CLEVELAND — Phillip backed his silver Pontiac into the driveway next to his mother’s home in the 900 block of East 131st Street on Tuesday night.
He looks tough but has an easy smile.
“Momma, open the door!” he knocked. “It’s a reporter here.”
Inside was Sonya Garth in a red T-shirt that reached to her knees and a living room lit by a TV and a single bulb overhead. She sat down in a recliner and told the story of her daughter’s death.
Davia, 12, died last October when Sonya’s estranged husband lost it and shot up the home on East 131st street. Sonya took a few bullets and lived. Davia ran toward her mother that night and was struck in the side—Sonya points to her own ribs to demonstrate—and died.
“Once her one year came around,” Sonya said of the first anniversary of her child’s death, “it became real to me.”
The East Side of Cleveland where Sonya and Phillip live is not an easy place. The signs of decay, abandonment, and violence are all around. On the corner of 93rd and Union, a strong stone building with the backbone of a bank and an inscription, “Association Savings and Loan Bank,” is now a payday loan shop. Boarded up shops and abandoned shops. Lots where homes once stood now collecting whatever trash finds its way onto their unkempt grass.
Fifteen minutes across town is Cudell Recreation Center, where the only faces on Tuesday were on the stuffed animals piled on a picnic table commemorating the death of Tamir Rice. School is out until after the new year, but there were no children there on this gray day.
The spot where Rice was killed is a macabre tourist attraction of sorts. Tuesday afternoon a news van idled while catching b-roll; a man parked, got out of his car and snapped a few photos in the overcast light.
Like Ferguson, which is much more than Mike Brown, and Baltimore, which is much more than just Freddie Gray, there is a lot going on in Cleveland that doesn’t make it to the satellite trucks beaming news from this Rust Belt city every time there is a development in the Tamir Rice case.
There have been more than 100 homicides in Cleveland so far this year, an increase for the second straight year. If you consider the youth of our society to be especially innocent and undeserving of murder, like Tamir at the hands of Officer Timothy Loehmann last year, what happened over the summer should make you shudder.
In August a child inside her mother’s womb died after the baby’s father lost it and shot them, the child succumbing several days later. In October a 6-month-old was riding in a car on East 145th Street when a shooter let loose with a gun, striking the baby. She died, too.
In September, 5-year-old Ramon Burnett caught a stray bullet while tossing a football outside of his grandmother’s home. They called him “Dink.”
Then there was “Deck,” 3-year-old Major Howard who was caught in the crossfire in mid-September. His death is memorialized on East 113th Street. The spray paint on the asphalt reads “Flex like Deck.” Stuffed animals are soaked, candles flooded. The balloons are running out of air and beginning to fall.
A grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Loehmann prompted another round of mourning for the family and community, another round of posturing for activists and politicians, and another round of upkeep for those who maintain the 12-year-old’s memorial at Cudell.
Meanwhile, Dink’s and Deck’s memorials are fading away.
“It’s confusing,” said a woman near Deck’s memorial, peeking her head through her screen door, “because I don’t know if that’s for him or the other boy who had got killed near downtown.”
She wasn’t sure which toddler the memorial next to her home was for.
“I don’t know… All I know is if they don’t mess with me I don’t mess with them.”
Sonya Garth’s daughter Davia was the first 12-year-old to be killed in Cleveland last year, followed by Tamir Rice. Sonya speaks in the tone of a survivor now. She attributes her daughter’s death to a system that failed to recognize the danger her former husband and abuser posed, but she also says perhaps she could have done more to protect her family.
The husband, who has since been convicted for the crime, emerged from the basement of the home on East 131st Street on a late October day with a gun. Sonya screamed. He fired. Davia ran.
“I thought he was her father,” Sonya said, “but I thought wrong.”
Phillip makes a sandwich as his mother talks, then goes upstairs as the 5 p.m. news reports protesters gathering and disrupting traffic over Tamir Rice’s death. Phillip has kept more to himself since Davia’s death, Sonya says, playing video games often.
“Everybody has to deal with it in their own way,” she says.
“I think Davia would want me to keep going.”
Outside on East 131st Street, there is no traffic and no protesters. Just a new wail of police sirens.