It was supposed to be a safe place — shielded from the violence that took D’Andre King-Settles’ life.
But on the night of March 28, four young men believed to be members of the Heath Street gang stormed into the Oak Lawn Cemetery in Roslindale and kicked King-Settles’ headstone to the ground.
The retaliation from a rival Mission Hill gang was swift. Beloved across his neighborhood, King-Settles was the boy neighbors always asked for help with the groceries, the friend always rallying other kids on the block to join him for a bike ride. Many remembered all too well the afternoon King-Settles, then 17, was shot and killed by two Heath Street gang members on a neighborhood playground in 2015, one week before Christmas.
On Instagram they saw the video of his toppled gravestone, watched the men take turns spitting on it. They saw, too, photos from that same night of the men from Heath Street huddled around the gravesite of their own childhood friend: Gerrod Brown, who was 16 when he was gunned down on Halloween night in 2017, his killer never found.
Like King-Settles, Brown, a role model in his community, was known for showing his peers a way to break the cycle of violence, leading them away from the streets and onto the sports field. The shock of Brown’s death was all the more painful for his friends and family in the Heath Street neighborhood, the wound even slower to heal.
And so, hearts burning, the members of the Mission-Annunciation Road gang watched their rivals attack the resting spot of their fallen hero, and knew exactly what they would do to get even.
The evening after King-Settles’ grave was desecrated, eight young men paid their own visit to Oak Lawn, walking “with a purpose” toward Brown’s headstone, police said. Surveillance footage from the cemetery shows the men rock the headstone off its base, take turns kicking it, and then go one step further: they picked up the headstone, threw it into the trunk of a Toyota Camry, and drove away.
Police recovered the headstone, chipped and stained, on the side of Annunciation Road that night. Last Monday, officers arrested three of the eight men — Tyler Greene-Davis, Jiovanny Matos, both 22, and Tyrese Sealy, 20 — on charges of vandalism, theft, and destroying a place of worship. Police and prosecutors are investigating gang involvement, but declined to identify the groups by name. But community members confirmed that these are the latest developments in the longstanding feud between groups in the Heath Street and Mission Hill neighborhoods.
Anyone familiar with the rivalry knows this fight is far from over — and every escalation guarantees additional heartache for the families of the two young men, forced to grieve again the sons they’d hoped might finally rest in peace.
“It reopened my old scar,” said Lawauna Brown, Gerrod Brown’s mother. “I’m just trying to deal with all of this” day by day.
King-Settles’ mother, Lawanda Settles, recalled how hesitant she was to buy a headstone for her son’s grave in the first place.
“I knew this was going to happen, and this isn’t even the first time them guys messed with my son’s resting spot. That little stuff that gets trashed and kicked over, we can always go to the store and replace that. But the headstone?” she said. “I couldn’t breathe. I got three hours of sleep that night, and went to work that Monday in tears because I knew I wasn’t going to make it through the day.”
“He was my golden child, and there’s a lot of questions I want to ask him,” she added. “All these years and I still haven’t mourned, still haven’t healed. . . . This isn’t how I want to live.”
In the nearly seven years since her son was killed, Settles has tried grief support groups for mothers, but can’t seem to make her way to forgiveness. She finds herself trying to act tough for her four remaining children, who remember seeing their brother’s body lying outside the house, cold on the winter pavement. Her 16-year-old daughter still hyperventilates at the mention of her brother’s name and Settles longs to help her, but says mental health counseling is nowhere to be found.
“I’ve been trying to get services for her for the longest time, but it’s just so slow,” said Settles, adding that she was briefly hopeful when members of various city organizations called after the cemetery incident with promises that support was on the way. “But I haven’t heard nothing back from nobody,” she said.
Brown and King-Settles were widely admired in their respective neighborhoods by their peers, who saw in them an alternative to street life.
They were both “the game changer, the kid that was going to keep this from escalating,” said Domingos DaRosa, an entrepreneur and youth mentor who coached Gerrod Brown in football and spoke at his funeral.
In the aftermath of their murders, the lack of resources available to help friends and family grieve became glaringly apparent, and their communities spiraled.
“It was like once his life went away, mine did, too,” said Ja’Keal Brown, 21, Gerrod Brown’s cousin. Ja’Keal Brown said the two were born only a few days apart and grew up like brothers, joking around and playing sports together. He described his cousin as the glue that held their group of friends together, and Gerrod’s death plunged Ja’Keal into an angry, painful haze.
“When he first died, nobody could tell me nothing. I was so mad, I was ready to fight anybody — I couldn’t control it,” he said. “I stopped doing sports, started getting into trouble, ended up in and out of jail. . . . My life really went downhill.”
Community organizers like DaRosa did what they could — inviting Brown’s friends to join the football team or sitting them down to talk — but the need was far greater than the resources. As the years went by, many of Brown and King-Settles’ friends became more and more entangled in the gangs that loomed large in their neighborhoods.
“Of course these kids are going to become more aggressive when there’s no space in the community that can keep them safe,” DaRosa said. “Kids in Mission Hill would use the Tobin or the Johnson Center, which is often closed. Kids in Heath Street would use the Mildred Hailey community room, which lacks funding. These are community centers that were created to ensure that young people in the community had a place to express themselves, and those places don’t exist anymore.”
Tensions between the two neighborhoods have simmered over time, each new murder deepening the hurt and resentment. But the cemetery incident represents a fresh challenge in the decades-old feud, where hearts grow harder with every passing year.
“The tombstone is being used as a symbol. That’s an open season card that was played,” DaRosa said. “To say, ‘Screw you and yours. We’re not fearing death — whatever you bring, we can bring twice as hard. You kicked the tombstone, we took the tombstone. You shoot at us one time, we shoot at you 50 times.’ So now it’s a competition, and social media is only adding to the conflict.”
A spokesman for Boston police said that while knocking over tombstones as retaliation is “not common” in the city, it isn’t the first time police have seen that type of behavior.
As the situation threatens to flare up at any moment, community organizers are trying their best to defuse the conflict by helping young people from both neighborhoods find their way out of the trauma.
“I was a young man before and some of my friends were murdered, and I remember what that was like,” said Donald Osgood, a community organizer from Dorchester. “The urgency I have is because I know if you don’t step in, a lot of young people won’t know what to do, and sometimes that means, ‘You kicked over the headstone, so I’m going to kill you.’ This is the way it’s been out here for years.”
Along with a few other organizers, Osgood and violence prevention worker Romilda Pereira quickly organized a retreat for Brown’s friends from the Heath Street neighborhood, which took place four days after the tombstone was stolen. Brown’s brother and 15 other young men spent the weekend at the beach processing their trauma, many of them opening up about their grief for the first time in years.
“We had activities and board games to get their mind off things, violence intervention workshops, and healing circles where they could just talk,” said Pereira. She extended a similar offer to King-Settles’ friends in Mission Hill, but they declined.
“But I won’t leave it there. I still want to continue conversations with them, figure out what we can do to help them,” she said. “What I’m ashamed about is that the city didn’t do nothing [to support our efforts], and the city knew all about this.”
The young men are back in Boston now with slightly cooler heads, but organizers know their support for the neighborhoods can’t end here. The next step is to connect both sides with the resources they need: counseling, job training, education. Pereira, DaRosa, and others are already pushing the city to reopen the old community centers and increase employment opportunities for the summer.
“Young people are smart. They realize that a lot of agencies and people that come when there’s something hectic going on won’t be present when things are quiet,” Osgood said. “As adults we have to make sure we do the follow-through, because without it we’ve wasted their time and our time — and whatever comes next is probably going to be on us.”
Ivy Scott can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @itsivyscott.