Yvonne Abraham

Families need fear to end

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / June 30, 2011

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Harambee Park smelled like summer yesterday morning, its fresh-mown fields warming in the sun.

At a huge, gleaming playground by Talbot Avenue, a uniformed police officer swung open a safety gate.

“Want to come in and play?’’ he asked some kids.

They blew past him, making for the water fountains where other kids squealed, oblivious to the worries plaguing their parents.

A 4-year-old boy was shot in this Dorchester park Monday night, caught in a gang dispute.

When a child is shot in this city, all hell breaks loose, as well it should. People who barely register the climbing tally of dead men in Dorchester and Roxbury suddenly pay attention when the victim is so young his innocence is unassailable.

A crime problem becomes a political problem. Officials express outrage, and for once, people listen. Police vow crackdowns. Dirt bikes, the wheels of choice for some thugs are deemed a scourge of civilized society.

And a police officer stands sentry at a playground to reassure parents their kids will not be next.

“Something like this happens, and you think, ‘Should we even take our kids outside?’ ’’ said Lillian Bonilla, who stood in the shade with her partner, Ricardo Martinez, watching their three kids play.

But she and Martinez have been making calculations like this long before Monday night, setting rules to minimize the chances their kids will get hurt. They’ll keep making them, long after the swelling outrage over this latest shooting drains away.

They pulled Diangelo, 4, out of his Head Start program after a 3-year-old came to school with crack cocaine in her shoe. They asked the school bus driver to drop Lilyana, 8, at a new stop after somebody was stabbed at her old one. They tell her to run away or get down if she hears gunfire.

And the park they love?

“We never come here in the evening,’’ Bonilla said.

“That’s when they come out,’’ Martinez said of the gang members.

Some nights, the couple won’t even let their kids out on the porch of their second-story apartment, no matter how hot it gets. If the vibe on the street feels wrong, they’ll keep the kids inside during the day, too.

Let’s pause here to consider how incredibly messed up this is.

Harambee Park is this beautiful gem in a neighborhood that could use more of them. Mayor Thomas M. Menino put over a million dollars into this place to make it exactly what it should be: a backyard for surrounding communities; a place where people flock for Little League games, cricket matches, dominoes, and cookouts; a spot to feel a breeze and see the sky on warm evenings.

It’s exactly the kind of place most people can take for granted, even at 9:20 on a Monday night. But not parents like Bonilla and Martinez. And that is almost as outrageous as this shooting.

Flooding the park with police officers, locking up the shooter, these things are necessary (I’m not sure the dirt bike crackdown will do much). But they treat only the symptoms of the neighborhood’s crisis.

None of it will change the underlying problem: Legions of innocent 4-year-olds growing into young men who have such difficulty imagining a future for themselves — or anybody else — that they will go to a public park on a June night and start shooting.

Crackdowns, which always follow catastrophes, get visible results. Giving kids aspirations takes far more money and time. It’s also exceedingly unpopular politically.

Still, it’s the only way to make families truly safe.

“You don’t want to live in a place where the only way you can go to a park is if police are there,’’ Bonilla said.

But that’s exactly where she lives.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at