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Friday, January 17, 2014

Friday Flashback: One Name, Two Fates

This story 1st appeared in The Price Do DC on Nov. 6, 2001


Two boys named Wes Moore. Both black. Both from the streets of Baltimore. Both raised without fathers. Both finding trouble in school and with the police. Yet one winds up a Rhodes Scholar, decorated veteran, White House Fellow, and business leader. The other ends up serving a life in prison for his felony murder conviction.

How does something like that happen and what can we do about reshaping a system that allows, and too often even preordains, such tragic dichotomies?

That was the question on the floor tonight at the Politics and Prose bookstore as a 3-member panel discussed The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore, this year's selection as the book all of Washington is being encouraged to read as part of the DC Reads program.

Moderating the discussion was Kurt Schmoke, former Mayor of Baltimore and current Dean of the Howard Law School. The other 2 panelists were the author Wes Moore's mother Joy and his older sister Nikki.

If there is a moment when the 2 Wes' stories took its most divergent turn, it is probably when Joy made the difficult decision to send her son to the Valley Forge Military Academy in an effort to save him from himself and the streets.

"We'd never even let him have a toy gun," Joy said. "But at the time, there was no other alternative."

Strong, loving family support was a theme interwoven through both the book and the night. Joy's eyes welled with tears as she recalled her parents pitching in financially to help pay for the military school. "My mom said "I know there is a window in every child's life when you have to make a move or the child is lost,'" Joy said.

Another point of digression between the 2 Wes' paths  occurred in their first encounter with the law. As the book points out and Joy reiterated, one of the 2 policemen who nabbed her son as he and his friend were tagging (spray painting graffiti) on buildings "took the time to talk to him. He showed that there were people who cared."

As her son consistently maintains, the biggest tragedy in the entire narrative is that occurred by the family of the off-duty policeman slain in the robbery gone wrong perpetrated by the other Wes Moore. Even though he did not pull the trigger (that was his brother, Tony), Moore was found guilty of  participating in the robbery and, under Maryland felony murder law, sentenced to life in prison without parole for his part in the crime.

But the fate of  the other Wes Moore is still tragic, Joy said. "There is no reason that a guy with this kind of talent should be wasting away in prison," she said. "He should be sitting right here, right now contributing to society."

Joy said she believes the story of her son and his name twin dramatically illustrates the importance of "opportunities and where you go and the people you meet along the way."

"If there could have been another title for the book it could have been called choices," she added.

While her son's star continues to rise, the other Wes Moore sits in prison, each day the same as the one before it and the one yet to come.  Asked by a member of the audience how that Wes Moore feels about the book, Joy responded that he told her son "I've wasted every opportunity I've ever had. If this book helps save even one person, go for it." 


Tales, Tidbits, and Traveling Tales:
While most of the focus was on Wes Moore's  mother and sister at the Politics and Prose discussion this afternoon, the moderator, Kurt Schmoke, also was directly involved in Moore's rise. As mayor, Schmoke hired him as a political intern and began mentoring the young man, a process which  continues today. During his years as Baltimore's mayor, Schmoke became famous (or infamous depending on your view) for seriously suggesting that the only way to end the failing war on drugs was to legalize some of them. His insistence on legalization caused at least one U.S. Congressman to label the scholarly Schmoke "the most dangerous man in American," and also led to the ex-mayor getting a bit part in HBO's fantastic series The Wire, ironically as a critic of a plan named "Hamsterdam," which provided a sanctioned drug-law-free zone in creators David Simon and Ed Burn's fictional Baltimore. To learn more about then mayor Schmoke's visionary view that people are not only addicted to drugs, but to the money that drugs bring, click here.

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I am a retired educator and journalist who is enjoying his new life in DC. So much to do here and so much for free.

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