I had been sitting with Samir Fortune’s family at his grandmother’s Philadelphia home for more than an hour when the inevitable question came.
I knew it would. It always does.
They had shared, sometimes through tears, how the 18-year-old everyone called Saddi had been sitting inside his West Oak Lane home on North 15th Street when two gunmen opened fire.
How on the very night he was shot multiple times after bullets tore through the windows and front door, his grandmother had bragged to friends about how it was only a matter of time before her grandson was a big-time rapper, how she planned to celebrate with a meal big enough to feed the whole neighborhood. How, in a matter of minutes, the dreams of a young man whose eyes betrayed a deep sweetness no matter what he was rapping about, came to a violent end.
They had theories, so many theories about what happened Feb. 10 that more than a few times his mother, grandmother, and aunt ended up talking over one another.
A lot of people knew exactly what happened. A lot of people were keeping quiet. Maybe he had been the intended target, though they searched for a motive. More likely, Samir, who was on house-arrest for an unrelated incident at school, was the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Police don’t disagree.
His mother, Tahira Fortune, had rushed to the house after getting a frantic call from his girlfriend, only to be stopped by police outside and rendered numb by the sight of yellow crime tape and 17 markers for the spent shell casings. Later, she found out that her son had managed to run from the rear of the house to a neighbor’s house.
“It burns,” he told the neighbor of the bullets that had coursed through him.
After her son’s death, Tahira Fortune tried to go back to the house. But she kept hearing his voice, feeling the presence. She has never slept there again.
Seven months after Samir was killed, the family is frustrated and disappointed and angry: Shouldn’t someone have been held accountable by now? They know the drill, how sometimes deep neighborhood connections, misguided loyalties, and fear — real and imagined — keep people silent.
But his grandmother especially doesn’t want to hear any of it. Years ago, when Samir’s mother was just a baby, her father had been gunned down, and a friend had bravely stood up against threats. She testified and helped put the shooter in prison for life.
Where is the person who will stand up for Samir? the family wondered.
And then, the question came: What did they need to do, what more did they need to do, to get justice for Samir?
A bigger reward?
More media attention?
I struggled to answer, mentioning the rallies and posters that other families have tried, before finally conceding that I had no idea.
What they were really asking me was how they could compel someone to do the right thing.
If I were going to be honest, I had no answer. I had no more of an answer for them than I’ve had for any of the countless families whose loss is compounded by silence.
Instead, I told them about the other families who, years, decades even, after a loved one’s murder, have kept pushing for answers.
Sometimes, they get them, sometimes they don’t.
I told them about the mother who relentlessly pressured the police and neighbors she knew could help until someone was finally arrested for her son’s murder.
I told them about the mother who still holds rallies on the street where her son was executed in the middle of the day in hopes that one day someone will speak up.
I told them that the following week, I was going to meet a mother who prays every day that an eyewitness — who was stabbed after his statement against the person he says killed her son was posted on social media — won’t shut down at the trial next year.
I told them that I all I could do was what I tried to do for every other family living in the limbo of a loved one’s unsolved slaying.
I would share their story, and hope that, in this city one day soon, conscience would trump silence.