Room 702 at the courthouse at 26th and California has a panoramic view of Cook County jail facilities: block brick buildings, guard posts, barbed wire in circles. On the wet, grey morning of September 16, lawyers mill about casually, occasionally joking, flipping through papers. A couple of Derrion Albert’s family members sit on the west end of the third bench from the front, with lawyers coming and going before them, giving them updates on the day’s wrangling.
But for them, the courtroom is quiet and spare, with less than a score of spectators. Inevitably, they walk out to the hallway, look out the windows at the end of hall to the broad expanse of white clouds and penitentiary, then idle back inside.
After almost two hours of whispers and lolling, the judge appears and five teenage boys are brought before him. They wear Department of Correction uniforms, hold their hands in front of their bodies, fingers laced in submission.
One of them, Silvonus Shannon, cranes his neck to look at out at the courtroom, perhaps hoping for recognition or connection. He walks standing straight and without pause. Eric Carson and Eugene Riley shuffle in, indifferent or defiant or insecure, with a truncated swagger. A fourth boy, presumably Napoleon Colbert, keeps his eyes on the floor. A fifth defendant, an unidentified minor, trails them.
The hearing lasts merely minutes, a continuation extended for October 4th. The utter banality of the proceedings underscores the ordinariness of their alleged crime, the beating death of 16 year-old Derrion Albert in broad daylight a year ago today, September 24.
The killing was captured on video by a passerby, and was repeatedly aired all over the world, provoking outrage and political promises.
But in the year since Albert, an honors student at Fenger High School, was murdered on 111th Street, there have been 19 similar murders in Roseland alone. In the year immediately before Albert was pummeled to death, there were 22.
At Fenger, a huge red brick citadel where students pass through metal detectors to get to class, this has been Peace Week. The culmination is today, when students have the day off. The school, which takes up a full city block, is watched over at any given moment by a handful or more of uniformed cops. They’re as common a sight as the occasional “Snitches Get Stitches” t-shirts worn by young men who loiter just outside the school’s perimeters.
The spot on which Albert was killed – where a memorial was raised then burned within days – is graffiti’d with the words “Love RIP” and two Os or footprints. It’s in a gravel lot about 10 blocks from Fenger, next to the Agape Community Center, and across from a couple of single family homes and the St. Mary Church of Prayer, a squat storefront with barely a sign of life. About a block west, the Pentecostal Temple boasts “God is Real” on its marquee. The area houses are sweet, cozy, some more stately than others, a few boarded up and foreclosed. The Agape sits among them like a concrete fortress, with no windows out onto the street, its name obscured by trees. It’s here that Albert’s mangled body was dragged after he was repeatedly kicked and punched by other teens.
On the video – caught on a cell phone and thus erratic and noisy – Albert is seen walking up to the gravel lot on a clear and pale day then savagely struck by a railroad tie. As soon as he recovers, he’s punched and falls again. There’s screaming, chaos, a handful of young men facing each other off in the middle of the street. A voice can be heard screaming, “Derrion, get up!”
What’s not on the video is a thunderstruck young man named Jeremiah Sterling, another Fenger student, watching the madness, reaching to help Albert up from the ground.
Ten months later, just about a mile straight west, Jeremiah Sterling would become yet another victim of violence, shot dead on a sunny Chicago summer afternoon.