Currently, I’m working with a group of Harlem residents and neighbors (just a block over from where I was born and raised) who’ve started a campaign to honor Daryl Washington, a young Black man who lost his life to gun violence on July 29, 2014 just feet from his residence. Touched by his inspiring life, the mourning and love of his family and others that knew him, and by our collective disgust with escalating gun violence and gang activity in Harlem and throughout the United States, many of us decided we would work to see that his memory lives on.
But family, friends and neighbors were not satisfied with simply mourning or commemorating Daryl Washington. We understood that the block, neighborhood and country of Daryl’s birth have claimed thousands of young lives due to societally-promoted ignorance, self-hatred, and a disturbing tendency to settle disputes by ending life. His senseless murder, we concluded, was part of a national epidemic of gun violence and fratricide plaguing Black and Brown communities with alarming frequency. So we launched a campaign with two objectives: 1. To have the street where he lived renamed in his honor to “Daryl Washington Way.” 2. To coordinate an annual event commemorating Daryl and raising awareness about gun violence in our community. To achieve the first goal, we launched a paper and online petition drive with a goal of 5000 signatures. To reach the latter goal, we’ve held a number of building meetings in addition to meetings with community leaders and organizations including Harlem Mothers Save and the West Harlem Empowerment Coalition.
So far, we’ve attracted many supporters (from West 144th Street in Harlem all the way to South Africa) and naturally some pessimistic cynics and people who are sincerely confused about the campaign. I’ve talked to quite a few people, including some personal friends, who’ve raised some questions and I’m writing this article to address those most frequently asked.
Question: Do you have the family’s support/permission to do all of this?
Absolutely. We never forget that at the root of this all, a family lost one of their own and they are in mourning. We make no move without first conferring with Daryl’s mom, and soliciting her input. She and other family members have signed the petition and have enthusiastically shared it on their own social media sites. As his mother recently wrote, “I really appreciate all the love and support given freely and generously to myself and my family during our tragedy. Please, if you haven’t, go to change.org and sign our petition to co name W. 144 St Amsterdam Ave to Daryl Washington Way! Ask your family and friends to sign as well, please. Our goal is 5,000 signatures. It’s not just about his name but the Daryl Washington way of life. A peaceful, courteous, kind and helpful way, done with a smile, hugs and consideration for others. That’s the way he lived and loved and I’ll do all I can to honor his legacy and his memory in the same way.”
Question: Why are you trying to rename a street? This won’t bring the young man back, and it won’t stop gun violence. What will this accomplish?
This is interesting since we live in cities and walk on streets named after all types of people, some of whom meant us no good. Why should the idea of naming a street after one of our own cause such resistance from some of our own? Our idea to rename the street came from conversations between Daryl Washington’s family and neighbors. They knew his death had a devastating impact and they wanted to know what they could do to help. His mother especially, made it clear that she wanted Daryl’s name and memory to live on. In conversations about how to do this, neighbors came up with the idea to rename West 144th Street between Amsterdam and Broadway Avenues, “Darryl Washington Way.” When we shared this idea with his family, they liked the idea and supported it. The street renaming is primarily for his family and friends We all believe it will help his memory live on, and help those who loved him through what must be a difficult time. To some degree, a street sign bearing his name will be a physical marker that might lead some people to ask about Daryl and learn about his life and about gun violence. In terms of what this campaign HAS accomplished: I’ve seen so many people talking, meeting, and working together in a spirit of love and solidarity. I’ve seen community folk getting petitions signed, determining meeting agendas, expressing their views, and thinking strategically around this campaign. In other words, the campaign to honor Daryl Washington, is also helping to identify and develop new community leaders, raise the confidence of people, and encourage community solidarity across gender, ethnic, and religious lines.
Question: But What makes Daryl Washington so special? Many other people were killed on his block and in that neighborhood. What about them?
This question is particularly disturbing because it implies an insulting type of competition between lives. As we state in our petition, “Many people are unfortunately killed by gun violence in NYC (and other large cities) on any given day. Each premature death is tragic, as no life is more valuable than another.
Daryl Washington’s murder resonates with so many relatives, friends and NYC residents, workers and business owners precisely because he represented the very best examples of ambition, self-improvement, community service and integrity that the “Big Apple” represents at its core. Everything from his decision to pursue a career in which he would potentially sacrifice his life to help others, from the way he died, demonstrates a central NYC and American creed: “I am my brother’s keeper.”
By launching a campaign around Daryl Washington, we are not suggesting that he was more important than anyone else. New York City has a process for renaming streets. We are simply organizing and utilizing a process that is open and available for anyone. It is unfair and impractical to hold us responsible for the fact that other people do not have streets named after them. In order to address the similar murders of other residents, we are hosting an annual event to address the issue of gun violence.
I must also address the issue of contrasting Daryl with other murder victims who unlike him, participated in selling drugs, gang activity or other forms of criminality and community mischief. When a young person is killed, regardless of his or her personal character or activities, a family and extended family grieves; a community loses a potential or actual parent, leader and productive citizen. As stated before, no life is intrinsically “better” than another.
However, we understand that a solider who dies overseas made a commitment to engage in war and therefore understood the likelihood of being injured or killed in the line of duty. But what about a civilian who did not enlist in the military, lived a life of peace and worked to uplift the community, yet gets killed by a grenade or missile launcher? Such an individual is an unfair “Casualty of war.” This civilian did not sign up to kill or be killed. Therefore his or her death is more tragic and resonates more deeply with people as a result. If you can understand this, you can understand the difference between a person like Daryl dying from gun violence, versus gang members, drug dealers and community predators dying from the same cause.
Not one Black parent I know wants their child to gang-bang, drop out of school or participate in criminal activity. On the contrary, All of them (including myself) have high and noble expectations for our children, even if WE were or are criminals ourselves! We all beam with pride when our child receives academic or athletic recognition; we brag when our child has the privilege to travel the world, do honest work for a living, win a scholarship or attend and graduate from college. So we need to be honest and stop being hypocritical!
When something tragic and undeserved happens to people like Daryl Washington, we FEEL it because people like Daryl represent the hopes and aspirations we have for our own children. People like Daryl symbolize and embody the life and meaning that our enslaved ancestors prayed and fought for, knowing full well THEY wouldn’t live to see their visions come true. When we fail to give people like Daryl the respect they deserve, and instead lump them together with any and everyone that was murdered, we do ourselves a major disservice. Instead of being hypocritical and making this a negative competition between “good” and “bad” seeds, we should strive instead to teach and learn the lessons presented by the murders of exemplary youth and their more troubled counterparts. As I noted on Facebook, “When a role model and person of high character is killed, we are reminded that our best and brightest can still fall prey to the ignorant among us, so we must always work to uplift our entire community. When a person involved in criminal activity is murdered, we are reminded that the negative choices we make have negative consequences and negatively impact our lives. The “village” has dropped the ball; We ARE our brother’s keeper….”
If we really want the best for our youth, we cannot “hate” on or dismiss those that are exemplary, nor can we continue to defend those who consciously wreak havoc among us, make our communities unsafe and threaten the future of our people (at the same time, we cannot judge them or write them off as incorrigible). No, this is the weak and ignorant approach. This approach will only continue the vicious cycle of fratricide we already see. We must encourage those doing well and educate others to do and be better! We must teach our troubled youth that despite what the world tells them, they are valuable and their lives matter! They are not natural-born “T.H.O.Ts, thugs, bitches and hos, but the victims of those that treat and perceive them as such. If we want to make things better, we must begin to do exactly what Daryl’s family and neighbors are doing….reminding people of what is good and noble in our young people and holding our community to positive expectations, while educating our people to the horrors of self-hatred, ignorance and fratricide. This point is actually self-evident; This is why we have gang-prevention programs rather than gang recruitment programs; This is why we brag about young people that do well and feel ashamed of those who bring dishonor to ourselves and our community; This is why we urge our children to stay in school rather than drop out; This is why we create programs to keep our youth from experiencing prison life rather than programs to help them “enjoy” incarceration; This is why we want our children to learn job skills and learn to run legitimate businesses of their own rather than teach them to become good thieves, murderers, and cheats.
Hopefully, this sheds some light on the Daryl Washington campaign for those with questions. Anytime that Black and Brown people work together, plan together, and fight together in positivity, we should support this in principle even if we ourselves don’t personally get involved. There is indeed a problem when people in our own community (typically those who do little or nothing to uplift the community and are part of the problem rather than the solution) spend so much energy attacking those of us who are trying to do something to improve our condition. I realize that some people are deeply cynical, while others are genuinely curious. But we believe in Daryl, his family, and the righteousness of this campaign, and we will proceed in our efforts regardless of whether people agree or understand it. We have the backing of the Washington family, and we believe, the backing of the Creator….
Again we ask that you read, sign and share our petition and stand for something bigger than yourself….
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.”
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
You can contact or learn more about Agyei Tyehimba by visiting Agyei’s website.