
But you never give
Should have known you was trouble from the first kiss

-Bruno Mars, “Grenade”

A single 60 year-old mother was quoted recently in one of New York City’s weekly neighborhood newspapers as full of anxiety about the existence in the near future of a roof over the heads of herself and her adult daughter. Her landlord is poised to raise the rent if certain rent stabilization regulations are not strengthened or possibly repealed in the New York State capital of Albany.

Some cultural critics would immediately seize upon the two women’s plight as indicative of certain ethnicities and class members lack of systemic economic planning. After all, these “enlightened” commentators would claim, if the younger woman had applied herself to adequate educational pursuits, she would be able to meet the challenges of the landlord’s plans to raise the rent.

But the daughter is an Ivy League graduate with a master’s degree who cannot find a job. Her mother, a hospital social worker, describes her offspring as a teacher in the article; no details are given as to her level of experience.

The economic plight of the two women is set in dramatic counterpoint right now in these troubled times when the Obama administration has proposed a significant cut in one of the most frequently used sources of undergraduate financial aid -- the Pell grant.

A further melodic strain emerges when one examines the cacophony of voices in New York City progressive and conservative circles which have been weighing in with strongly sharpened blades of pens and tongues over the case of one Afrika Owens, a seventeen year old girl who sang in the choir of the famous Abyssinian church choir while winning a scholarship to the prestigious Deerfield Academy, a prep school famous for instructing the son of writer John Guenther who told of his genius son’s tragic death while a student there in the famous memoir, Death Be Not Proud.

But unlike Johnny Guenther, the scion of the writer, Afrika did not remain fixated on physics and poetry while studying in New England. She formed a “love connection” with a leader of a Harlem gang self-titled the 137th St. crew. The crew’s alleged ventures include gun merchandising and drug dealing.

Afrike’s paramour, Jaquan Layne, was taped while in jail giving logistical instructions to Afrika on future ventures. These directives were taped recorded by correction authorities and formed the basis for an indictment which has Afrika behind bars (reports: Daily Mail | NY Daily News | Black Voices).

Perhaps the most chilling statement on the audio tape was Layne telling Afrika that gang members should concentrate their weapons’ sights on the heads of targets, police or others, thus avoiding parts of bodies that might be protected by armored vests.

Members of the Harlem community, including Afrika’s fellow and former classmates joined with supporters from the Abyssinian Baptist Church as well as the U.S. Congressman whose district includes the youth’s church to appear in court on March 3 to plead for her release on bail. Her minister, Rev. Calvin Butts promised to post the required $50,000 from church funds.

One columnist in the Daily News speculated that if Afrika had “snitched” on her boyfriend that the judge might have released her. This analysis has serious flaws in light of the criminal enterprise that is under investigation.

The Manhattan District Attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., saw fit in light of the publicity and community support generated by the case to publish an editorial in the journal of record of Harlem, the Amsterdam News, to present his case against the 137th Street gang. He makes the point that of the 14 people already indicted in the case only one is older than 21 while the youngest is 17 -- Afrika.

But Vance emphasizes that the gang is accused of “targeting even younger teens to act as lookouts and gunrunners, and continuing the operation unfettered when the gang’s leaders were incarcerated.” Hence Afrika’s mandate to other gang members to use head shots is a living reality which may result in the demise of others regardless of her fate.

The damage is viral, the spores of the contempt for life the 137th Street gang represents is a malignant tumor which must be addressed. While talented and educated citizens await their place in the sun or at least a roof or their heads or a seat in a classroom, our nation cannot afford to allow evil gangster idiom to destroy whatever chances may occur in these whirlwinds.

The words sung by Bruno Mars have relevance for all of us, not just an unfaithful lover.

If my body was on fire,
You would watch me go down in flames.