Days before he was fatally shot, Trayvion Amerson had moved into a mustard-colored duplex in a troubled neighborhood just south of downtown Durham.
Police have been tight-lipped about the circumstances of the shooting after reporting that Amerson, 23, was mortally wounded on November 24 in the middle of the day inside of his newly rented home on Dawkins Street in the city’s Hayti District.
Some people who were on Dawkins Street that day say they saw two ambulances arrive in the neighborhood and thought multiple people had been shot. The sight wasn’t out of the ordinary. In September, police charged a 17-year-old with shooting three people in the neighborhood.
Neighbors later found out that at about the same time that Amerson was shot, someone had overdosed near the stand of bamboo trees behind the duplex. The dual incidents highlight an interconnected web of issues—including drugs and gun violence—plaguing the compact Dawkins Street area in particular, and parts of the Black and brown community in the city more broadly, due primarily to longstanding racial and economic inequity that city leaders say is being aggravated by fallout from the pandemic.
Hasan Salih works across the street from Amerson’s duplex at a halfway house for formerly incarcerated men. He also works in maintenance and had readied the apartment where Amerson had lived for two days.
“The next day he was dead,” Salih told the INDY.
Salih, a 63-year-old lifelong Durham resident who works as a peer specialist at the halfway house, said the overdose victim found behind the duplex was the 12th case in the area in recent weeks, owing to a bad batch of drugs circulating in the neighborhood.
“It’s like two or three every week,” he said of the overdoses. “I mean, it’s really gotten out of control.”
Police last week reported that gun violence—long a problem in the Bull City—has also been spiraling out of control in recent weeks.
Durham reached a dismal plateau this year, with well over 800 reported shootings.
The police department’s crime analysis unit reports that by November 28, there were already 882 shootings this year, with 291 people struck by gunfire. Last year during the same period, there were reports of 615 shootings and 179 people shot.
“The number of shootings to date is the highest since [the] Durham Police Department started compiling this information in 2016,” police spokeswoman Kammie Michael told the INDY last week.
On November 12, Mayor Steve Schewel and Police Chief Cerelyn Davis hosted a late-morning press conference to address the rising tide of gun violence after a drive-by shooting killed a 15-year-old boy, Anthony Adams, on East Main Street, not far from the other side of the Durham Freeway and Dawkins Street.
Schewel said Durham’s “very tough few months of gun violence” is part of a national trend exacerbated by COVID-19. The city was already challenged by a proliferation of illegal guns. But the pandemic, he said, is now fueling “out-of-control gun sales,” while further igniting the always volatile illegal drug trade and gang activity.
“The virus has heightened the factors that lead to gun violence: unemployment, housing instability, hunger, mental health problems, and isolation,” Schewel said.
The mayor listed four strategies to combat gun violence: smart, effective policing; reliance on community resources; legislative action; and addressing the root causes of the issue.
“If a person has a good job that pays good wages, with affordable health care, a good school for their kids, and an affordable, safe, warm home to lay their heads every night, they are not going to be committing gun violence, or dealing drugs, or joining gangs,” he said. “We’ve got to attack the root causes, or we won’t end gun violence in our city, or our society.”
Davis, the police chief, said that one effective strategy has been the consolidation of the department’s violent crimes task force, instead of assigning its investigators to separately probe violent crimes for each district.
“They’re working closer together to connect various crimes that are being committed in the city, and also connecting the individuals who are participating in the incidents,” the chief said. “That includes not just sharing within the department, but with our community, state, and federal partners.”
So far, there have been 34 homicides this year, compared with 32 in 2019, police reported. The good news is the city probably will not exceed bloody 2016, when police investigated 42 homicides.
The most recent murder was the December 9 shooting death of Cedric Deon Bowens, 42, on the 3000 block of Fayetteville Street in the Hillside Park neighborhood, near Chicken Hut.
During the press conference, Chief Davis said it cannot go unnoticed that the majority of the city’s gun offenders are also juveniles, noting that the department had recently cleared 10 shooting cases.
“Four of those cases were cleared by arrest,” she said, “and the incidents were committed by two juveniles.”
Schewel said the pandemic has removed structures from young people’s lives that offer them constructive outlets.
Teens who are normally in school are spending time at home because of the pandemic—“or they are out on the streets, or under the influence of the streets,” the mayor said.
He also noted that the city’s parks and recreation department normally offers major, on-site programs that are impossible to operate during the pandemic.
The onset of the winter season—without school or constructive recreation outlets in the city—has been deadly.
Amerson was one of five people fatally shot between November 1 and December 1, police reported. The victims included 15-year-old Adams, on November 8, and Keith Ashanti Kennedy, 46, in the 4000 block of Meriwether Drive on November 21.
On November 25, one day after Amerson was shot and the day before Thanksgiving, local ABC affiliate WTVD reported chaos erupting at Liberty and Railroad streets at about 7:30 p.m., when more than 10 gunshots rang out from the occupants of two opposing cars. One of the drivers was fatally shot, and his car veered out of control and hit five pedestrians, including a child.
There have been several fatal shooting deaths since, including the December 1 murder of Jelani Whittington, 37, not far from where 15-year-old Adams died.
Salih and his work partner, Bernard Sibenge, cleaned the apartment where Amerson died.
Photos that Sibenge took of the shooting scene show an oblong, salmon-shaped reservoir of dark blood that curdled on the dark, wooden floor near the front door of the duplex.
“He must have answered the door and got shot,” Salih told the INDY.
Investigators late last week had not announced an arrest in the case, nor have they disclosed a motive for the fatal shooting
The shooting of young Black men by their peers here in Durham and across the nation has become so commonplace, some have become numb to their deaths. Or even worse, to paraphrase the poet Ntozake Shange, they accept young Black men’s deaths as casually as morning coffee.
Amerson was not without his share of personal troubles. State corrections records show that he had just been released from prison on October 5, 2019, after he was sentenced to a little over two years behind bars for common law robbery.
Amerson’s family loved him—especially his mother, Felicia Amerson, a devout Christian woman. She could not be reached for comment, but the words she shared on social media echo the brokenness felt by parents who have lost their children to gun violence.
“This pain will never go away in my heart,” she wrote last week. “I can’t come to [the] Reality that my bby is gone. I’ve [cried] so much, that my tears simply won’t come out.”
She said words failed to express the pain she’s feeling.
“I will NEVER be the same,” she wrote.
Dawkins Street, just off of Umstead Street and a short walk from Hillside Park, may be the city’s most troubled neighborhood. The short block is ridden with homelessness, gang activity, drugs, violence, sex work, and the callousness that sometimes grows over the repeatedly rejected ambitions of the most impoverished and marginalized.
On cold nights, folks without a home gather around a 55-gallon drum in an open field next to the halfway house. They take wooden pallets from a nearby pile and burn them in the rusted drum to stay warm.
The police regularly patrol the area, and there have been community-based efforts to help.
As previously reported in the INDY, the nearby Harriet Tubman YWCA building was given new life a little over a year ago when the nonprofit Reinvestment Partners purchased the property. The organization wants to build affordable housing on the site, possibly with a daycare center.
The neighborhood halfway house features a community garden. Volunteers with North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition regularly arrive to hand out packets of food and information. Last week, a trio of volunteers offered information about free COVID-19 testing and an alert about a new shelter that’s open during “White Flag Nights,” when temperatures drop below freezing. Before leaving, the volunteers walked through the neighborhood and picked up used, discarded syringes.
Salih says some people addicted to heroin and crack cocaine will show up and stay on the streets for days, getting high.
“I asked one woman, ‘How are you staying warm? It gets cold out here at night,’” he said. “She said, ‘Oh, I can do the cold.’ I saw her this week, and she sounds like she has walking pneumonia. Man, walking pneumonia can kill you. But that’s the insanity of addiction.”
Sibenge calls Dawkins Street “the worst area in Durham for drugs.”
“On a normal day, people will walk up, put the dope in your hand and ask you, “What do you want?’” he said.
The impoverishment in the Dawkins Street area is arguably a root cause of its violence.
“A lot of prominent people used to live on Umstead Street,” Salih said. “Now it’s a tale of two cities in our little town. There’s a lot of haves, and a whole lot of have-nots.”
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