4-year-old shooting victims

Khyren Landrum, 7, and mom, Aiesha Landrum, 33: A study in resilience.

Khyren Landrum, 7, and mom, Aiesha Landrum, 33: A study in resilience.


By Mark Curnutte

— The makeshift memorial, understandably, took form overnight Thursday and into Friday morning in the 700 block of Ridgeway Avenue.

Shaped by teddy bears, candles, a Christian cross, balloon, black-skinned baby doll and two flowers — one wilted, the other fresh — it marked where 4-year-old Martaisha Thomas was shot in the face in a drive-by shooting at about 8:15 Thursday night. Police say they know who the shooter is and that he was aiming for someone else in a group of people at an outdoor party that included Martaisha. She remains hospitalized in critical condition.

I read about the shooting Thursday night, managed to get to sleep, but woke up for good around 2 a.m. The week already had emotionally drained many of us who live and work in Cincinnati. Former University of Cincinnati Police officer Ray Tensing had been indicted on charges of murder and voluntary manslaughter for the July 19 shooting death of unarmed black motorist Samuel DuBose during a traffic stop in Mt. Auburn.

I had to work on a grant proposal Friday morning with a colleague at the Greater Cincinnati Urban League. It was for $40,000 and would go toward promoting and expanding our job-readiness programs that place 80 percent of graduates in jobs and help them stay there.

Most of the morning went to the grant work. A little before noon, I took off walking south of our office in the 3400 block of Reading Road. I had awakened overnight thinking about the last time a 4 year old had been shot in Cincinnati. Khyren Landrum was hit in the hip on March 20, 2012, on Blair Avenue, as he walked home from a park with his mom and two older sisters.

Traffic sped by in the north-bound lanes. I walked past the new housing unit going up on the corner of Reading and Maple Avenue, part of The Community Builders’ $29.5 million federal Choice Neighborhoods grant. I moved past Somerset Manor, the imposing subsidized apartment building where Khyren and his family had lived.

Within sight of Ridgeway, I first noticed a local television reporter doing a stand-up near the apartment building. I turned the corner and caught sight of the memorial atop a low stone wall. Two officers in a Cincinnati Police cruiser, lights flashing in the noon-day sun, sat watching the scene.

I stood in front of the teddy bears and candles for a few minutes. A Cincinnati Enquirer reporter drove up. So did a reporter and videographer from another Cincinnati TV station.

I moved out of the way. Some neighbors walked over and discussed what they needed to add to the memorial. The shooting happened at a sharp bend in the road. I looked farther down Ridgeway, considered one of the most dangerous streets in Cincinnati, away from the gathering at the scene. A second police car drove up. I dislike crowds and media events. Martaisha’s little shrine had become an attraction, one that media — and I am counting myself — treat as newsworthy, despite their frequency. They are the act of frustrated, angry, grieving people, most of them confined to lives of desperation and poverty in America’s inner cities, who don’t know what else to do to express that anger and frustration. It’s the same with the rallies that, understandably, follow. Small children and adults alike sing a hymn and hold candles and hand-written cardboard signs at the scene of a shooting, imploring a peace that won’t come.


Counting each of my steps from Martaisha’s memorial, I walked down Ridgeway. On the night Khyren had been shot in 2012, I attended a meeting of the Community Police Partnering Center at Hirsch Community Center in Avondale. I had prewritten my story. Community leaders, including my now-colleague here at the Urban League, Dorothy Smoot, announced a new anti-violence initiative focused solely on Ridgeway Avenue. Called Moral Voice, the program had a relatively simple thesis: We know who’s causing the trouble. It’s a small group. We are sending people you know, intermediaries — a former teacher, coach, minister — to tell you the police know who you are. We are going to offer you help in terms of social services, child support adjustment, a reinstated driver’s license, if you try to turn your life around. Otherwise, we’ll be coming after you.


Back to Friday, the last day of July 2015. Notebook in hand, I walked. The night before, when I could not sleep, I reread part of what I consider one of the seminal books on race in the United States, “Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal.” I’d scribbled some passages from the book, written by Andrew Hacker, professor emeritus in the Department of Political Science at Queens College, New York. Questions of race and race relations occupy my mind, by choice. They are the lenses through which I view the world around me.

At 100 steps, I stopped in front of a vacant lot, at which, in the center, stood an excavator. Near the street, in a row, several oversized concrete sewer pipes rested on their ends. “Dellway Sewer Replacement, 2/2/16 completion date,” read the sign nailed to a tree.

I wrote down those details on a sheet near this line from Hacker’s book: “From slavery through the present, the nation has never opened its doors sufficiently to give black Americans a chance to become full citizens.”

Hacker, as I do, believes that white privilege is real. My life experiences have proven it so. I believe I benefit from it in ways that I — even as one who ascribes to it — don’t realize. I do know I can be 10 minutes late for an appointment without being judged. I can grow my hair long and dress down as a professional. I can use slang and forego the King’s English without someone questioning my intelligence. I can drive without being pulled over for no other reason than the color of my skin. I can be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

My sins are not the collective sins of all white people, as is often the perception of African-Americans. As a white man, I can work in a predominantly black neighborhood for a civil rights organization, but I can leave and blend in as another privileged white face in a privileged white crowd.


I walked on. I had a destination. The only question was how many steps it would take me to get there.

At 175 steps, I stopped in front of a two-story house. An upstairs’ window was open to a screen. The window beside it held a fan. Stuck into the neatly mowed-and-trimmed yard were six sticks from which were stapled small U.S. flags.

At 195 steps, I saw — dumped in a small wooded area — a pile of garbage: A wood-framed rocking chair and 64-ounce white bottle that once contained Havoline motor oil.

At 380 steps, I paused across the street from a three-story apartment building. Music blared from an open window. I tried to recognize the rap but couldn’t. A woman, talking on a phone, stood in on the dirt yard. A man looked across the street at me — dressed in sport coat, open shirt and jeans — and ducked back inside. Litter, several cardboard cigar boxes and clear plastic wrappers, choked the storm drain near my feet.

I walked on, and at 450 steps reached the corner of Ridgeway and Perkins avenues. A group of people, all African-American, sat in the shade of a porch. I waved. They waved back. I looked around. I was the only white person in sight. I jotted down more notes. I turned back to the page with excerpts from Hacker’s race book.

“Few whites feel obligated to ponder how membership in the major race gives them powers and privileges.” Being white is the greatest benefit any American can have, “no matter how degraded their lives, they can never become black.”

I thought of conversations I’d had with colleagues at the Urban League, where three of the 52 full-time employees are white. Some of my African-American co-workers said they’ve been depressed since the church shooting that left nine people dead in Charleston, South Carolina. That pall, one person said, had started to lift and then — literally, bang — Samuel DuBose is shot in the head for the “crime” of driving while black.

On the Avondale street corner, someone called my name. Startled, I looked across Perkins and saw three black men in Cincinnati Works tee-shirts. One was a former Enquirer source, Mitch Morris, who had started a job-readiness course for returning citizens at the nonprofit, shortly after he’d been laid off from his job as a street outreach worker for the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission. Morris and his colleagues were blanketing the area with pamphlets promoting his program. Another television reporter and camera operator met him at the corner for an interview.

I walked on. At 595 steps, I had descended a small hill and reached the corner of Perkins and Blair. To my left, back up Blair, I could see the looming Somerset building and former St. Andrew Catholic Church, closed by the Cincinnati Archdiocese in 2010. I smelled hamburgers on a charcoal gill.

Nearing my destination, I started to walk across Blair but stopped when yet another police car — its blue and red lights twirling — drove slowly past.

Hacker touches on the phenomenon of urban violence in “Two Nations.” He calls it “self-inflicted genocide” but does not completely absolve white America of responsibility. Young black men suffer, he writes, “a despair that suffuses much of their race. These are young men who don’t know whether they will live another year, and many have given up caring.”

People kill within their race. Nationally, from 1974 through 2004, white assailants committed 86 percent of white murders, and 94 percent of black victims were killed by another black, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Individuals and families within the black community have personal responsibility for their choices and conduct. So, too, does the larger society have the responsibility to invest economically and socially in intentionally deprived communities.


I crossed Blair and turned right, toward the park and away from Reading Road. At 650 steps, I reached my destination: the place where Khyren was shot in the hip on the warm evening of March 20, 2012. His blood had stained the sidewalk in front of 842 Blair for a couple of months.

I had stayed in contact with Khyren’s mother over the years. I had called her before taking off on my walk. She said a female police officer had helped her relocate to another neighborhood. Aiesha Landrum, now 33, said she and her children missed friends in Avondale but were now living in a more peaceful part of the city. I arranged to meet her that afternoon at 3 at a public library branch. She’d done temporary work for a warehouse distributor and was going to the library to fill out Online applications.

Back on that warm March evening in 2012, at the spot where I now stood, a bullet tore through Khyren’s hip and out his buttocks. I’d driven by Blair on Reading toward Downtown and The Enquirer newsroom just before the shooting. The paper’s night reporter met me at my desk and said a 4-year-old had been shot in Avondale. Did I know anything? I had gone back to insert a couple of paragraphs into my story. I added the details about the boy’s shooting and sped back to Avondale.

Later, police said, two cars, one in pursuit of the other, had turned off Reading Road onto Blair. Where Perkins dead-ends into Blair, the driver of the chase car sped past the lead car and slammed on his brakes. The passenger from the first car got out and shot at the second. One bullet struck Khyren’s left hip. He got up, tried to walk a couple of steps, stumbled and fell.

He would spend about a week in Cincinnati Children’s and then have to undergo physical therapy to learn how to walk again. Aiesha Landrum pushed her son across the neighborhood in a wheelchair.

Two days after Khyren’s shooting, Avondale and black community leaders gathered for a rally near the scene.


Khyren was big news for a while. Then he wasn’t. The story of 4-year-old Martaisha will follow the same path before disappearing from the collective media and social consciousness.

Yet what has changed? Social service agencies blanketed Avondale after Khyren was shot and then went away. The same will happen this time. Police increased patrols then but went away. Politicians made forceful speeches filled with promises and then forgot them. What will change?


Someone new to Cincinnati asked me recently which city neighborhood is my favorite.

Without hesitation, “Avondale,” I said. “I used to like Over-the-Rhine a lot. Not so much anymore.”

I know too many good, hard-working, honest people in Avondale to think otherwise. They are without pretense and manipulation. Where some people see dysfunction in Avondale, I see order. Where some people see hopelessness, I see resilience, no people more resilient than Khyren, his mother and sisters.

I drove to meet Aiesha and Khyren at the branch library. He had headphones on and was playing tic-tac-toe on a computer. He’d grown taller but was still thin. He’d lost his two front teeth. He gave me a fist bump. “Hi, Mr. Mark.”

“He is doing better,” Aiesha said. “He just started playing football.”

They had TV news on Thursday night at home. “Khyren never watches but was watching for some reason,” his mother said.

They heard about the 4-year-old girl had been shot in Avondale.

“Like me?” Khyren said to his mother. “Is she dead?”

“No, she is still alive.”

“I will pray for her.”

Aiesha said she had baby-sat the girl’s mother, who was now 28. “It crushed my heart,” Aiesha said. “It brought back so many memories. I know how the mother is feeling, and Khyren was not as bad.”

I drove back to Avondale to continue working on the $40,000 grant application. Grant writing and asking for money, I have learned, is a way of life at a nonprofit.

The Urban League provides the majority of its services free-of-change, especially those for the most disadvantaged and marginalized — the chronically unemployed, returning citizens, at-risk youths at Woodward Career Technical High School. Graduates of the League’s Solid Opportunities for Advancement and Retention (SOAR) program earn an average of almost $22,000 in their first year on the job. Graduates of its Accelerated Customer Service Education (ACE) program earned a starting hourly wage of $11.02. At Woodward, 146 of 175 tutored students earned grade promotion.

No matter how strong the economy, unemployment among black America is twice that of white America, and it’s not because African-Americans don’t want to work. Median black household income in Greater Cincinnati is $24,000, compared to $57,500 for whites. Hard to make a living when African-Americans make up 12.5 percent of the state’s population yet account for 45 percent of the state’s inmates.

Hacker: “Most white Americans believe that for the last (two generations) blacks have been given more than a fair chance and at least equal opportunity, if not outright advantages. (So few whites) feel obligated to ponder how membership in the major race gives them power and privileges.”

I finished work around 8 Friday night with my colleague B. Cato Mayberry, Urban League Vice President of Development. I drove home and picked at a small dinner before falling asleep on the couch with the Reds game on television. It was Avondale night at Great American Ball Park. Aiesha, Khyren and the two girls had gone. Aiesha sent me a text of Khyren wearing his new Reds tee-shirt — his first.

Fridays are fireworks night at the ballpark. Khyren, who at 4, was shot in a hail of gunfire, has had an understandable problem with sudden loud noises and sirens. They frighten him badly.

Another friend from Avondale sent me a text that I would see overnight.

“Sitting here watching Khyren hold his ears as he TRIES to enjoy this fireworks show is tearing me apart.”

Mark Curnutte is Vice President of Marketing, Communications & Key Initiatives at the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio. He is a 30-year newspaper reporter, the final 21 at The Cincinnati Enquirer.

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