Wednesday, September 09, 2009

On the Murder of Chris Dozier: Reflecting on the Lives of Former Students

Marcus White. Toua Xiong. Quincy DeShawn Smith. And now Christopher Dozier. All former North High Students I had the privilege of knowing and teaching. All killed in North Minneapolis.

I woke up Friday morning to an email from the Peace Foundation. A "Peace e-lert" is what the message was entitled, sent to inform those on the list-serve of recent news, events in and around North Minneapolis. In this case, the email contained information about an upcoming Vigil, sponsored by MADDADS and the Peace Foundation organizations, to honor the life of Christopher Dozier, who was murdered Monday, August 31st in North Minneapolis. The message states that Chris "was found shot to death in a car." It includes a photo of him holding a small child. It relays information about his life. It reads:
Chris, the father of two sons, Christopher Jr. (3) and Sincere (1), was an active member of St. Nebo Missionary Baptist Church and a graduate of North High School (2004). He also attended Dicker College in Louisville, Kentucky & Barber College (2006-2007). His family says that he was a loving son and brother—a true family man—who will be remembered for his big smile and his creative designs.

It offers details about the vigil itself, which is held in the location the violence occurred:
The PEACE Vigil will be held on Sunday, September 6th at 2:00 p.m. next to 1416 11th Ave North.

I read. I take a deep breathe. I sigh. I look closer at the picture. I scan my memory. I know this young man. I knew him as a teenager. I re-read the bio and process information: Class of 2004. I do the math. I place Mr. Dozier in my sophomore English Class at North High in 2001/ 2002. I see his broad smile, his lanky frame at 16. I scan my class list, and look for his attendance records. I imagine my clip chart with student data, and try to see his grades. I ask myself, "Was he a good student?"

And then I stop. And I take note of what I've just done, subconsciously. WAS HE A GOOD STUDENT?
I ask myself, "What does it matter if he was a good student or not?" As I pause, I wonder what else is really trying to get constructed in my brain.

If Chris was a good student, then he was a good kid.
If he was a good kid, then he was a good human being.
If he was a good human being, then he would not have died.
He would not have deserved to die.

This is what happens in my brain -- in a split second! I am sick as I do this simple interrogation of my own psyche, begging to know what is behind my question, "Was he a good student?" What if he was a rotten student? What if I kicked him out of class for being disruptive? What if he skipped sophomore English on a daily basis? What if he bombed out on assignments? What if I gleaned gang graffiti on his notebook? Who cares? Would that have one little bit of bearing on whether or not his death was tragic, and whether or not mourning him was an important action? Would it change the fact that he was a human being who was loved by and loved others?

Whew. It makes me sort of ill writing this. Who deserves to die? Who deserves to be shot to death in their car? Who deserves to live? Who gets to decide any of this? Who gets to judge?


I see Chris. I recall his jovial demeanor, and replay scenes of him poking his head into my room between class periods. He smiles. He goofs. He comes into the classroom corner where the props for drama activities are held. He grabs a sword. I see him pretending to be Bottom, in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and prancing around with this plastic prop that makes silly sound effects with each wielding gesture. I remember being annoyed with that sword and the ongoing pranking of Chris and his peers. I see this former student performing his assigned scene from the Shakespeare comedy before his classmates. We laugh. We are entertained. In the scene, Chris' character fakes his own death. I am stopped again replaying this scene in my mind's eye.


In Julie Landsman's book, "Growing Up White: A Veteran Teacher Reflects on Racism" she addresses her own inherently held racist tendencies. In the book, she takes an inventory of moments when she's realized her white privilege is at work, and how her own responses to students of color as "victims" has played a possible part in perpetuating the disparities in education. She describes a moment in class at Sheridan Middle School in Northeast Minneapolis when she's doing a residency and asks the students to write a letter. When one little girl with brown skin submits what she has written to her mother in jail, Julie is aghast. She records her deep sorrow and dismay over the situation of the little girl. She holds the circumstances of the child's incarcerated parent as the largest factor determining her success. Julie reflects on how her notions of the little girl are shaped by this single fact, and notes how later, she realizes she overlooked the child's present and loving grandmother, the girl's vocabulary and well-constructed prose. Julie recognizes she has reduced this child to a single detail and that this is part of the problem we all have as humans who seem to focus on reductionary facts that perpetuate inequity and victimhood. As the author of the book, she models the work we are all called to do: getting conscious of how our thoughts and attitudes shape our interactions and subsequent relational outcomes.


I think about Chris. I see Marcus White. I recall the last time Toua Xiong and I had an interaction. And I hold Quincy DeShawn Smith's death in my mind. Each of these young men were once my students. Each of them had families and home lives and work lives that shaped who they were, and spoke volumes about their characters. Each of them were loved by someone - many - and in turn loved beyond themselves. Each of them were North Side residents at one point, whose lives also came to a brief halt in North Minneapolis.

What is the sum of each of their lives? How do we hold and measure the hearts and minds and spirits of young men murdered in North MInneapolis? How do we hold and measure our own hearts and minds and spirits? What value do we place on life? Those of our children here, and those of our children there? How do I reflect honestly about the violence in North Minneapolis? How does it relate to violence anywhere in the world? How do I celebrate fully the life and love and potential there, as well as in my own St. Paul home? What is my job as a former teacher from North High, who still prays and volunteers and works in and around the homes and streets, businesses and schools of North Minneapolis? What am I called to pay attention to? What are you called to stop and take note of?

As I mark this fourth tragic death, I consciously work, like my friend Julie Landsman, to mark the fullness of these young men's four lives. I invite you to do the same.

In peace,


Janet Hagberg said...


Wonderfully written. I so appreciate your candor and vulnerability. IT makes me sad just to read about these useless deaths. And I love what Maddads does, to call attention to all this senselessness. And Mary Johnson, too. We need everyone to bring us to our most compassionate selves.


JD said...

Tragic beauty.
Fearless examination of self.
Oh that so many others could go on that
inner journey themselves.
For it is not a matter of IF we are racist/classist (sp?)
but rather, HOW.
Love you sis,

Jody said...

Thank you for anothe beautifully written, thought provoking piece that calls each of us to pause and question.

Jody Tigges said...

Thank you for another beautifully written, thought provoking piece that calls each of us to pause and question.

Mary Johnson said...

Melissa, thank you for sharing. I appreciate the points you have made, I hope that for those that have read and will read the blog - that the eyes of their understanding are open; I hope when they read about the next murder victim they will think differently. If they know them, they wont look back to see if their behavior or actions warrant being murdered. If they don't know them, I pray they don't say "oh another kid in the ghetto".

I'd like to take this a little further, when the shooter is arrested where will our mind go? Will the same thoughts that we had for the murdered victim be the same for the murderer?

We should have coffee.

Mary Johnson
From Death to Life Healing Groups

Sondra Samuels said...

Melissa- this is penetrating and sublime. Thank you. Don read it first. He was awed.

May we send it out on our e-lert? It should be shared far and wide.

I'll honor whatever you feel.

With love.

Sondra Samuels
PEACE Foundation
1119 W. Broadway Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55411
C: 612-669-1980

Brian Mogren, St. Jane House, North MInneapolis said...

Thank you, Meliss, I was very moved by your reflections this morning. I was at the vigil on Sunday, and Christopher's father said something that will stick with me for a long time...something to the affect of "I had many dreams for my son, and none of them included him dying in an alley." Heartbreaking.

Continuing to choose love with you...

Sr. Karen, Visitation Monastery said...

It's our catch up/sit back and perhaps "shut down" a bit day...time to read the emails I waited to read til I had more time to assimilate their content. That brings me to you and your reflection. Your words remind me of who you are in our hood. Thank you, dear Melissa.
S. Karen