From a distance it looked like a simple fight, just a piece of street theater.
Malia Lazu was sitting on Thursday outside Dudley Cafe, which is in the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in gentrifying Dudley Square. She was between meetings, when she saw someone accost a man walking down the street.
From her vantage point, she saw a young man fall to the ground. He got up, as an assailant raced away. When the victim fell to the ground again, she knew that she was a witness to more than a fight. He wouldn’t get up again. Efforts to revive him at the scene failed.
Lazu had witnessed something most of us never will. She had seen a man, who was just 18, lose his life.
“It just never dawned on me that I was watching a murder,” she said 24 hours later.
“There’s always a lot going on that could pop off,” she said of the neighborhood. “So at first I really didn’t think much of it. I think that’s what’s going to come back to haunt me personally.”
Lazu is one of the city’s most dynamic community organizers. She was the cofounder of the voter education group MassVote and went on to found Future Boston Alliance and her current organization, Epicenter Community. She has spent her adult life working on behalf of residents of Roxbury and neighborhoods like it. Social justice is at the core of her being.
In fact, Lazu said, her first response — well before she knew she was witnessing a tragedy — was to make a neighborhood joke about gentrification to her friend on the phone.
“We do this once a day so white people won’t want to move in,” she said.
The levity was short-lived. As Lazu began to absorb what had gone down, she was seized by a host of conflicting emotions. Sadness was chief among them. But she also had to figure out what to do next.
She wasn’t close enough to see the assailant’s face — “I couldn’t pick anybody out of a lineup,” she said. But she had seen something, and she began grappling with what to do with that information.
“I was feeling how people of color and poor people feel when they have to go talk to a cop,” she said with a sigh. “But I also knew a crime happened and we can’t just not want to talk to cops. If something happened to my mother, and someone saw something, I would hope they would talk.”
Internally, Lazu was equivocating. Then appeared a strange moment of grace. A woman she had never seen before got right in her face.
“She looked straight at me and said, ‘This is why we can’t solve anything, because no one sees (anything) in broad daylight.’ ”
She got her point across, Lazu said. “I was looking at her and being yelled at by her and she snapped me to where I needed to be. I’m glad she didn’t hold back.”
She told officers at the scene everything she has seen and was impressed by their compassion and professionalism.
Thursday night, police arrested 15 year-old McKinley Archie in connection with the murder. The victim has been identified as Anthony Woodbridge. The homicide was part of a spate of violence over a period of two or three days. Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced plans to meet with clergy and community leaders to discuss how to stem the tide of violence.
But Lazu worries that we — residents, police, all of us — have become too comfortable with the inevitability of violence, of homicide, too inured to tragedy. Watching a murder scene unfold, she was struck by the deep and unacceptable sense of resignation of those who bore witness.
The police officers on the scene, Lazu said, also bore the world-weary countenance of people who had seen this before and will see it again.
When she described her anguish later Thursday to a friend in the court system, she was surprised by the reaction she got.
“She said, ‘Can I just thank you for being so upset that someone is dead? In my line of work, I don’t see this that often.’ ’’
Lazu knows nothing to speak of about either the victim or the assailant. But she saw enough to be deeply unsettled by what one killing — in broad daylight, in cold blood — represents.
“What’s the societal story when an 18-year-old boy gets stabbed?” she asked. “His life means something to everybody. Who knows what he was going to become?”