Jennifer Rivers never imagined that her son's Chuck Taylors would lead to his death.
Rivers, 59, has lived her whole life in South Los Angeles and remembers when wearing the wrong colors in the wrong neighborhood would make you a target. But that was passe — or so she thought. Until last month, when her son Tavin, 19, was shot to death over his red sneakers during their weekly visit to a carwash on the border of blue gang territory.
"The Chucks," she said, her voice still thick with grief and disbelief when we spoke this week, 10 days after she buried her son and five days after three alleged gang members were charged with his murder. "Every kid wears Chuck Taylors … red, white, blue, black. We all got Chucks."
The iconic sneaker is a fashion statement from urban playgrounds to suburban malls. Tavin had them in several colors, his mother said. His favorite was red — not because he belonged to a gang, but because he loved firetrucks.
Tavin was a boy in a young man's body.
He had been hit by a car when he was 3 years old and spent months in a coma. He emerged with brain damage and a stunted body. In his teens, he managed to grow a mustache. But he was still so tiny that Rivers had to buy his clothes in the children's department.
He couldn't read "and was slow on comprehension," his mother said. "I always tried to keep him close to me. I didn't want anybody to hurt him."
Tavin probably had no idea what the hoodlums at the carwash meant when they confronted him over his sneakers. But he did know to walk away. He was heading back to his mother when one of the men pulled a pistol and shot him twice in the back.
Rivers heard the shots. "I turned around and said: 'You just shot my son!' Then bam bam, he shot him again. Two bullets in his chest. They murdered my son right in my face!
"Who does that? Oh my God. Who does that?" She was crying and shouting into the telephone now — wrestling with a question that's hard to answer, but impossible to ignore:
How can some black lives matter so little to other black people?
It's become a reflexive rejoinder by folks tired of #BlackLivesMatter campaigns: Where are the protests when black men are killed by other black men?
Actually, those protests happen all the time, and have for years: in living rooms and at candlelight vigils, in churches and parks and community centers.
They don't block traffic, rely on catch phrases or send out news releases. They do include grieving families, caring police officers, pastors, students, teachers and former gang members — people who know how deep-seated the problems are. They are not finger-pointing or lobbing demands. They are doing the hard work it takes to reduce street violence and steer young people toward productive lives.
"You can blame the so-called leaders for not doing enough. But you can't blame the community," said LAPD Det. Chris Barling. "They're upset about controversial police shootings and they're upset about black-on-black crime."
Barling, head of homicide in the 77th Street Division, often joins the Cease Fire group that meets each Wednesday night at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at Western Avenue and 79th Street to vent and brainstorm. On Mondays, a similar group, the Watts Gang Task Force, meets near the area's public housing projects. Getting people talking to one another is a start.
All across South Los Angeles, little programs with shoestring budgets operate in church basements, at kitchen tables and in public parks — offering sports teams, mentoring programs, tutoring, field trips and even college scholarships. Anything that might steer young people toward productive lives.
Many rely on a network of onetime gang members who have been trained to reach out to teenagers. "We're not monks or priests, but we are resources," said Ben "Taco" Owens, whose Detours program has a clubhouse where teenagers can use computers to look for jobs or hang out and watch big-screen basketball games. Smoking and drinking are not allowed.
"We don't get paid to do it," he said. "We just do it because we want the violence to stop."
Jennifer Rivers goes to Inglewood Park Cemetery every day to visit her son's grave. She plans to be in court for every hearing in her son's case.
But don't expect her to offer forgiveness or any redemptive speech. "I want to kill him," she said of the man accused of taking her son's life. "I want to blow his brains out."
When the suspect ran from the carwash, Rivers said, she chased him across the street but lost sight of him. When she returned to comfort her dying son and tell police what she had seen, she was threatened by a young woman who berated her for snitching.
"I told police they'd better get her or I would," Rivers said. The young woman was arrested that day and charged with witness intimidation and conspiracy to commit murder.
That wouldn't have happened if Rivers had been cowed by the no-snitching ethos that makes gang crimes hard to solve.
She has raised nine children on gang-ridden blocks and never backed down, she said. When boys on bikes shot up her house in 1973, "I jumped in my car and ran their asses down.… The police came and caught them both. Shoot at my kids? You are not going to get away with that."
That's what it will take to make an impact on black-on-black crime, she said. "When you see kids [gang] banging in the community, turn them in.... They don't care who they hurt or kill."
I admire her courage. She knows who's to blame in her son's death — and it's not the boy who dared to wear his favorite red shoes in a neighborhood where gang members decree you're only allowed to choose blue.