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A Night of Tears and Candles

Candles flickered in the gathering dusk like fallen stars, adding tiny pinpoints of light to a corner of the large parking lot in Woodland Hills.

Muted voices rose from the cluster of those who held the candles, and passersby along Ventura Boulevard could hear fragments of comment about the horror of children dying and the cancerous growth of fear.

Yet, very few took much notice, except for three carloads of youths who came by at different times, shouting and laughing at the 50 who had assembled to mourn the dead.

It was another candlelight vigil in L.A.

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There have been 400 in the past 10 years large enough or important enough to be mentioned in the media.

Candle-bearers have stood in hot summers and in wet winters to light fires for racial equality and AIDS awareness. They have marched along endless boulevards to protest drugs and to feed the hungry.

Their reasons have been as frivolous as the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death and as serious as world peace. They have come by the dozens and by the thousands whenever life’s problems seemed too large to bear alone.

Last Saturday night, they gathered again.

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This too was for an anniversary. It was held across the street from Taft High School, about 100 feet from where a young student was stabbed to death at a bus stop almost two years ago.

His name was Lamoun Thames. He died, dreams unfulfilled, at the hands of gang members who mistook him for an enemy. “He was my dear, special child,” his mother said that soft and candle-lit night. “Now he’s everyone’s child.”

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I don’t go to many of these vigils because I can’t take the frustration. We stand around holding little specks of light, talking to others who feel pretty much as we do, then go home and do nothing until the next candlelight vigil comes along.

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Those who can actually do something hardly ever come. Suzanne Lewis, who organized Saturday’s observance, telephoned and sent letters to every member of both the City Council and the Board of Supervisors and a lot of others “to stand as witnesses for peace and nonviolence,” but none of them showed up.

Marvin Braude sent a deputy, Rita Walters sent a bus for the family, and state Sen. Tom Hayden sent a letter.

“Most of them didn’t even return my phone calls,” Lewis said as we stood amid the flickering candles. A warm breeze blew across the asphalt, carrying the faint aroma of night-blooming jasmine. “I can’t believe they would care so little.”

She put the memorial together because her daughter attended school with Lamoun Thames and often waited at the same bus stop where he was killed. Lewis felt it could have been anyone’s child who died that night, and, in the sense that Lamoun’s mother meant it, he was everyone’s child.

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The bus arranged by Rita Walters carried Lamoun’s family to the vigil from South-Central. The irony of his death was his parents sent him to Taft to escape violence and he died at the hands of those who perpetuate it.

Lin Squires was there too. She’s the mother of Marc Squires, who was shot to death four years ago at a party by someone who wanted his pager. She held a large picture of him high above her head and said, “He was the baby brother in the family. No one should shoot a baby brother. . . .”

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I heard so much anguish that night, expressed in the same terms of anger we all feel. “They’re killing our children,” Marc’s mother said. “I’ll never forget my boy,” Lamoun’s mother said.

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Others talked about the fear they felt for their own sons and daughters in today’s world. “How would you feel,” one asked bitterly, “if you sent your kid to a school with a sign on the door that said: ‘No weapons allowed’ ”?

“We’re all afraid,” Suzanne Lewis’ daughter said. She still attends Taft. “You bump into someone in the hall and they turn around and call you names. You don’t know what they might do. . . .”

I’m not sure how much good candlelight vigils do. Remembering, I suppose, is a way of easing the sorrow that accompanies the dying of a young person. Does it ever get better? Lin Squires replied in a way meant to include us all. “Being a victim of violent crime,” she said, “is forever.”

Imprinted on my own memory of this night of tears and candles are the photographs of the two young victims displayed for all to see: Marc with a smile of innocence that claws at the heart, and Lamoun looking determinedly out at a future that died at a bus stop.

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Their mothers have organized separate groups against crime. To achieve any significant impact, a long, hard road lies ahead. Sadly, its dark route will continue to be lighted by candles for our children.


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