Each morning, Lavern Lucier lights small white candles in her son’s memorial, just around the corner from her South Durham home.
“I light the candles each morning because right now, that’s my safety net,” Lucier says. “I feel that’s where his spirit lives.”
It was just after 4:00 p.m. on Monday, August 10, when police found Lucier’s 18-year-old son, Syncere Burrell, mortally wounded by gunfire in his girlfriend’s car. The faded burgundy sedan was parked on Lincoln Street beside the First Chronicles daycare center, just around the corner from Burrell’s home on Linwood Avenue. Paramedics rushed Burrell to a local hospital, where he died.
The wiry teen’s death was the city’s third gun murder in Durham that day. It was part of a wave of gang-related gun violence that swept Durham in the summer of 2019 and intensified in the summer of 2020.
Last year, one of Burrell’s best friends, 17-year-old Zaeveon Hershel Tucker, was found dead in a churchyard, where he was targeted during a drive-by shooting spree that killed one other person and wounded eight more.
Now, Lucier says, “I don’t know if I’m coming or going sometimes, with this happening so close to home.”
The memorial Lucier has created for her son is just a few steps from her front door. It’s bounded by a small, white picket fence. A fellow church member made a small wooden cross. There’s a Winnie the Pooh stuffed animal in red-striped pajamas, glass-encased candles, a potted plant with a lone white flower, a blue bandanna affixed to a fence post, and solar lights to brighten the newly sacred patch of ground at night.
“He didn’t like the dark,” Lucier says.
Burrell graduated from Bull City YouthBuild in January and hadn’t decided how he wanted to spend his life. He celebrated a birthday on July 9.
“He got to be eighteen for one month,” his mother says. She last saw her son alive the morning before he was killed.
“I was on my way to Roxboro to see my mom, and he was laying across the futon. I hadn’t seen him in a couple of days because he had been with his little girlfriend. I said to him, ‘Hey buddy, you look like you need some sleep. Look like you got bags under your eyes.’ He said, ‘I know mom.’”
As she walked out the front door, Lucier’s last image of her son was of him “tussling around with his six-year-old nephew, like they always do.”
Lucier was still in Roxboro at 3:15 p.m. when Burrell sent her a Cash App request for $10.
“The next thing I knew, my daughter called and was telling me, ‘Mom, I heard gunshots, and they sounded close.’ I told her to call 911. She called back and told me, ‘Mom, it’s Syncere.’”
The first of the three gun murders that took place that day happened just after 1:00 a.m. in West Durham, where police found the body of 21-year-old Joshua Lindsey lying in the street next to a wrecked SUV pockmarked with bullet holes.
Hours later, just after 6:00 a.m. in East Durham, police found the body of 48-year-old Reginald Bowling near the intersection of Liberty and Elm streets.
The next month, on Monday, September 14, police reported a drive-by shooting spree over a 24-hour period in East and West Durham that wounded eight people. The victims included two teens, ages 15 and 17, along with a 26-year-old man who was critically injured with a gunshot wound in the head.
The shooting spree mirrored a similar rampage roughly the same time last year when a series of drive-by shootings left two people dead and eight more wounded. On August 18, the shooting death of nine-year-old Z’Yon Person shocked the conscience of a city where the murder of Black men and boys by their peers is all too common. As the INDY reported, Person’s death was an avatar of all that has gone wrong in Durham’s growth and prosperity.
Amid the pandemic, economic uncertainty, and racial protests proclaiming Black Lives Matter, it’s been another deadly season in the Bull City, bringing back a perennial late-summer question: Why are young Black men and boys in Durham shooting and killing one another?
Some observers assert that given the systemic oppression they endure, it’s inevitable that they would internalize self-hate and turn on themselves.
Children have certainly not been immune.
“Some of the most recent victims have been innocent children, who are our most vulnerable,” Lt. Jackie Werner with the Durham Police Department told the INDY.
Police say 11 of the people shot in the city this year were 15 or younger. They include an 11-year-old girl who was riding in the back seat of her mother’s car on Guess Road last week when the occupants of two cars were firing gunshots at one another. Police say the child was caught in the crossfire and received a non-life-threatening head wound.
Michael Harris, 15, and Tyvien McLean, 12, were less fortunate. On August 23, just after 2:45 a.m., police found Harris mortally wounded at an apartment complex in the 200 block of Seven Oaks Road. The teen died a short while later at a local hospital.
The month before, on July 15, it was just after 2:30 a.m., when officers responded to reports of gunfire at the Cornwallis Road housing complex in the 3000 block of Weaver Street. The investigators found McLean and an unnamed adult wounded by gunfire after someone shot into a housing unit where a party was taking place. The adult survived. McLean died five days later.
“Black Lives Matter, but what about Ty’s life?” asked his grandmother, Coretta Saunders, during a July 22 vigil. “We need to be yelling, ‘Kids’ Lives Matter!’”
Hours before the shooting that took McLean’s life, police raced to reports of a shooting in the 200 block of South Benjamin Street. Eight people had been shot, including two children ages four and eight.
Police say there have been 689 shootings reported in the Bull City this year, compared with 495 during the same period last year, an increase of almost 40 percent. A total of 226 people have been struck by gunfire, compared to 132 last year, an increase of more than 70 percent. This year, through September 19, 25 people in the city have died from gun violence, up from 22 over the same period last year.
Werner says that cities across the nation have been plagued by an increase in violent crime that many link to the issues surrounding a global pandemic.
The police spokesperson says the department will beef up its presence in areas that have been most affected by gunfire for a faster response to shootings. Also, the department’s violent-crimes taskforce will realign its resources for a more intense focus on shootings.
Werner and Mayor Steve Schewel say the city continues to struggle with gang violence. They say that part of the challenge is getting witnesses, including the shooting victims, to come forward and help the police apprehend the people who shot them. Folks don’t talk because they are afraid of retaliation.
Schewel says that the issue of gun violence is not solely a policing solution. He thinks the increase in gun crime this summer is related to the reduced presence of Bull City United, a Durham County public health initiative that deploys trained violence interrupters and outreach workers. They try to prevent shootings in the moment by mediating potentially deadly conflicts in neighborhoods and following up to ensure that the beef is quashed and does not reignite.
“They had to be pulled back from their work during COVID-19,” Schewel says. “I am convinced that has been part of the problem this summer as well.”
Schewel pointed to the “root causes” of crime as inevitable when people feel as if they don’t have real investment in their communities.
“Someone with a good job, affordable and excellent medical care, and a safe, warm, affordable home to lay their head every night is not going to be committing gun violence,” he says. “We have to work towards that every day.”
Meanwhile, Lucier continues in the quest to give her son’s brief life meaning, spending her days trying to establish a scholarship in her son’s name at Bull City YouthBuild.
“He didn’t have no wife or no kids,” she says. “But I have eighteen years’ worth of memories.”
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