HOUSTON – She wondered what the children knew.
Kimberly Hewitt noticed them playing outside Cuney Homes when she arrived on the anniversary of George Floyd's killing and feared the deaths of Black people were starting to seem too normal.
She did not want young people here to think an early death was their fate, too.
Hewitt and several dozen well-wishers prayed. They recited Floyd's name and released a panoply of red and gold balloons into the sky. Yet the mourning was hardly over.
Floyd was only one in a cascade of neighborhood men to die lately, and they had another funeral to attend.
For days, the usual crowd had been fading around the intersection of Winburn and Tierwester Streets near where Floyd spent much of his life.
Some declined to give interviews about him, saying they were too upset that Christopher Hutchins — a childhood friend of Floyd's — was gunned down on the freeway May 17.
The Sunday after it happened, Hewitt came out to the corner and turned up the gospel music of Kirk Franklin outside her food stand, the Brunch Box. Joyful lyrics danced down the empty streets. Put your hands together! Put your hands together! It did little to lift Hewitt's spirits as she mixed her waffle batter.
They had both grown up with Floyd in Cuney Homes, known as "the Bricks," Houston's oldest public housing project. She opened the Brunch Box across the street several years ago and joined a program to train Black entrepreneurs. Hewitt hoped she could expand one day and create jobs and charitable programs for her community.
Many of her customers knew Floyd, and his sister and niece occasionally stopped by for margaritas. As Floyd's killing by a Minneapolis police officer last May spurred a global movement against racism, Hewitt and Hutchins marched for justice. Floyd's friend Milton "Poboy" Carney brought signs for her to put outside the Brunch Box: "Black Lives Matter" and "Justice for George Floyd."
Over the months, Hewitt noticed that they always held firm in the ground, even as the rain and winds swept over tents and other decorations.
She figured it was Floyd's way of saying he wasn't going anywhere. She vowed that neither would she.
Then somebody called Hewitt last November and told her that her son was dead.
"Dietrich! Dietrich! Dietrich!"
She threw herself to the ground and screamed her son's name. A man had shot him outside a convenience store a half-mile from the Brunch Box. Hewitt already had lost one of her three sons in 2012, when someone killed him in self-defense. But to lose another? It was all the more wrenching in the wake of Floyd's death. He mentored Dietrich, as he had other local men, before leaving for Minneapolis.
Hewitt, 46, closed the Brunch Box for a month and used the profits from her fledgling business to bury her son. She had just one child living in Houston now, a 20-year-old daughter. Two other adult children had moved away.
Hewitt made sure to look happy for her customers when she reopened, even if she was only pretending.
Across the street stood Scott Food Market, a corner store where a mural of Floyd graced the southern wall. She could not see the painting from where she stood: the Brunch Box faced the front of the store, where it had become a tradition to record the names of the local dead on the wall.
Someone wrote a poem about endangered Black men across the bricks.
The killings did not stop.
Floyd's friend Baby D, 25, was shot to death outside the market in February. Two weeks later came the downtown slaying of another: 31 year-old rapper Obe Noir. Better known in the neighborhood as Zay the Brick Boy, he had played professional basketball overseas but never forgot his Cuney Homes roots and spoke passionately against police brutality after Floyd's death.
Last year, he collaborated with the rapper Reconcile for a song called "Streets is Suicide" about the epidemic of shootings, filming scenes in by the Floyd mural at Scott Food Market. The opening drew from an Instagram video Floyd posted about how the next generation was so lost, going around busting out guns in crowds, killing kids.
Hutchins planned to join events on the anniversary of Floyd's passing, and his death sent a new current of grief over Floyd's family. Floyd's brother Philonise was born the same year as Hutchins, 39, and he cried at the news.
Before moving to Minneapolis in 2017, Floyd spent his last weekend in Houston hosting a community event with Hutchins. They handed out food and set up activities for neighborhood children. Floyd was devastated from afar when a teenager killed Hutchins' 8-year-old son in a drive-by shooting the following year.
"How can Black lives matter if they don't matter to us?" said Philonise Floyd, reflecting on the local murders. "... If Black lives matter, you shouldn't kill your own people."
Hewitt views the violence devouring her neighborhood as a problem largely of Black men shooting one another. What hurts the most, she said, is "you watched your brother [Floyd] get lynched on national TV ... these youngsters running around here don't know their history, don't know anything, haven't gained knowledge from this. It's sickening."
They came dressed in red, black and white.
Several hundred people poured into the funeral for Hutchins in northeast Houston on Friday, three days after the gathering to honor Floyd at Cuney Homes. Poboy, the friend of Floyd's who had brought racial justice signs for the Brunch Box, hugged visitors on their way in, asking, "You all right?"
A large array of Floyd's friends paid respects: the one who commissioned the Scott Food Market mural, the Houston native who encouraged Floyd to join him in Minneapolis, the Cuney Homes resident council president who watched him and Hutchins grow up. Floyd's brothers Rodney and Philonise came, too.
"Everything's going to be okay," Philonise told those who gathered.
People said they were tired of going to funerals and seeing a new wave of RIPs on Instagram. Barely taking in one murder before reeling from the next. Looking around the parking lot, one man remarked, "A storm is coming through, taking away everybody."
Hewitt gazed at the man in the coffin, dressed in white. She had always liked Hutchins' optimism. She remembered how he took some sage from her a few weeks before and said, "Sister, let me pray with it."
From her pew, she listened as the pastor read from the Bible: "Even though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me." Women sang and cried out hallelujah!
Back at the Brunch Box, Hewitt tried to shake off the heaviness of the morning. She found cooking therapeutic in a way, and seasoned a half-dozen chicken wingettes, then put them in the deep fryer.
Somebody walked up and said that Zay the Brick Boy's brother was just killed. He had been a burgeoning regular at the food stand. Stunned, Hewitt called a friend to relay the news, adding, "I don't know how true it is." Some guys at the corner store confirmed that it was, indeed, true.
"That was a sweet little baby," Hewitt told a friend.
She thought of how she used to sell him the same meal she was making now. Hewitt took the chicken out of the fryer, stirred the French toast batter and splashed in cream. "Bury one and lose one," she said.
People began streaming in from the funeral, among them Floyd's friend James Walker, who worked with young men to help them survive the neighborhood's dangers. He told Hewitt he had made a call for more details on the latest victim, but nobody picked up. She sliced some French toast. "Chicken is done so it won't take nothing but a few seconds."
As he ate on the outdoor patio, Walker lamented that cops did not do enough to solve killings of Black men. With police brutality and community violence, he noted, it's all the same narrative: Nobody cares.
"Right now you're in harm's way," Walker said. "The streets and violence that goes on ... whoever [Hutchins] had some frequency with could come through here right now. It's that real."
Over the years, a series of Floyd's friends moved out of the neighborhood: to the Houston suburbs, Louisiana, Minnesota. Some still visited the intersection but departed before dark.
Hewitt, too, usually left by late afternoon. As the day waned, she felt that her community had let her down. But Hewitt knew she would keep coming back. She would not give up on the place she was from.
Maya Rao • 612-673-4210