The death of a child is perhaps the most difficult loss that one can experience. A child’s death due to an illness or an accident is tragic; a child’s death due to violence is devastating. However, when it comes to violent deaths, at least there is a clear target at whom parents can direct their anger. And while I am skeptical of “catharsis,” parents can look forward to a measure of justice if the perpetrator is found, tried and convicted. Still, the violent death of a child is a torment that leaves parents asking, in vain, “What more could I have done to have kept my child safe?” How, then, is it possible for a parent to endure the unspeakable anguish that flows from the violent deaths of two children?
That is exactly what Antonia Bailey, the mother of Nicholas “Nick” Nelson and Ashlynn Nelson, is enduring. Nick, who was 16 years old, and Ashlynn, who was 15 years old, were slain in their apartment on Aug. 23. Antonia is a strong woman who took great care of her children. She gave everything she had — mentally, emotionally and financially — in rearing them. Now, they’re gone.
The fact that 20 kids who are under age 20 have been murdered this year in Indianapolis cannot convey the depth of the loss of these young siblings; mere statistics could never do so. The impact of our lives, no matter how brief, cannot adequately be reduced to numbers. Further, while it should not matter, the fact that Ashlynn and Nick were “good” kids — kids who did things the right way — does matter to many people. These kids were involved in activities like “Young Black Males Day” at the Statehouse, CAFE Indy, TeenWorks, Starfish Initiative and Indy Urban Acres. The uncomfortable fact is that, as human beings, we feel compassion on a continuum. The murder of any child is unacceptable; the murder of children like these is unforgivable.
Yet, Antonia Bailey does forgive her children’s killer. During a candlelight vigil on Aug. 25, Ms. Bailey told the mourners, “… I’m mad as hell. I’m mad, but I forgive (the killer).” Even as a minister, I question whether I could muster the fortitude to do so. I pray that I never have to.
Then there is the suspect. As of this writing, the alleged gunman — who himself is just 15 years old — had been charged with murder in connection with the double homicide. Prosecutors have asked that he be tried as an adult; that decision will be made on Sept. 24.
The deaths of Nick and Ashlynn reveal the multiple, overlapping levels of complexity regarding Black-on-Black crime. We mourn for these beautiful young people as if they were our own. On some level, they are. Yet, many of us struggle with reconciling the fact that the young man who committed this horrible crime is the same age as Ashlynn – and even younger than Nick. On the other hand, while social media is not known for empirical accuracy, it’s clear that many of us are not sympathetic regarding the suspect simply because he is so young. Indeed, many African Americans have called for him to be executed.
Last month I wrote a column regarding the alleged difference in how African Americans react to Black-on-Black crime as compared to police brutality (i.e., we supposedly care much less about the former than the latter). I wrote, “In short, it is an abject lie that Black folks do not take seriously the slow-motion, self-inflicted genocide that plagues our communities. Our spirits are pummeled daily by the existential crisis of nihilism and self-abnegation.” Near the end of the column I wrote, “Notably, we do direct our ire toward Black perpetrators when we know who they are.”
As a people, we must balance our thirst for vengeance with our hunger for compassion. Our spirit is parched for the former even as it pangs for the latter. Then there is the question of justice. What does “justice” look like in scenarios like this? Assuming that the young man is guilty, would it be “justice” for him to be convicted as an adult? Does “justice” mean that he will spend the rest of his life in prison? (Life is the maximum penalty that he could receive. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled inRoper v. Simmonsthat defendants who committed crimes while they were younger than 18 cannot be executed for said crimes.)
Finally, I have learned that one of the biggest disappointments that Ashlynn’s and Nick’s family has is that certain people have spoken on their own behalf rather than on behalf of the children. In short, this tragedy is being exploited for various types of personal gain. Such disgusting actions are causing Ms. Bailey and her family more pain. To kill these children is demonic; to exploit their deaths is ghoulish. I’m hopeful that such behavior will cease. Immediately. These children and their family deserve better.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at email@example.com.