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What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones?

A nighttime raid. A reality TV crew. A sleeping seven-year-old. What one tragedy can teach us about the unraveling of America's middle class.

AS SUMMER DRAGGED on, the story of Aiyana faded from even the regional press. As for the tape that Geoffrey Fieger claimed would show the cops firing on Aiyana's house from outside, A&E turned it over to the police. The mayor's office is said to have a copy, as well as the Michigan State Police, who are now handling the investigation. Even on Lillibridge Street, the outrage has died down. But the people of Lillibridge Street still look like they've been picked up by their hair and dropped from the rooftop. The crumbling houses still crumble. The streetlights still go on and off. The landlord of the duplex, Edward Taylor, let me into the Jones apartment. A woman was in his car, the motor running.

"They still owe me rent," he said with a face about the Joneses. "Don't bother locking it. It's now just another abandoned house in Detroit."

And with that, he was off.

Inside, toys, Hannah Montana shoes, and a pyramid of KFC cartons were left to rot. The smell was beastly. Outside, three men were loading the boiler, tubs, and sinks into a trailer to take to the scrap yard.

"Would you take a job at that Chrysler plant if there were any jobs there?" I asked one of the men, who was sweating under the weight of the cast iron.

"What the fuck do you think?" he said. "Of course I would. Except there ain't no job. We're taking what's left."

I went to visit Cargill, who lived just around the way. She told me that Je'Rean's best friend Chaise Sherrors, 17, had been murdered the night before—an innocent bystander who took a bullet in the head as he was on a porch clipping someone's hair.

"It just goes on," she said. "The silent suffering."

Funeral for Chaise Sherrors, Je'Rean's best friend. Sherrors was killed by a stray bullet while cutting a friend's hair on a front porch just 27 days after Je'Rean died. Sherrors' mom, in white, lost another son to a bullet the previous year. Both sons noFuneral for Chaise Sherrors, Je'Rean's best friend. Sherrors was killed by a stray bullet while cutting a friend's hair on a front porch just 27 days after Je'Rean died. Sherrors' mom, in white, lost another son to a bullet the previous year. Both sons now sit in urns on her mantel.Chaise lived on the other side of the Chrysler complex. He, too, was about to graduate from Southeastern High. A good kid who showed neighborhood children how to work electric clippers, his dream was to open a barbershop. The morning after he was shot, Chaise's clippers were mysteriously deposited on his front porch, wiped clean and free of hair. There was no note.

If such a thing could be true, Chaise's neighborhood is worse than Je'Rean's. The house next door to his is rubble smelling of burnt pine, pissed on by the spray cans of the East Warren Crips. The house on the other side is in much the same state. So is the house across the street. In this shit, a one-year-old played next door, barefoot.

Chaise's mother, Britta McNeal, 39, sat on the porch staring blankly into the distance, smoking no-brand cigarettes. She thanked me for coming and showed me her home, which was clean and well kept. Then she introduced me to her 14-year-old son De'Erion, whose remains sat in an urn on the mantel. He was shot in the head and killed last year.

She had already cleared a space on the other end of the mantel for Chaise's urn.

"That's a hell of a pair of bookends," I offered.

"You know? I was thinking that," she said with tears.

Parts of the Detroit River are now clean enough for swimming. Even the beavers have returned.Parts of the Detroit River are now clean enough for swimming. Even the beavers have returned.The daughter of an autoworker and a home nurse, McNeal grew up in the promise of the black middle class that Detroit once offered. But McNeal messed upÐshe admits as much. She got pregnant at 15. She later went to nursing school but got sidetracked by her own health problems. School wasn't a priority. Besides, there was always a job in America when you needed one.

Until there wasn't. Like so many across the country, she's being evicted with no job and no place to go.

"I want to get out of here, but I can't," she said. "I got no money. I'm stuck. Not all of us are blessed."

She looked at her barefoot grandson playing in the wreckage of the dwelling next door and wondered if he would make it to manhood.

Some 45,000 abandoned houses pock Detroit. The ones pictured below are all found on one block. Detroit demolishes only 500 homes a year, thanks to concerns over lawsuits and environmental hazards, as well as lack of funds and ineptitude.Some 45,000 abandoned houses pock Detroit. The ones pictured here are all found on one block. Detroit demolishes only 500 homes a year, thanks to concerns over lawsuits and environmental hazards, as well as lack of funds and ineptitude. [CHECK OUT A SLIDESHOW OF ABANDONED HOUSES ON ONE BLOCK IN DETROIT]"I keep calling about these falling-down houses, but the city never comes," she said.

McNeal wondered how she was going to pay the $3,000 for her son's funeral. Desperation, she said, feels like someone's reaching down your throat and ripping out your guts.

It would be easy to lay the blame on McNeal for the circumstances in which she raised her sons. But is she responsible for police officers with broken computers in their squad cars, firefighters with holes in their boots, ambulances that arrive late, a city that can't keep its lights on and leaves its vacant buildings to the arsonist's match, a state government that allows corpses to stack up in the morgue, multinational corporations that move away and leave poisoned fields behind, judges who let violent criminals walk the streets, school stewards who steal the children's milk money, elected officials who loot the city, automobile executives who couldn't manage a grocery store, or Wall Street grifters who destroyed the economy and left the nation's children with a burden of debt? Can she be blamed for that?

"I know society looks at a person like me and wants me to go away," she said. "'Go ahead, walk in the Detroit River and disappear.' But I can't. I'm alive. I need help. But when you call for help, it seems like no one's there.

"It feels like there ain't no love no more."

I left McNeal's porch and started my car. The radio was tuned to NPR and A Prairie Home Companion came warbling out of my speakers. I stared through the windshield at the little boy in the diaper playing amid the ruins, reached over, and switched it off.

 

Editors' note: On October 4, 2011, following a yearlong investigation by the Michigan state police, Officer Weekley was charged with involuntary manslaughter and careless discharge of a firearm. The First 48 photographer Allison Howard was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice. The Detroit Free Press has more details here.

Charlie LeDuff is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, filmmaker, and multimedia reporter. He was formerly a reporter for The Detroit News.

Danny Wilcox Frazier is a contributing photographer for Mother Jones. His work has appeared in Time, Life, and Newsweek.

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