Within 48 hours of her death, the parents of a slain Polynesian teenager reached out to the only person they thought could help them: community organizer, Ma’o Tosi. They found him licking his wounds from his rookie political campaign inside the Northway Mall. Recognizing that a crisis had just landed in his lap, it didn’t take long before Tosi was on the phone. A few hours later, an ad hoc team was forming to assist the parents in getting their message across to the community: We have got to do better.
The Mountain View neighborhood, where Precious Alex died, recently received recognition as the most diverse community in America. The children who walk the hallways of Mountain View’s two elementary schools and one junior high are unwittingly engaged in an unparalleled social experiment. Here, households experiencing abject poverty live right next door to households accessing the American Dream and transitioning into the middle class. The entire spectrum of human experience in America takes place right here.
At 3:15 am on Tuesday, April 1, 2014 gun shots were heard near 633 N. Flower Street. Responding police officers found a 15 year old girl bleeding from multiple gun wounds. She suffered as she lay in bed. Family was in town and the bedroom was doubled up with teens, one of whom was also hurt.
That very night, two men, Jamal Townsend (24) and Lamar Burney (28) were taken into custody after police noticed them driving unusually slow. A 40 caliber gun used to resolve an adult lover’s triangle involving Alex’s mother, DeMetra, was found in the vehicle. Two weeks earlier, the alleged shooter, Townsend, fought with Demetra’s fiance, Quentin Hargrove. Instead of firing into the adult’s room, to get revenge, Townsend targeted the teenagers.
The question hung in the air: why? After all, this isn’t some twisted reality show or movie script, this is real life. A teenager lay dead. At least four families were grieving.
That grieving continues today.
Nearly two months later, the Mountain View Boys and Girls Club Recreation Director, Dave Barney, still showed the pain of losing Precious Alex. He chose sitting in the art room, early one morning to reflect. Sunlight poured in. The hurt was plain on his face.
“It still doesn’t make sense,” Barney said. “Precious was a member here. I would see her at Red Apple. When she died, I didn’t even know she was back in town. I remember she came back last summer. She was back and forth to Fairbanks, you know. I still haven’t adjusted to it, but you know, you try to take comfort in the idea that you can only control what you can control. Know what I mean? At first, I asked if her death was drug-related. Nope. So, that really adds to this entire thing being so senseless.”
Barney remembers a three-way call between television journalist Corey Allen, Tosi, and himself. After reviewing the police report, a plan was worked out to address the two problems facing the community.
All the families involved were short on cash. Court fees needed to be paid. Funeral expenses were now necessary. When making rent is a worry every month, these tragic and unforeseeable expenses can be crippling.
The three quickly brainstormed a fundraiser to relieve some of the financial pressure. It needed to be simple and something everyone already knew how to organize so that it could happen quickly. Answer: a car wash. The question was just where, Northway Mall or the Boys and Girls Club?
Next, the community needed some way to heal. A rally was suggested; a walk through Mountain View, ending at the Boys and Girls Club, with a program afterward where music could play and some of the youth could express themselves. A brilliant start, but hardly an answer.
“This has got to stop,” Barney said. “Anchorage is too small. If you miss a month of rent, we all know where you’re gonna go. It’s a triangle up and down the highway. Fairview. Mountain View. Muldoon. Fairview. Mountain View. Muldoon. Repeat. If we don’t fix this it is just… dude, the guy had been to the house before from what I hear. He deliberately shot into a kid’s window. How do you do that?”
Because the pain ran so deep in Mountain View, it was eventually decided to keep everything internal to the community. The Car Wash was staged in front of the Boys and Girls Club, beginning at nine in the morning. On Facebook, those who missed the start of the event saw pictures of a smiling Ma’o Tosi spraying down a soap drenched van. The word got out. Enough people poured out of their houses that the car wash had to be shut down much later than planned. Barney remembers turning people away minutes before the afternoon rally got underway.
An estimated crowd of 1,500 showed up for the 3:30 pm community memorial service. Tosi welcomed everyone, then passed the microphone to a family member. And the young people shared their pain. A lot of emotion was shared.
Two months later, the scene and the tragedy still resonate. For Precious Alex’s 16 birthday the community decorated a fence section facing the street. It is a beautiful reminder that her life really meant something. The lives of all women in Alaska possess similar worth. What we need to focus on moving forward is how to communicate that.
Violence against women here is already at epidemic levels. We have got to do better. We don’t have any other options.