Fathers lost to gun violence create family leadership holes

Newtown and Aurora notwithstanding, gun violence is nothing new to communities of color in major cities around the country. News reports are typically the same: a young person dies and their family feels extraordinary grief about a life lost long before its time. But my family’s story is different. We lost two men who were grandfathers, and none of the talk about new gun laws will bring them back.

Ron Fennel, 53, was shot to death one block from his Detroit home in June 2011. He was a father of two, as well as a patriarch and chef to an extended family void of male leadership after our last uncle died in 2006. My cousin was busy on the streets back in the 1970s and 80s and had made a lot of mistakes in his life, but he was working hard to overcome them at the time of his passing.

We were working together to launch a family fruit and vegetable garden in the city. It was to be our contribution to our hometown’s rebuilding efforts. Ron had other ambitious plans too. He was anxious to end the family dysfunction created by his absence and inactivity as a father. His first step was to build and sustain a relationship with his newly discovered eight year old granddaughter.

With her father, Ron’s son, in prison and mother working long hours, Ron had become an almost daily fixture in his granddaughter’s life and was determined to be a positive male role model. Her poem of sadness at Ron’s funeral about their new relationship lost had everyone in tears.

Despite Detroit police department sources fingering a suspect, the prosecutor remains reluctant to bring charges. Ron’s old police record is cited as a reason for the hesitation.

Prince Chapman, 64, was shot by a 12 year old boy outside his Fort Wayne, Indiana auto repair shop in 1998. He was a father of five successful adult children and a grandfather of 10. My uncle was also a long-time youth football coach, mentor and community activist in a town without many heroes. His commitment to the city was so noteworthy that mourners waited for hours in a line at least a half mile long to pay their respects.

Unlike my cousin’s case in Detroit, this case was solved quickly. The boy responsible for my uncle’s death was angry about his dismissal from the football team because of disruptive behavior. The boy already had a criminal history. My uncle was aware of it; however, he thought his positive influence could help another troubled young man.

In spite of their overwhelming grief, my uncle’s widow and children adhered to that same positivity and allowed prosecutors to offer a plea bargain to the young murderer. Released from prison in August 2012 and now in his late 20s, the young man was given a chance to start over with the family’s blessing.

As noted author Dream Hampton said today on Twitter, “Violent deaths of loved ones feel unfair for a lifetime, whether they were famous or not.”


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