The last time Jerry Anderson oversaw a memorial at Richmond’s Civic Center auditorium was just after Terrance Kelly got killed. The high-school student had been just a day away from heading to the University of Oregon on a football scholarship, but instead he left behind so many mourners that his friends needed all 2,800 of the auditorium’s seats for a benefit concert. A 32-year-old youth advocate named Waheed Eliah worked with Anderson to plan the details.
In the early hours of August 21, Eliah himself was killed.
His murder actually occurred in El Cerrito, but it began a week of violence in the Richmond area, which ended in four homicides, including a case that made national news for its raw madness: A man was shot and killed when he got between a seventeen-year-old and the pregnant girlfriend he was beating up.
In cop talk, the murders were all “unrelated.” But for Anderson, who has spent 29 years working in the city’s recreation sports leagues and coaching at local schools, the bodies are always related. In a city as small as Richmond, where former athletes and coaches cross paths more than once in life, he likes to ask his kids: “Going the right way? Or going the wrong way?”
Eliah had gone the right way. “The guy was all positive,” Anderson recalled, as he watched Eliah’s mourners stream into the auditorium last Friday. “He sat in my office right over there and just said, ‘I want to do this, I want to do that, I need this.’ I told him, ‘Done.'”
As demonstrated by the need for the auditorium, and the more than a thousand people who filtered through its doors, Eliah’s own memorial also was a protest against all the senseless killings. Anderson stood at the front entrance and bumped into old friends and former players, now all grown-up. Some he hadn’t seen since another memorial worthy of the auditorium’s capacity. That was in 1995, when Anderson’s colleague Lorraine Talley was murdered by another city employee not far from where he now stood.
Talley, it turned out, was also Anderson’s aunt through marriage.
“Hey, there’s Peanut,” Anderson said as he pointed at a man who was anything but small. Peanut, real name Andre Williams, grew up with Eliah and played against Anderson’s flag football teams. Eliah and his brother, along with Peanut and another friend, founded The Four Brothers, a nonprofit group that worked for the city’s youth. They raised money to feed kids in the projects, produced gospel concerts to raise some of that money, and coached some of the same kids on the city’s Richmond Steelers football team.
Anderson wrapped his arms around Peanut. “He changed his life,” Peanut said of Eliah, “so others could change theirs.”
“That’s right,” Anderson said.
“He was in here working with you, working with kids.” Peanut let the tears drop down his face. “He was changing his life so he could change the community’s life. He was positive.”
“Yep,” Anderson said.
Peanut said he’d gotten the call at 4:30 a.m. that his friend had been killed. The call came from Landrin Kelly, Terrance’s father, who had grown up on Richmond’s Florida Avenue next door to Anderson. “I can remember when he was this high,” Anderson said of Landrin, “and crying that he didn’t want to go to school.”
When he saw Landrin Kelly preside over his son’s memorial, Anderson had been taken aback by the man’s composure. “I doubt very much I could have done that.”
The line of mourners for Eliah began to thicken and slow at the front door. Anderson saw a teenage girl who played basketball for him a year ago. “Hey,” he called out as she got closer. “You going to class?”
Her face: Stone cold. No.
“Can’t play if you don’t go to class.”
“I know,” she replied.
“Alright,” Anderson said, and let her go. No need to press. Not at this moment, at least. She, too, was here to bury a friend.
“Jerry!” a young man yelled out to Anderson in the lobby. “How you doin’, man?” The young man was impeccably dressed in a white and blue Dallas Cowboys jersey and ironed jeans. The two got to talking and catching up: Had Anderson heard about Glenn? Glenn Wilson, the guy they used to play ball with?
Anderson had. Wilson was the seventeen-year-old who had made all the big headlines recently. He was charged with murder last week for allegedly killing Terence Martin, a good Samaritan who tried to break up his fight with his pregnant girlfriend.
The young man standing in front of Anderson couldn’t believe the news.
“I never saw a bad side in the guy,” Anderson told him matter-of-factly. “He played tennis for us. Played basketball, too. … I know his parents aren’t like that.”
The younger man was still taken aback. He repeated he couldn’t believe Glenn would do such a thing. “He wasn’t like that, man. That guy must have done something to get Glenn riled up like that, Jerry.”
Anderson raised his eyebrows and shrugged: Who knows?
The younger man fetched a newspaper from the other side of the lobby and turned to the page with the picture of Wilson handcuffed in an orange jumpsuit. He took several looks at the photo and looked back up at Anderson for an answer.
“That’s Glenn!” he said as he shook his head. “I can’t believe it! That’s Glenn!”
On the outside, Anderson remained unsurprised. A few months ago he had crossed paths with the teenager just down the street from the auditorium. He said Glenn Wilson had smiled back to reveal a gold tooth — which to Anderson was a sign. “I told him, ‘Come see me,'” Anderson recalled. “He said, ‘Don’t worry. I’m going the right way.’… He knew what I wanted to talk about; he didn’t come see me.”
Anderson and the young man stood quietly in the lobby for a second. Attendants from Eliah’s memorial filtered out to the sounds of men at the podium calling upon their sons to stand up to end the violence on the streets. The younger man who stood next to Anderson continued to study the newspaper, lost in awe.
“Maybe I’ve built up an immunity to it,” Anderson said. “I don’t know.”