Two shootings, one sinister message

It would be good if the murder of Yetunde Price changed lazy attitudes, instead of confirming them
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How very far Venus and Serena Williams appeared to have travelled from the home of their childhood. The sisters, famously brought up from birth to be the tennis champions they both became, spent their early years in Compton, the poverty-stricken, gang-infested south central Los Angeles district where their eldest sister, Yetunde Price, was shot dead with an assault rifle on Sunday night.

The tennis stars issued a statement yesterday, saying: "Our grief is overwhelming, and this is the saddest day of our lives." It can be of little comfort to the family that their shock and perplexity finds an echo among total strangers all over the world.

That a family until now so blessed should have to bear such a brutal, senseless loss, seems not just tragic but cruelly bizarre.

Part of the brilliance of the Williams family's achievement - Yetunde was close to her half-sisters and had been working as their personal assistant - was that they had triumphantly escaped from this blighted neighbourhood.

Amid the tragedy of this young woman's murder, there now is the gristly, superstitious feeling that these dark places are entities in themselves, malign beings which do not like to be defied.

The family mythology, promoted by Richard Williams, the father and mentor of Venus and Serena, certainly invoked the tough beginnings of the sisters to the hilt. The girls used to practise their tennis as children on the public courts in Compton, picking up broken glass and the detritus of drug-taking before they played. Their tremendous focus and concentration had been honed by their early experience of continuing with their tennis even when gunshots could be heard around them.

Mr Williams has even suggested that he decided that his family should live in Compton not out of necessity but because he believed it would be character forming for the girls. Perhaps it was, but if there is truth in the assertion, then it may have exacted an awful price. Whether it was these old connections which led Yetunde to have been where she was when she was killed remains to be seen.

So far, no one has been able to say why Yetunde was in Compton, about 40 miles from where she lived, or how she became embroiled in the confrontation with local residents which cost her her life.

But she had a companion with her on her journey, Rolland Wormley, who will be a pivotal witness. The arrest of a man, Aaron Michael Hammer, on suspicion of murder, has already been made. There is a good chance that the truth, or something close to it, will come to light and justice will be done.

But at the same time, there will be many unjust consequences, with much wider social implications than the personal ones involved in the loss of a much-loved sister, daughter and mother-of-three.

Mr Williams, who is very much the éminence grise behind the success of his daughters, has been justly proud, and expansively vocal, about the fact that his family has managed to break into a small elite community - the international tennis circuit - which is overwhelmingly dominated by whites.

There is no doubt that the spectacular busting of racial stereotypes that the Williams girls have achieved made the family into important positive role models, and have helped them to highlight many issues about the insular nature of the tennis world.

Now though, the message is a little more complicated, because the family has become engulfed by a tragic circumstance that on both sides of the Atlantic is too often characterised as "a black problem", and widely ignored because of this.

The last major florescence in this country of the phenomenon whereby a single crime unleashes a moral panic about an entire swath of people was when two teenage girls were killed when caught in the crossfire between rival gangs in Birmingham in the new year. Since that time, a couple of other similar crimes in this country have hit the headlines, the most recent one happening on the same weekend that Yetunde lost her life.

A seven-year-old girl was gunned down alongside her father in London on Sunday night, and in a quite different way to the Williams sisters, this girl had travelled a long way too. She had been sent over from Jamaica by her mother to get a British education, and had been due to start school yesterday.

Clearly, there is no direct connection between these violent crimes on two different continents - except that in both cases it appears that innocent people drawn into troubled and chaotic situations were shot down in cold blood.

Yet there is another more sinister message here, and even though the case of the murder of Yetunde is clearly of tremendous interest because of her celebrated sisters, it pertains in this situation too. The message is that young black men's lives are somehow of less worth than those of black women. The deaths of young men in such situations go almost unreported, for it is assumed that such young men can seldom be innocent.

But instead, if there is to be a message drawn from the death of Yetunde, it should be that there are many people who make their best endeavours to work hard, live decently - Yetunde was by all accounts modest and deeply religious - but who still find themselves inexorably caught up in the powerful undertow of gang-driven criminality. This goes not just for victims but for perpetrators too.

That a family as elevated as the Williams's should have proved to be no more able to resist that undertow than so many others should confirm to us all the irresistible tentacles this trouble - that we largely prefer to ignore - throws out over all kinds of people who need help instead of silent condemnation.

Plenty of people will be awaiting the full story behind the death of Yetunde, and will be expecting to have their prejudices confirmed. It has already been reported, for example, that Yetunde's companion is under arrest because he was on parole and his presence at a crime scene breaks that parole.

Yet if anything positive is to come from the sad event whereby this family has been sucked back into the troubled ghetto that it left so long ago, it is that desperate lives have a huge influence over the whole of society, and cannot be tucked away in a box marked "trouble" and left to stew.

The double murder that took place in London over the weekend is being investigated by Operation Trident, the Scotland Yard squad which specialises in investigating gun crime in the black community. With this group of people, no doubt doing their best, society broadly seems happy to consider the situation dealt with.

Instead, we urgently need to look much more widely at what sort of start in life people get, when the kind of crimes Operation Trident has started to combat are almost expected of them.

It is this attitude, above all else, which is corrosive, destructive, and alive and well on both sides of the Atlantic. Mythology is powerful, and the negative mythology that surrounds young black men is particularly powerful in the most soul-destroying and damaging of ways. It would be good if the dreadful, high-profile murder of Yetunde could change lazy attitudes, instead of confirming them yet again. This way lives could be saved, instead of deaths ignored.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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