Devonni Manuel Benton (center) reacts as Superior Court Judge T. Jackson Bedford addresses the jury during his trial in 2009. Benton was found guilty of murdering Jasmine Lynn and sentenced to life in prison. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com
Photo: Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com

This Life: Time to consider if black lives matter to black folk

It seems like only yesterday that I wrote about Jasmine Lynn but it’s been nearly a decade.

I think now about how happy she must have been walking among the buildings that made up the Atlanta University Center, especially Spelman College. Lynn was just 19 but she’d been dreaming of attending the popular HBCU since seventh grade.

Then just two weeks into her sophomore year it all came to an end. A stray bullet sped through the air on James P. Brawley Drive, hitting Lynn in the chest and taking her life and dreams in an instant.

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Within five weeks, police arrested Devonni Benton, then a 21-year-old student at ITT Technical Institute, and charged him with Lynn’s murder and two counts of aggravated assault. Early the next year, he was found guilty and sentenced to life plus 25 years.

Not many people will be able to muster empathy for Benton but I can’t help but wonder too what his life might have produced had he made a different choice that September night.

I’ve been a reporter for nearly 40 years now, and I can’t tell you how often I’ve told or read this exact story: African-American kid shot and killed by an African-American kid. The only thing that changes sadly are the names.

The tragedy is not their death. It’s what might have been.

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People have asked me often – especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement – why I use this space to talk about police shootings of African-Americans but never mention black-on-black crime. The simple answer is one has nothing to do with the other. Black crime rates can’t justify the killing of unarmed African-American boys and men.

That’s troubling for a lot of reasons but so too is black-on-black crime, especially the frequent episodes playing out recently at the AU center.

Here’s why I find them more striking now:

“I never in a million years would’ve thought she’d be killed at school.” That’s what I remember most about my conversation with Jasmine Lynn’s mom Constance Franklin days after her daughter’s murder. Then just days ago, a similar sentiment was uttered by a Chicago mom in response to increasing crime around the AU center.

“I thought with my son being at school, he would be a little more safe,” Anita Johnson was quoted saying.

Afraid Chicago gang violence might claim her son, she was happy when he left for college at Clark Atlanta University.

Because of the recent uptick in violent crime in Southwest Atlanta and the growing concern, Morehouse College Police Chief Valerie Dalton said the college, along with the Atlanta University Center, will be launching an aggressive campaign to equip students, faculty, and staff with safety tips that they can use.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In addition, she said, they will continue to work with the Atlanta Police Department on a long-term strategy to increase patrols in the footprint of the Atlanta University Center and reinstate the Campus Safety Task Force.

“I believe this effort will improve the safety of our students and the neighbors in the surrounding community,” Dalton said in a press release.

We can hope. College campuses are supposed to be safe places. The fact that they are part of a larger American society in which family, community and institutional violence is high naturally puts campuses at risk.

What’s so distressing about that is what I hear in the words of the aforementioned parents. We send our children to these places. We wrap our hopes and dreams in them. It’s hard to believe any harm will come to them, let alone think for one minute that their colleges will be the place of lost lives and shattered dreams.

Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, the great president of Morehouse College, told us, “It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream.” You have to wonder with all the violence plaguing Morehouse and the rest of the Atlanta University Center what he might say now.

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I say it’s time we did some serious introspection.

I’m pretty sure I held the minority opinion that  the Rev. Jasper Williams, the eulogist for Aretha Franklin, was spot on when he challenged black America to change in order to get the respect that Aretha Franklin talked about in her famous 1967 song.

Perhaps he lingered too long on the issue but who can argue his point that our lives must matter to us first, that we have to stop killing ourselves.

Quinton Kevon Martin, 16, was shot and killed early Thursday after returning home from his shift at a Newton County Zaxby’s. CHANNEL 2 ACTION NEWS
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

That doesn’t mean police have the right to shoot and kill us with abandon, that our criminal-justice system isn’t in need of reform. All I’m saying is let’s love ourselves enough first to seek and find the answers to the issues destroying our young and our communities.

Against seemingly insurmountable odds, our ancestors did it. So can we.

As recently as Sunday evening two Morehouse College students were approached by three men, one of them armed, near Frank Street, not far from B.T. Harvey Stadium. Fortunately the students weren’t injured, but the alleged robbers walked away, Morehouse police said in a campus-wide alert.

Then early this week we learned 16-year-old Quinton Kevon Martin died Oct. 25 after gunmen opened fire on him and his boss as she dropped him off after his shift at Zaxby’s. Martin was the same young man who saved his two younger siblings nearly eight years ago as his mother and grandmother were stabbed to death.

In a single tweet, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, responding to a WSB-TV story, summed up my sentiments: “This has to STOP.”

Mays told us that it is not a disaster to be unable to capture your ideal, but it is a disaster to have no ideal to capture. It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for. Not failure, but low aim is sin.

Let’s aim high.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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