Before COVID-19 shut down the world, I would often take my family to a bowling alley in East Norriton, Montgomery County. Back then, it was called the Facenda-Whitaker Bowling Lanes. Now it’s called the Our Town Alley Bowling Lanes, and it’s called one thing more — a murder scene.
In the days before gunshots shattered the peace on a quiet winter weekend, we’d head to Steppy’s Sports Bar, which was attached to the bowling alley. We’d eat nachos and buffalo wings, talking and glancing at the television screens while we waited for a lane. Sometimes we’d let our son and daughter play in the arcade, where they won tickets that they cashed in for trinkets.
We saw actor Terrence Howard there once. I’d see listeners and readers there, as well. And over the years, as my son grew into a better bowler than all of us, even joining his school’s team for a time, that bowling alley became part of our family’s story. But on Saturday, that story took a turn for the worse when 17-year-old Jamel Barnwell allegedly entered the bowling alley with a gun, killing 29-year-old Frank Wade, and wounding four others.
According to Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele, Barnwell and two other men arrived at the facility on the 2900 block of Swede Road at 6:39 p.m. Shortly afterward, there was some sort of altercation between Barnwell’s party and Wade’s party. Minutes later, Barwell allegedly opened fire, and tragedy ensued. Thankfully, Barnwell turned himself in on Sunday, perhaps avoiding an even more disastrous ending to this story.
As I do with all such catastrophes, I had hoped early on that Barnwell wasn’t Black. It‘s what many in my community hope when we hear of such things. Not because of how the crime might affect the person who did it, but because of how the crime might affect the rest of us. For example, if we return to that bowling alley where we’ve spent countless evenings as a family, will Barnwell’s alleged actions result in more scrutiny for us? Will we suddenly be treated as if we are unwelcome? Will the kind of prejudice that was never overt or obvious suddenly rise to the fore?
I don’t know, but I do know that since Barnwell is African American, we will soon have the answers to those uncomfortable questions. And Barnwell will know his fate soon enough. His arraignment on charges of first- and third-degree murder, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and reckless endangerment is set to take place on Feb. 22.
Knowing the serious nature of the charges he faces raises a question for me — one that applies not only to Barnwell, but also to other alleged shooters his age: Why would someone that young want to kill people?
I can’t imagine the answer, but I’d like to believe that we can create a world in which we give our young people more than a future that turns on gunshots. I’d like to believe that even in our most challenged communities, we can offer them a bigger thrill than the streets. I’d like to believe that we can convince young men like Jamel Barnwell of one simple truth: That their lives — their Black lives — matter.
Because we can’t eradicate the senseless shootings until we change the mindset of those who would settle even the tiniest disputes with gunshots. We can, however, take a lesson from this horrific shooting in a place that family and I hold dear.
We, as a society, cannot ignore the problems that plague Black communities. We cannot simply hope that the guns, or the drugs, or the mayhem will respect geographic boundaries. The powers that be must realize that if violence is allowed to run rampant in Black neighborhoods, it will eventually come to white communities, as well.
So, let’s figure out how to stop the murders in Black and impoverished communities. If we don’t do that, and soon, the terrifying sound of gunshots could be coming to a neighborhood near you.
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