In the waning weeks of 2009, Albert “Comet” Mims Jr. held a familiar protest sign outside of a funeral for another murdered child in the New Orleans area.
The message on the colorful canvas was grim but clear: “No Child Should Be Next.”
Mims pointed to images of two teary-eyed boys – one black, the other white – who frame a bleached skull. On the other side, the words “Stop the Killing.”
“This sign was made by an inmate in jail,” says Mims, 56, a victims’ rights advocate and a governor’s appointee to the State Parole Board. The unnamed prisoner gave the painting to a Baton Rouge pastor, who gave it to Mims four years ago.
For more than 20 years, Mims has been a local fixture at candlelight vigils, anti-violence demonstrations, city government hearings, and funerals for homicide victims. The last four years, he often carried the sign that he holds today.
“I’ve buried 2,000 young men and most look like me,” says Mims, a black cement finisher, who grew up in the tough Central City neighborhood.
A former world-ranked kickboxer, the “Comet” hung up his gloves in 1987, after the still-unsolved barroom shooting death of his father.
“Five people saw who killed my daddy – and three of them were his friends, but they didn’t want to get involved,” says Mims.
Albert Mims Sr. left behind a son who has been an advocate for crime victims and disadvantaged youths ever since.
Young Mims was first appointed to the State Parole Board in April 2005 by then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who picked him from the statutorily required short list submitted by Victims & Citizens Against Crime Inc., a victims’ rights group based in Kenner. Gov. Bobby Jindal reappointed Mims to the panel in February 2008.
A 1971 graduate of Booker T. Washington Senior High near the B.W. Cooper (Calliope) housing project, Mims’ official duties do not require him to attend the funerals of murdered innocents and misguided youths. But he does, often going where elected officials – and sometimes police – do not. He is almost always alone.
Tall and talkative, he publicly implores the city’s wary black community to cooperate with its troubled police department. More tacitly, he urges whites not to give up on young blacks in violent, drug-worn neighborhoods.
Mims is a recovering alcoholic and substance abuser (he used to break bricks for barroom drinks with his bare hands and feet); today he can sometimes be found lecturing a surly teenager. Faith in God, clean living, self-reliance and responsibility to children fathered out of wedlock are frequent themes.
Conversely, he often bends the ear of reporters and politicians on the need for improved recreation facilities, job training and clear career paths for disadvantaged youths seeking to avoid the fast money of the drug game.
“I’ve been here since 8 a.m. and I was here when the body came,” Mims told a reporter outside St. Maria Goretti’s Church in eastern New Orleans. “I talked to the child’s mother. I talked to the father.”
The flower-covered coffin of 7-year-old Paige C. DeJean of River Ridge was inside the church near the altar.
At about 4 a.m. Nov. 8, 2009, an errant bullet fired from an AK-47 pierced the wall, fatally striking Paige in the neck as she slept in her home at an apartment complex in River Ridge. Her father, Hammond police officer Henry L.
DeJean Jr. was serving with a Louisiana Army National Guard unit in the Middle East, when he learned of his daughter’s death.
Two men have been arrested for Paige’s murder. “The public did a righteous thing by helping the police to get those creeps,” Mims says. “Those guys did a shooting in the same area a month earlier.”
(Sadly, Paige wasn’t the only child slain in 2009. One of the city’s first murder victims was 2-year-old Ja’ Shawn Powell. His father admitted to slitting his child’s throat, then to dumping his tiny body in Van McMurray Park behind the 1900 block of Jackson Avenue.)
An honor roll student at Hazel Park-Hilda Knoff elementary school, Paige was eulogized as a loving child who brightened the lives of those around her. Hundreds of mourners attend her funeral. Many wore purple – her favorite color. The crowd were racially and culturally diverse. Soldiers and cops with crew cuts lined the walls. In the pews, casually dressed young men with dreadlocks sat among families and ministers from other churches. During one eulogy, a little black girl with pink-bowed pigtails walked purposefully up an aisle of the church, lugging a matching pink “Princess” knapsack.
Paige’s father remembered his daughter. His voice was heavy. “She made me a better soldier,” he told the congregation. “She made me a better police officer. She made me a better father.”
Paige’s mother, Alkima Anderson Williamson, choked back tears as she said goodbye to her daughter for the last time. “God gave me to you and now I give you back to Him – safe from this world of sin,” she sobbed.
She then leads the audience in singing Paige’s favorite song at church: “This Little Light of Mine.” An unlikely chorus of soldiers, cops, and men with dreadlocks mouthed the words of the upbeat gospel song.
Outside the church, a pale and trembling mother tried to comfort her grieving daughter, who was a friend and classmate of Paige.
“I miss her!” Marissa Alexander, 7, sobbed, clinging to her mother.
“They were best friends,” her mother, April Alexander said quietly, stroking her daughter’s hair.
Reverend Rob Morgia spoke of the significance of Paige’s life and death to a crime-weary city.
“Her story is important to us because it describes our wounded memory, our wounded soul, our hunger for justice and peace,” Rev. Morgia said.
Paige’s “Nana,” Andrea Winchester, answers the unspoken question that often haunts the living after the murder of innocents – What can I do?
“Change your life,” Winchester said cheerfully. “Be happy as she was.”
As the service ended, white-gloved pallbearers – three soldiers in Army green and three blue-uniformed police officers – lifted Paige’s body into a black hearse.
The purple crowd followed.
As 2010 begins, the key indicator of the city’s recovery five years after Katrina will be both the notoriously high murder rate and the declining numbers of families in the metro area.
In Orleans Parish, the percentage of families with children under age 18 fell to 20 percent in 2008 – from 30 percent before the storm hit in 2005, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. In neighboring Jefferson Parish, where Paige was killed, the percentage of families dropped to 25 percent in 2008, from 33 percent before Katrina.
Housing and the threat of future hurricanes are likely to discourage family settlement in the metro area until the levees are re-fortified and the coastal wetlands restored. However, safety of children from violence should be priority No. 1 in 2010.
As Mims’ sign states: “No child should be next.”