How does a peace activist respond when, a dozen years after brokering a historic truce between gang leaders in Watts, his own son is shot in the back and killed, an innocent casualty of apparent gang terror? How does a hopeful immigrant who fled oppression react when his son is murdered in 'safe' America?
For Aqeela Sherrills, founder of the Community Self-Determination Institute, which provides conflict mediation, literacy training, and arts programming in Watts, California, the cold-blooded murder of his 18-year-old son, Terrell, has only strengthened his resolve to forgo the lethal culture of revenge. And for immigrant Azim Khamisa, forgiveness extended to partnering with the grandfather of his son's killer to run a San Diego foundation that teaches nonviolence and peaceful problem-solving in schools.
Terrell Sherrills, a first-year student at Humboldt State University, was murdered after attending a party in Los Angeles' typically quiet Ladera Heights neighborhood in January. Homicide detective Martin Rodriguez told a reporter for L.A. Weekly (Jan. 23, 2004) that 'the only thing we can think as far as a motive is that Terrell wore a red sweater in a predominately blue or Crip gang area.' In a letter to Utne, Aqeela Sherrills explained why his son was sporting the red Mickey Mouse sweater: Terrell liked Mickey regalia because, like the famous mouse, he had big ears.
'It's not about who killed my son, but what is killing our children,' Sherrills wrote Utne. While punishment is certainly in order, says Sherrills, so is answering a pressing but often overlooked question: What would cause a young man such inner pain that he would be driven to kill? Sherrills hopes to find the answer by someday meeting Terrell's killer (so far no one has been arrested for the crime) and the killer's parents.
Azim Khamisa'a life ground to a halt on the day nine years ago when his 20-year-old son was shot to death while he was delivering pizzas to a group of gang members. They refused to pay, and Tariq was attempting to take the pizzas back to his delivery van when one of the gang, a 14-year-old named Tony Hicks, shot him dead. Azim, an Asian Muslim who had fled discrimination in Kenya, told himself that he was responsible. 'I had literally made a fatal mistake,' he writes in Science of Mind (March 2004). 'My American-born son had been killed on a street in the country I had chosen for him.'
But Khamisa turned his grief into resolve. He met Tony Hicks' grandfather and guardian, Ples Felix, and found in him a soul mate who grieved for both boys (Hicks was the first juvenile tried as an adult in California and is currently serving time in Folsom Prison). They joined together to form the Tariq Khamisa Foundation (www.tkf.org) devoted to bringing programs about nonviolent conflict resolution into schools across the country. Khamisa and Felix estimate that they have reached about 350,000 San Diego elementary and middle school kids. 'My dream,' writes Khamisa, 'is to be in every school system in the country and in the world. Yes, someday we will be in places like Israel, Palestine, and Iraq.'