When 32-year-old Cedric Henry was slain in the prime of his life, leaving two boys, 5 and 11, fatherless, I knew I could not let the loss of this man whom I and the St. Thomas community had grown to respect and love be in vain. Contemplating who he was, talking to fellow community members and praying for guidance over the six days since his death, a plan began to form that is completely doable for this community and the larger diaspora. Before I roll it out for those who keep asking what we can do, indulge me in some background.
Between 1993-ish and 1998 I was involved in three armed robberies on St. Thomas. To be clear, I was on the receiving, not the perpetrating side.
The first one was in the parking lot in front of the St. Thomas Reformed Church on Thanksgiving night. It was my first armed robbery, and I unabashedly made eye contact with the young man (I am assuming it was a man) wearing a ski mask with eye holes.
He took my purse, which contained my favorite lipstick and a small brush. I am not going to pretend I was not shaken by the experience, but mostly I felt sad at the hopelessness I saw in his eyes.
I am no saint, but I have always understood that revenge, retaliation and retribution exacerbate the violence. Two armed robberies later, I still understand the same thing. The perpetrators are hopeless people who feel they have nothing to lose.
Ten or so years later after a day of whale-watching with three buddies I had met through My Brother’s Workshop, I had my first true conversation about that hopelessness with someone living with it. One of the guys was saying he wanted his girlfriend to have a baby for him instead of going to college. When I inquired about his reasoning, he said with no hesitation, “I don’t expect to live beyond my twenties, and I want to leave something of myself behind.”
My heart cries with sorrow again as I write this as it did that day. And my head rages at the injustice that has caused young people to drag that self-deprecation through their often unacceptably short lives. My rage, however, pales in comparison to that of the three men who made us all kneel around the bar in the back garden of Zorba’s Greek Restaurant on Government Hill sometime in the mid-90s. I could feel it. They wanted to kill someone. As it was, they pistol whipped the proprietor, Jimmy Boukas, when he at first refused to open the safe for them. Two weeks later, according to a reliable source, they killed two sailors in Sub Base.
A few years later, I watched the businessman I was working for at the time be set up for a robbery. There was a young man working with me who clearly had a cocaine problem. Periodically, he would have visitors come to the office. I could see what was happening. This young man was into the dealer for a bunch of money. I told my boss he should expect to be robbed and also asked him to talk to his employee about getting some help for his addiction. The boss laughed and dismissed both of my concerns. One month later at three in the afternoon, three masked men came through the Back Street entrance to the historic building where I worked, armed with machine guns. They instructed us to get under our desks and then went directly to the person in the office who dealt with cash – took it and left. The man who told me, machine gun at my head, to get under the desk, also said in what I can only describe as a kind voice, “Don’t worry, just do what I say and you will be okay.”
A few weeks later, the same guy entered Emerald Lady on Back Street and killed a man.
I understand, from my own bouts with depression since I was a teenager, the idea of suicide. But I always pulled out of it because I had things in life that I still wanted to do. Things to look forward to. Also, as a white kid growing up in the 50s in the cradle of the strongest white middle class the country ever knew, despair of the permanent kind was not part of my frame of reference.
But I have had my ups and downs as a single parent raising two sons on about $25,000 a year including child support. I once said to a pastor friend who used to feed the poor from his church in Brooklyn that I was “poor.” He spun around and looking in my face close up said, “You don’t know what poor is until you are 17 years old, illiterate with a record as long as your arm.”
He was right. I didn’t. And neither do most of the people reading this.
The gun violence and death in our community is out of control and few understand the true underlying causes. We blame the victims of our inattention and apathy, while looking the other way at our poverty rates, crappy schools and the bad examples set by the people we call leaders.
My favorite excuse is, “It’s the parents.” And my constant response is, “Let’s pretend they don’t have parents and then ask ourselves, what do we do.”
And here are the latest statistics that support my response. From the most recent Kids Count Data:
More than half the children in the Virgin Islands live in single-family homes – 58 percent to be exact. Thirty percent live in poverty. Almost 10 percent live in homes without either parent.
So, what do we do?
I offer you the Cedric Henry Fund for Hope.
The initial goal is to raise $1 million by the end of the first quarter of 2020. That’s 1,000 people giving $1,000. I know that is possible, but many can give more. And many can give less. Most everyone can give something.
The funds collected will remain in an escrow account at the St. Thomas Reformed Church until they are placed in trust to be managed by a local financial planning organization to be named shortly.
The first $500,000 will be placed in a trust specifically for the maintenance, education and welfare of Naakhai and Khdan Henry to be administrated by a trustee with the help of their mother. After they have received whatever secondary education they choose, or opened a business or put a down payment on a home, the remaining funds along with the next $500,000 will roll over into a foundation to be established with a board determining the grants to be given to other young people in the territory who have lost a parent either by death or long-term imprisonment due to gun violence. The foundation board of directors will be chosen to administer the granting of funds to be available by application and a set of criteria to be determined. Proceeds from the long-term, slow growth investment of everything over the first $500,000 donated can be used only for secondary education, vocational or otherwise, or to start a business or put a down payment on a home.
These options are based upon a solid plan know as Baby Bonds, developed by presidential hopeful and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.
We, as the compassionate community that I know we are, can give these children what their parents longed to give them and could have if their lives were not cut short by gun violence.
And we can also start now to offer hope, where there is none; to let these children know they are deeply loved and cared for by the villagers. If we don’t, there are groups out there with other plans that will and the bloodshed will continue.
This is only a small part of the solution, but it is one that each of us can be part of. And it serves as a monument to the man who meant so much to the village.
Checks may be made to St. Thomas Reformed Church and noted on the memo line: Cedric Henry Fund. Mail to: St. Thomas Reformed Church, P.O. Box 301769, St. Thomas, V.I. 00803.
Here is the link again.