RSS FeedFacebookSearch
Gary Younge
When a Teen Was Shot Dead, the Tragedy for This Author Was Personal

As a scholar, Laurence Ralph specialized in youth violence. Then a relative was killed. “Sito” tells the story.

The afternoon in 2014 when I drove around Englewood, on Chicago’s South Side, with a group of “violence interrupters” — former gang members and ex-offenders from the community — there were bodies on the ground. Nine people had been shot the previous afternoon; the interrupters’ challenge was to tour the neighborhood, from emergency rooms to street corners, and intervene before vengeance took over and the violence escalated.

“We need to interrupt the spread, change the script, change the behavior and change the norms,” said Gary Slutkin, the physician who founded Cure Violence, the organization that employed the interrupters. Slutkin, who once worked for the World Health Organization, specializes in infectious disease control and reversing epidemics. In his office he pointed to a map of Chicago, on which small red dots marked the site of each shooting. The West and South Sides, including Englewood, were covered in dots; the more affluent North was relatively clear. “It’s the same pattern on a map showing the incidence of cholera in Bangladesh,” he told me. “It’s an infective process.”

When it comes to youth violence, one of the principal challenges for the writer, judge, academic, police officer, surgeon or activist is to restore the humanity to each dot: to rescue from statistical anonymity and tragic metaphor the sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, lovers and scoundrels that they were. Luis Alberto Quiñonez, known as Sito; Rashawn Williams; Julius Williams, Rashawn’s little brother; and Miguel Alvarez are four such dots on a map of San Francisco. And in his new book, “Sito,” about a murder in which they are all directly or indirectly implicated, Laurence Ralph aspires to give their story human form.

On Sept. 2, 2014, a couple of months after I toured Englewood, Sito and Miguel, both 14, knowingly strayed beyond enemy lines into the territory of a rival gang where they happened upon Rashawn, Sito’s adversary from middle school, and Julius. When Rashawn, also 14, confronted them, Miguel attacked him as Sito and Julius, who was just 12, looked on. The fight was over within moments, and Miguel and Sito fled. Only later, on Facebook, did Sito discover that Miguel had fatally stabbed Rashawn.

Sito was arrested and charged with murder, but refused to turn on Miguel. He spent five months in a San Francisco jail for youths, before CCTV footage exonerated him. The police had access to the footage all along. They knew Sito wasn’t guilty of the stabbing. But they kept him locked up anyway. They did not pursue Miguel; the streets took care of that. Nearly a year after Sito’s release, Miguel was shot dead.

Four years later, Sito was helping his girlfriend’s mother move house when a gunman approached his car and shot him 17 times in the neck, shoulder and chest. Sito’s girlfriend, who tried to pull him out of the way, was shot twice in the arm. The shooter was Julius.

Sito was the younger half brother of Laurence Ralph’s stepson. (Before Ralph met his wife, she had a child with Sito’s father.) Ralph met Sito only once. But as a professor of anthropology at Princeton University whose work has focused on gang violence, he had been studying the world Sito occupied for much of his professional life.

By the time Sito was killed, he had become an advocate for juvenile detention reform, and he proves an engaging subject for Ralph’s book. In essence, “Sito” is not anthropology, or even journalism; it’s a family narrative. Ralph obtained the kind of access authors rarely get, including to Sito’s father, Rene, a former gang member who was once incarcerated for dealing drugs and had later worked as director of an organization to prevent gang violence; and to his mother, Beatriz, a former medical technician who since Sito’s murder has rarely left the house.

Ralph tells his story well. He avoids sentimentality. Nor does he pepper his prose with the kind of opaque language that so often dogs academic writing. Occasionally his research shows a bit too much; it’s not necessary to know that Andrew Smith Hallidie invented the open-air trolley bus in 1867, especially when it interrupts the story of Julius stalking Sito during his last moments. Ralph’s use of Yoruba parables (his wife studies religions originating in West Africa’s Yorubaland) to convey the moral of particular episodes is inspired but ultimately feels incongruous. As far as it goes, “Sito” is a readable, empathic portrayal of a Hispanic teenager whose promising life was cut short because of failures in the criminal justice system and violence in the streets.

The trouble is that the book doesn’t go far enough. The assumption that “there is an innate difference” between a victim and his assailants “hinders our ability to understand urban violence,” Ralph declares at the outset, explaining the central lesson of his first book, “Renegade Dreams.” “We must come to terms with the fact that youth of color are both highly susceptible to experiencing violence and therefore extremely likely to enact it.” To demonstrate this premise in “Sito,” we would need to know more about Julius, Rashawn and Miguel, too. Sito was innocent. But his murder makes no sense without them. They may be secondary characters in the story Ralph seeks to tell, but they are crucial to the larger narrative in which they have all been cast: red dots waiting for his critical eye and writerly skill to breathe life into them.

It’s no mystery why Ralph does not do this. In “Renegade Dreams” he had sufficient distance from his subjects to treat them anthropologically. In “Sito” he is arguably too close. To speak with Rashawn and Julius’s family, who publicly vilified Sito, petitioned for him to be tried as an adult, and denied his innocence while also denying Julius’s guilt, would have felt like betrayal. Yet doing so would have made the book more potent. “Sito” is no less honest without their voices, but it is less complete. Every writer has a responsibility to his subject; in this case that responsibility may have been too onerous.

Expressing his dilemma about describing Sito’s last moments, Ralph asks: “Is it necessary to make my readers relive Sito’s stalking from the eyes of his stalker? My family was the readership I cared about most.” That’s understandable. But where does it leave the rest of us?

© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc
Dispatches From The Diaspora
latest book

'An outstanding chronicler of the African diaspora.'

Bernardine Evaristo

 follow on twitter
© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc