H artford was Dante's Inferno.
Dante Rodriguez didn't make the drinking age. He died at 20 last Wednesday in a nasty car crash that killed three others.
Dante crammed a lot of life into his two decades. By age 15, he had smoked pot, fired guns, stolen cars, suffered police brutality, been robbed at gun point, spent time in jail, and been an award-winning writer.
That's how I met him in January 2002. The state Department of Children and Families placed Dante in Echoes from the Streets youth newspaper, the teen media outpost I started.
Dante was a gifted, natural talent. He was quiet, almost painfully shy, but he had a hard edge, and a fierce fire burned in him; his soul forged in survival.
In the March 2002 Echoes, Dante wrote "Life's Struggles." Candidly, he detailed his battles with the law, like his first arrest for possession of a dangerous weapon. After he got held up by a Glock, he started carrying a .45 or .09 to feel safe. That landed him in the Connecticut Junior Republic.
During a weekend furlough from CJR, Dante smoked some weed with a buddy and they stole a car. After a brief police chase, they crashed. "Luckily, my friend and I escaped injury," Dante wrote.
Dante claimed a cop who chased them punched him and broke his nose for resisting arrest. Dante understood the hierarchy on the streets, that a cop can beat you with impunity. "What goes around comes around," he wrote.
But Dante wanted more: "In the future I plan to go to college and get a degree in the architectural field. This has been my dream ever since I was young."
Before graduating from Hartford Public in 2004, Dante won a $500 scholarship check from Connecticut Against Gun Violence for his essay "The Effects of Gun Violence," which was published in Echoes, September 2002.
"Young children who are affected by gun violence may grow up thinking that this is a normal way of life," he wrote. His last paragraph "When are we going to put our feet down and really start cracking down on gun-related crimes? There have been many deaths that go on and do not get investigated. Do you really want to live in fear of being a victim of gun violence? If not, what can we do?"
I know what we did: we failed him. And I cried reading the news of the April 19 car crash that killed him, thinking about the mess we are in.
According to the Hartford Courant, James Figueroa, 18, called Dante while he slept, around midnight. Dante left his girlfriend and their two-year-old son to talk to Figueroa, but never returned. Figueroa picked up Dante at his Summit Street home, and somewhere along the way, Ronique "Chedda" St. Edwards, 15, a sometimes student at Bulkeley, joined them.
Police, responding to reports of gunshots on Broad Street, stopped Figueroa's white Mitsubishi. Figeuroa took off, police followed. The chase barrelled through the intersection of Washington and Jefferson, and Figueroa broadsided a Grand Prix carrying Maribel Rojas, 37, and Edilberto Jara, 27. They both died instantly.
Figueroa survived. Chedda and Dante didn't. I felt a cosmic suckerpunch when I read that police found a firearm in Figueroa's wrecked vehicle, which Dante surely knew about. Figueroa will be charged with manslaughter. Police will not be held to account for recklessness in chasing cars like cats and mice. Wasn't there a consent decree that forbade police from engaging in high speed chases?
Rereading Dante's stories, I saw hope, but no money for college, no way out of the streets that didn't take superhuman discipline. Echoes, for all the great things it is and as hard as we tried, I regret could not save him. He needed so much more.
The Courant said Dante was unemployed, but had recently worked at Burger King. I can see him in fast food polyesters, thinking he had to do it for Dante, his two-year-old son. But I can also see him flipping burgers, angry that he isn't an architect, pissed that he was working for slave wages, upset that he wasn't reaching his potential. "What the hell?" he likely thought, "I can make more money than this on the streets."
I'm going to postulate that those three boys were playing a game they didn't think would end in death. I don't think they were out for a late night ice cream cone. I bet some business had transpired, and Dante's associates needed his assistance to settle the bill. What else is a 15-year-old doing in a car with a gun after midnight?
I'm sorry Dante didn't heed his own words. I'm sorry I couldn't have done more for Dante. I'm ashamed that we have all known about the conditions that drive young people to desperate crime, that we buy into the myths of hip-hop (even the mannequins in Filene's mimic "Yo! What up?" body language to sell Sean Paul) and that we glorify violence.
I'm horrified that we allow these conditions to persist because it is easier to shop, to watch television, to feel nothing and not care. Empathy, compassion, altruism, action and change all cause pain.
But until we face up to our own demons, Hartford will continue to be hell for young men like Dante, like Chedda, like so many others exterminated by bad judgement, poverty and police misconduct.
These young people won't know what it's like to turn 21, or 30, or 40, or see their sons graduate from high school and be the first in his family to go to college.
And although I don't bank on an afterlife, I pray Paradise awaits Dante, because Hartford's streets put hope through the seventh level.