We don’t cover crime stories here. Not street crime, not usually. But these murders, of three of Newark’s shiniest young people – Dashon Harvey and Iofemi Hightower (20) & Terrance Aeriel (18) – and the grave wounding of Natasha Aeriel (now 22), chilled us like every loss of a young person does. There have been too many losses. But when these three were taken, something shifted in Newark. Policy changed on the backs of three kids swiftly executed Aug. 4, 2007.
The first trial, for the first defendant, began Tuesday. The jury saw pictures. The prosecutor will talk about gang initiation. Natasha Aeriel, under heavy security, is on the stand today.
These kids had managed to avoid some of the risks of the streets. Three were home on a break from college in Delaware, and Iofemi Hightower was about to become a freshman there. That night, Harvey, Hightower and Terrance Aerial were lined up against a wall and killed by a single shot to the base of their skulls. Terrance’s sister barely survived the attempt to end her.
A few months ago, I was driving around Newark with Ron C. Rice. We slowed the car as we passed by the playground where it happened. In his Ward, the West Ward. And he told me he goes by there every day, makes a point of it.
It’s impossible to know whether Newark’s Mayor and Council, elected in the first clean sweep in the city’s history (and most up for re-election in May) were galvanized by those murders or whether the city laid down its marker, with a community collectively deciding enough was enough, and politicians unready to get tough on crime could run elsewhere. That’s when anti-crime measures were ramped up. Cameras on the streets. Billboards paid for by the Newark teachers’ union: HELP WANTED: Stop the Killings in Newark Now! Penalties for gun owners failing to report lost or stolen weapons. Gun-shot detection systems. New access to a national gun-tracking database.
By the end of 2008, Newark’s murder rate had dropped by nearly 40%, though it bumped last year from 68 to 79. Last month, with the city holding its breath, Newark had its first month without homicide in 40 years.
But it isn’t so simple. Both Cory Booker and Police Director Garry McCarthy have to answer for a loss in public trust after charges of excessive force. And hassling innocent people. And inadeqate professional guidelines for the police force. Reform is crucial, if innocent people – especially young people – feel their rights violated.
Outside of Newark, we talk sometimes about the meaning of a Newark Renaissance. We all have a stake in it, live there or not. And plenty of people don’t see one … yet. The City has to do this right. And Mayor Booker, Councilman Rice, every police officer and elected leader should live or die not only on crime statistics but on protecting the civil rights of every person living in New Jersey’s rising City. Especially the young Dashons, Iofemis, Terrances, and Natashas whose names we don’t know yet, and who are just now dreaming of their futures.