Why are young men so vulnerable? Why does it keep happening?

BijanShoushtari.jpgUnder different circumstances, an assembly on the second day of the school year would've made almost anyone proud. Scores of teens turned out from Hamilton High - one of Los Angeles Unified's most sought-after music and humanities magnets. Its Yankees football team represented in force, with forest green-and-white jerseys over dress shirts and ties. Adults - parents, boosters, friends and relatives - crammed Westminster Presbyterian Church to the rafters.

All this probably might have amused the young man at the center of the event, 18-year-old Bijan Michael Shoushtari, son of an African American mother and an Iranian father, had he been present in more than spirit.

The smiling young man whose prom portrait graced 500 printed programs had been shot to death barely a week before, in an apparent case of mistaken identity. At the time of his memorial service, the suspect was still at large.

While the case has generated news coverage, a kind of weariness drags at the anguished response among people who knew the victim. His assailant likely wasn't a George Zimmerman or a Johannes Mehserle, who achieved notoriety in the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant III, but someone with a firearm in a car that pulled alongside the one Shoushtari occupied with friends on a Saturday night near Crenshaw Boulevard.

Five hundred printed programs weren't enough for the standing room-only crowd at his memorial. That crowd mingled constituencies that seldom spend much time together in this vast and varied city, especially south of the 10 Freeway: African Americans and Iranians; teachers, coaches and counselors who work with students from kindergarten through high school; a rainbow of middle-class parents and kids who'd known the Shoushtari family from their earliest encounters in the feeder schools that direct the luckiest students to Hamilton. By coincidence or intention, many in attendance wore pale brown, the Persian color of mourning that represents dying leaves.

Only ushers' distribution of paper fans kept the heat of the August day and the emotion in the room from crushing the spirits in the sanctuary.

Successive eulogies about the young man, delivered with grace and gusto that would have impressed Kansas newspaperman William Allen White, emphasized the young man's commitment to service in and beyond his church home, his impish nature, his lifelong friendships, his promising future. In a nod to his desire to become a paramedic and firefighter, the Stentorians, an African American firefighters' organization, presented the Shoushtari family with a certificate designating its only son an honorary firefighter.

It's hard to imagine another "homegoing" that would have combined references to Khalil Gibran's On Children, Rabbi Harold Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People, and Rev. William Sloane Coffin's sermon after the untimely death of his son Alex alongside gems from the gospel music canon including "Goin' Up Yonder" and "What A Fellowship."

Few speakers referred directly to the circumstances of Shoushtari's death. Nobody needed the context spelled out. Throngs of his Hami High friends lingered at the repast in the church basement or at the intersection of Jefferson Boulevard and 3rd Avenue, where they chanted a school cheer in his memory. For many of the teen's white and Asian American schoolmates it raised for the first time the kinds of dinner table questions that disturb the sleep of parents, authority figures, anyone who regards every child as precious and yearns to keep each one safe:

Why does this violence keep happening?

Why are young men, even those as privileged and promising as Bijan Shoushtari, so vulnerable to harm?

Is there anything to say, do or wear that's an appropriate response to the shooting death of any healthy 18-year-old?


Cheryl Devall is a veteran public radio journalist who lives in Los Angeles.

Photo of Bijan Shoushtari: Electronic Village


More by Cheryl Devall:
Why are young men so vulnerable? Why does it keep happening?
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