Death of a Warrior

The murder of fifteen-year-old Jarvis Hilbert hardly came as a surprise. In fact some would say it was inevitable.

7:00 a.m. Christmas morning, Eva Hilbert brushed the sleep from her eyes, threw on her bathrobe, and ambled into the kitchen. She glanced at the Christmas tree, making sure the kids hadn't peeked prematurely at the presents. As she walked by Jarvis's room she noticed he wasn't in his bed and made a mental note to talk with him again about staying out late.

At 8:00 a.m. Hilbert was boiling collard greens and macaroni while a ham baked in the oven. She heard a knock at the door and opened it to find a big man in a suit and tie on her stoop with two of Jarvis's friends in tow.

"Miss Hilbert, I have something bad to tell you," Miami Police Sgt. Willie Everett said. "Please sit down."

In the numb aftermath Hilbert abandoned her cooking. She called her sister, Lillian, who arrived a few minutes later. Then Hilbert put on her coat and the two women drove into the still and empty morning, making their way south from Opa-locka to the trauma unit at Jackson Memorial Hospital. A nurse directed them through a set of double doors, and they walked down a hallway and found a closed door. Hilbert stayed outside while Lillian entered the room. When Lillian exited she nodded grimly.

The bullet-pierced body on the table was indeed fifteen-year-old Jarvis Hilbert.

Jarvis's murder on the corner of NW 48th Street and Second Avenue completed a cycle of drugs, disease, violence, and prison that had claimed two members of his family. In 1987 his father, Robert Lee James, perished of AIDS in prison while doing twenty years on an armed-robbery charge. And his oldest brother Andre Robinson is serving 24 years to life for shooting his mother's former boyfriend. If Jarvis Hilbert learned one lesson from the men in his family, it's that tomorrows aren't guaranteed.

Jarvis grew up around so much violence that it rubbed off on him. Four months before his own death, in fact, he sold drugs to a woman who, while attempting to escape from police, crashed into another car and killed a twelve-year-old boy.

Jarvis was Miami's 91st homicide in 1998, but his murder wasn't the last one of the year, or even the day. Two hours after he was shot, a man was gunned down less than twenty blocks away from the spot where Jarvis fell. The year ended with 94 homicides in the city. Jarvis's death occurred during an intense six-month spate of violence that included twelve killings and the wounding of at least seven people. Police and the press attributed the brutality to the "Liberty City Drug Wars."

Jarvis's death follows a common pattern. In Miami-Dade more than 450 kids younger than age eighteen have been killed by guns since 1980. Even now, amid historic declines in homicide rates (Miami's is the lowest since 1977), young black men between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four are being killed at about ten times the rate of white men.

It's precisely because Jarvis's death was so typical -- a teenage black boy killed while dealing drugs -- that it's significant. Jarvis was not as clearly a victim as Marie Lourdy Joseph, the twelve-year-old girl killed by a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting at an Allapattah flea market this past March. But to understand his world is to gain insight into a decades-old inner-city crisis that belies all the promising statistics.

Something, or someone, failed Jarvis. Maybe it was the social worker assigned to visit the family after the boy was arrested for selling drugs this past fall. Or maybe it was his mother, who couldn't keep him off the street. Or maybe school officials, who allowed him to stray from the classroom, are to blame. Or maybe it was Jarvis himself, a headstrong boy who tried to become a man too quickly.

It's three weeks after Jarvis's death and a band of his friends gathers in the smoky-orange dusk on NW Thirteenth Avenue and 55th Street; "five-five" they call it. J-Bo, Loco, Nappy, and Low-So, to name a few, wheel around on small Huffy bicycles like night-hunting birds. They smile, joke with each other, and drop their gaze shyly when talking to strangers. The neighborhood is alive tonight; mothers and grandmothers sit before low-rise stucco homes watching toddlers on tricycles. A knot of young men throw dollar bills after dice on the sidewalk while a rust-streaked van with a faded ice-cream sign rolls down the street, warbling a tinny tune.

J-Bo, a big-boned eighteen-year-old with a round face, is a senior at Miami Northwestern High School. He lives at home with his unemployed mother and employed grandmother. He was one of the oldest boys in Jarvis's set. He eases down on the sidewalk's edge, where a collapsed chain-link fence once stood. "Jay was like a little brother to me," he says, using Jarvis's nickname. His head drops between his knees. "I'm going to miss him a lot. But I guess that's the way he wanted to go. You know? He died like a soldier."

Then the boy lifts his head and launches into a reminiscence: "I can remember the most fun I had with him. I got off my job working at Joe Robbie Stadium and I had my check. I came home and we brought a couch outside and got an extension cord to hear some music. I copped a couple of bags [of marijuana] and we sat around. We had a little group called the Warriors and we liked to rap." He gives the first few lines of their rap: "W-A-R-R-I-O R-to-the-S, put niggas to rest, bitch./Better get yo' mind right." J-Bo continues, describing how a half-dozen boys stayed up late that night rapping until a neighbor called the cops. When the squad car pulled up, they scattered, running through back yards to lose the officers. "We got to Jay's house and got inside. His momma always welcomed us in."

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