A Guilford County Superior Court judge shed angry tears from the bench two weeks ago while sentencing a 21-year-old for gunning down a 16-year-old.
The judge had seen enough of African Americans killing each other, over and over, in Guilford County.
Lives lost. Lives ruined. Hearts broken ... and over what? Petty grievances and stupid grudges.
And her honor wanted him to know it.
“These are babies and they’re gone,” said Judge Lora Cubbage, who is African American. “There’s one that is buried and one I have to put in a cage.”
The defendant, Haji DeQuan Johnson, received a minimum sentence of 16 years in prison — the length of the lifetime of his victim, Western Guilford High student Sateria Zoe Fleming, whom he confessed he had shot and killed in March 2018 for allegedly attempting to run off with $100 worth of marijuana without paying for it (which, in somebody’s warped sense of proportionality, was a capital offense). The shooter was 19 at the time.
Johnson’s attorney said that his co-defendant, Channay Erika Morehead, 27, had ordered Johnson to shoot when Fleming and another girl allegedly tried to flee.
Cubbage raised her voice when addressing Morehead.
“Don’t tell me black lives matter if it doesn’t matter to you,” she said. “How dare you pick up and ruin a young man’s life.”
As it turns out, Cubbage’s frustration is not hers alone. Another judge, David Hall, spoke similar words in his courtroom, only days later. Hall was sentencing a man to 25 years for robbing a convenience store three days after shooting another man ... in a fight over a prostitute.
“Something must be done in Guilford County,” Hall said. “The fact that he committed armed robbery just days after taking another man’s life should be another indication of the mindset that has devoured a good part of this beautiful county.”
That mindset is devouring the lives of black men in particular. After declining in 2018 the homicide rate in Greensboro is ticking up again. The city experienced 17 homicides and 226 shootings between Jan. 1 and May 30. That’s seven deaths ahead of last year’s pace.
For all of the good it has done, I’ve written about this topic many times before. And I have questioned why the fervent protests and activism here against alleged police misconduct aren’t matched with equal outrage that young black men who are dying at each other’s hands.
But, as Cubbage said, if black lives matter, they need to matter to black people first and foremost. And that begins with us loving and respecting ourselves.
This is not to minimize or dismiss the systematic problems of poverty and racism. They are clear and present dangers to minority communities — in fact, even greater dangers given the current political climate (see police killings and a rise in far-right extremism and an administration that doesn’t want to talk about either).
But this is not getting better and it is a crisis for not only Greensboro but Guilford County.
Solutions? In 2015 the News & Record convened a community discussion on the challenges facing young black males. We invited nationally syndicated columnists Leonard Pitts and Star Parker to address the issue in a discussion moderated by Elon University School of Law Dean Emeritus George Johnson.
Roughly 1,000 of you turned out, black and white, conservative and liberal. There was hope and energy in the room. We talked about racism, families, personal responsibility, mentoring and apprenticeships. But four years later, we don’t seem to be any better off.
Police Chief Wayne Scott plans to put more uniformed officers on the street. But that treats only the symptoms of the problem. The City Council is considering a program called “Cure Violence,” a national, community-based model that treats violence as a disease. A bill in the N.C. House would restore postsecondary education in prisons. And federal sentencing reform should help address mass incarceration, which has created a breeding ground for career criminals. Then there are our schools, where the prison pipeline can be disrupted before it can begin.
We need to be trying a variety of strategies to stem the tide. And if those don’t work, we need to try others.
And keep trying. Until something does. As County Commissioner Melvin “Skip” Alston said: “Just counting the number and having funerals and being sad isn’t going to help.”