August 25, 2016
Arshell Dennis III.
Rahm Emanuel hides his emotion most days, hides it behind that bark he's had to develop to survive a brutal life of politics.
But he couldn't hide it Thursday, and neither could hundreds of others mourning at the funeral of 19-year-old Arshell "Trey" Dennis III.
Trey, the son of a Chicago police officer, was recently gunned down on a porch while visiting a friend.
He was a journalism student at St. John's University in New York, active with the college NAACP, a helpful, kind and brilliant kid. His friends and teachers loved him. He was known in his community, with no criminal ties, no gang affiliations, no record.
This is what Trey was: He was the hope of Chicago.
He'd come back to the city to surprise his mother, Ramona, who is ill. And he was murdered by some vicious creature.
News reports suggest it may have been a case of mistaken identity in some gang initiation. Or it could have been something else.
The only fact I know is that he's dead. And he was so young in that casket; just a couple of years older than my own boys, his hands folded, so still.
The funeral directors closed the casket, and the mayor spoke words over him and wept, a mayor grieving as the father of a young man Trey's age.
I couldn't see tears on the mayor's face, but I could feel them as he brushed his eyes, as if irritated, and his voice broke once, and again and then again. And he did so, grieving for the family and the city numbed by the carnage of Chicago's gang wars.
"Arshell was a passionate journalism major, no doubt answering the call to use his voice to inform others," Emanuel said. "At home, his father is a Chicago police officer, answering the call to serve others in the city.
"And what bound them together was more than just the bonds of a father and a son," Emanuel said. "It was the call to do something greater than for themselves. To use their lives to serve others."
When his voice began to break, I could feel something breaking in my own chest. You could see the same pain all over the church, on the faces of those street cops, the real police, the hunters, looking uncomfortable in their dark suits. And on mothers who were also worrying about their own sons.
Many chests were heaving, heaving like Rahm's, like my own.
"I did not know Trey, but I know as a father of a 19-year-old the power to know a child," the mayor said. "And now … the loss of a young man … and when I hear the stories of Trey, I see the values and hear the values of the Dennis family."
The mayor recovered his composure quickly. There were no TV cameras allowed inside the Monument of Faith Church. He wasn't there to play to the media.
"And when the news of this tragedy struck, it struck all of Chicago ... the loss of the Dennis family," the mayor said. "That a father who runs towards danger when the rest of us run away, to protect our communities, that he and Ramona would lose a son to gun violence struck a chord of wrong."
A chord of wrong.
Or more like a long bad note screeching out of a woodwind, or moans from the broken in the gang wars of Chicago.
I've covered the funerals of imperfect victims, too, of the gangbangers and of their victims, and at some you see people angry, necks bowed, stiff legged, whispering revenge or yelling it, awaiting confrontation, begging for it, eager.
Not at Trey's funeral.
Because the people at his funeral are the people a city can't live without: the black middle class, cops and city workers, teachers, the churchgoers, people involved in community work, like Trey's parents, who raised their son right, got him into a great university and buried him.
They're the people you never see. The people who stay married, the people who aren't loud, people who are generally ignored by the media, even in their good works, until they're in a church, mourning a good son.
"I'll tell you what he was like," a friend, Corey Love, 20, told me outside in the parking lot before the funeral began. "He was funny. He'd let you know how he felt, but he let you know in a funny way, so you wouldn't take offense at what he was saying."
A young woman came up and said her name was Courtney Pamon, 18.
"He was my brother's best friend," Pamon said. "Trey was like a big brother to me. Every time he came back from New York, he was at our house."
Trey was with your brother when he was killed, I said. Your brother was also shot, wasn't he?
"Yes," she said. "But he's OK. He was shot, in his arm, and in his side."
"I don't want to talk about it," Pamon said, backing away. "I just don't."
Mathias Muschal, Trey's English teacher at Urban Prep, gave a beautiful talk in the church about his bright and clear-thinking student.
"Everything they're saying about him is real," he told me afterward. "He really was that good, smart, but he never made anyone else feel dumb."
One story Muschal didn't share in church happened on the day Trey showed up for freshman orientation. In the lunchroom, another classmate sat alone. Trey got up and sat next to the boy.
"He was the kind of person who couldn't abide other people suffering. He just sat next to him," Muschal said. "He didn't care about fitting in. He didn't care about being popular. He was just himself, and everybody loved him for it."
After the mayor finished, I caught up to him outside in the parking lot. Emanuel grimaced, figuring I'd mock him for revealing his heart. I told him I wouldn't, I told him he was right.
"What happened to him, to his family, that is not OK," the mayor said. "It is not OK. There is evil in the world."
There are still reasons to hope for Chicago, but one of those reasons was buried Thursday.
He was 19.