Shots in the Dark

Brandon Martell Moore left the world in a shower of bullets followed by deafening silence. Brandon, 16, was looking at video games at National Wholesale Liquidators on 8 Mile Road in Detroit the Sunday after Thanksgiving when an off-duty cop moonlighting as a security guard kicked him and his friends out of the store, claiming they were not accompanied by an adult. The altercation that followed did not involve Brandon but ended in his death.

It was the middle of the afternoon in plain daylight; Brandon was unarmed; he was shot in the back.

The way Brandon’s brother, who was there at the time, describes it, the guard was ruthless in his execution. “He put one arm on top of the other arm and started aiming at us,” says John Henry Moore Jr. “He was shooting to kill. It looked like he wanted to kill all of us. Brandon wasn’t even involved in anything. He was the last one to take off running, I guess.”

Brandon was a quiet boy. According to his sister Ebony, the only time he made any noise was when “he was seeing a girl or making jokes.” He and his younger brother were such devotees of Beavis and Butt-head that his mother had to hide the video so they wouldn’t keep playing it.

“At the funeral lots of girls I didn’t even know came up to me crying and said, ‘I was his girlfriend,’” says his mother, Susie Burks, laughing. “There was a whole row of them there.”

He had never been in trouble with the law before. But the man who killed him had. In 1971 Eugene Williams was involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident while under the influence of alcohol. In 1979 Williams shot a 31-year-old man dead during a neighborhood fracas. Five years later he shot his wife in the side during a domestic dispute, but she lived. Williams is also a Detroit cop. His badge number is 4174. At the time of writing he was still on the force. By any standard, you would think this would have been a scandal. But apparently not in Detroit. It took the city’s two main newspapers less than 200 words to finish with the story in which they failed even to mention Brandon’s name.

“We’re deemed not reportable,” says Clementina Chery, who runs the Boston-based Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, which assists families of victims as well as perpetrators in the immediate aftermath of shootings and works in schools to educate people about gun violence. “Black children are dispensable. Violence is expected to happen in these communities.”

The Detroit police refuse to talk about it. The office of the mayor–the “hip-hop” mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, who struts around with “mayor” embroidered on his French cuffs–has not uttered a word and won’t return calls. When Brandon’s father, John Henry Moore Sr., asked for the police report, the officer told him, “I’m not fucking giving it to you.”

“Why would I want to live in a place where my son can’t even be remembered?” says Brandon’s dad, who has since moved. “That means he didn’t mean nothing to this city.”

The police version of the story is, of course, quite different from that of Brandon’s friends. The police say Brandon was part of a gang of young men making trouble in the store, when one of the staff asked them to leave. “One teenager took off his coat and rushed the off-duty police officer,” claimed Detroit police spokesman James Tate. “The others then got involved.”

Given everything I know about Brandon and everything I know about Williams, I know who I believe.

An investigation into the killing in January ruled that it was justifiable homicide. When I called Williams at his desk on Detroit’s traffic enforcement unit at Mount Elliott, he denied ever having heard of Brandon.

Thanksgiving was a big weekend for police shootings. In the early hours of the previous morning Sean Bell, 23 and unarmed, was leaving a strip club in Queens on his wedding day when five police officers unloaded fifty bullets into his car. They call it “contagious shooting.” One cop fires. Then the others, believing the shooting is itself evidence of a threat, follow suit. Bell’s death made headlines. For a young black man to be killed in cold blood by cops does not raise an eyebrow. Only the inordinate number of bullets makes it newsworthy.

For if the manner in which Brandon was shot was systematic, the way the City of Detroit sought to erase his memory from public record is systemic. “One of the reasons they can do that is because the press has written off the poorer parts of the city,” explains Diane Bukowski, a reporter for the black newspaper the Michigan Citizen, without whose dogged reporting none of this would have been known. “A child can just disappear.”

So in some ways Brandon’s murder was just another banal fact in the life and death of America, where eight children aged 19 and under are killed by firearms every day–more in a year than the number who perished in the World Trade Center. Yet there is no war on this terror. The demand for substantive political change withers because it cannot find root in the legislative process.

The statistically relentless nature of these deaths creates an air of political inevitability about their cause. Just a few weeks before Brandon was killed, the Democrats took over Congress. Detroit Congressman John Conyers, who became the Democratic chair of the House Judiciary Committee, pledged he would not “support or forward to the House any legislation to ban handguns.”

Gun control may have been removed from mainstream political conversation, but the guns are still out there. Some of the mobsters and madmen who wield them have badges–some don’t. To those they kill it is a distinction without much of a difference. When guns claim lives in areas where any middle-class child might be–schools, universities, upscale malls–America mourns. When they are used in projects, barrios and trailer parks, it yawns. The shots ring out just the same. But no one can hear them in a moral vacuum.

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