KeyShanna Jackson drew a breath and walked into the autumn grass of a park in Kansas City’s Northeast neighborhood filled with strangers gathered for a vigil.
No doubt some of them were drug addicts. Some prostitutes, surely.
She had thought nobody would care about Harlan Dunbar.
Dunbar, her father, had been shot and killed in the street at this same park in the middle of the afternoon Oct. 26 at Seventh and Norton Streets — in a stretch of the city that has long shouldered many of the city’s homeless and addicted.
The people on these streets have long been vulnerable to violence, but a rash of murders and violence this fall has scared many who thought they’d numbed to fear.
Dunbar was No. 120 in Kansas City’s year of homicides — and the third of five murders in the streets along this Independence Avenue corridor since Oct. 24.
That’s all the news accounts seemed to notice, Jackson said. A black man. Addicted. Killed on the street over an altercation of some sort. No one arrested. Just a number. Nobody cared.
Jackson, a 32-year-old postal worker, had spent most of her adult life avoiding these streets, not so much out of fear but to avoid seeing the father who she loved — and who loved her — out here addicted.
“I couldn’t stand to see him that way,” she said.
She had no idea how much love her father had cultivated out here.
These people who loved Harlan gathered in the waning afternoon light in this same park where he spent many hours of his homeless days, and where he died.
While she stood at the edge, they came to her. She was Harlan’s daughter, she told them.
The stories they would begin to tell her — through all the hugs, and many people crying hard — would enlist her in the cause of making people take notice of the different lives people live, and putting an end to unnoticed or forgotten murders.
“Maybe,” Jackson said, “this is the death to help people change.”
‘He shed tears’
It’s quiet here on the concrete steps.
Christine McDonald liked to sit here in the park with Harlan when she needed to feel calm again.
McDonald, who once spent some time as a prostitute, was remembering back into the 1990s when Dunbar was a friend and protector. She escaped in the early 2000s and now leads programs to help other woman escape.
Recently, just a couple of weeks after Dunbar died, she returned here to remember how it felt on these steps that descended from the stressful street down the grassy slope to the park in a sheltering bowl.
“Harlan would talk about his family,” McDonald said. “He’d had a wife. He had kids.”
And he’d ask McDonald: “Why don’t you ever leave here?”
It was on these steps that McDonald said she talked about her dream — the dream she ultimately achieved — of creating a place for women like she was then to be safe and escape.
“He was such a good guy,” McDonald said. “He shed tears. You don’t see that out here. Real emotion. He never lost that. He’d say, ‘I let my momma down again.’ He prayed. I prayed for death, but he didn’t. He prayed for God to rescue and redeem him.”
Dunbar protected people. He stood watch for McDonald and other women when they slept vulnerably in a vacant building or park space. When McDonald was out in the snow one winter in shorts, Dunbar stepped out of his Dickies coveralls and gave them to her — though they were so big they swallowed her up.
The people outside on Independence Avenue shared “trauma-bonding,” McDonald said. “We bonded in a way you can’t anywhere else.”
It was stunning to hear he had died, his friends said. Police have revealed little of their investigation except to describe a suspect as a clean-shaven male with a thin build and wearing a gray hoodie. His friends have heard different things. Perhaps he owed someone money. One story they like to believe is that Harlan was walking away when whoever his conflict was with shot him down.
Dunbar carried a wisdom with him that comforted everybody. He had a college education. He had served in the Navy.
When you don’t have a car and you don’t have your own place to sleep, you walk and your feet bear it, said Tammy Brown, another of Dunbar’s friends.
She was speaking recently inside the Cherith Brook Catholic Worker, an oasis at 3226 E. 12th Street set up to comfort people in need of relief. Another friend, Juanita Davenport, was with her.
Dunbar was a favorite around Cherith Brook. He lived in one of its residences for a while.
Here or on some outdoor stoops, they would sit together and share the grief of swollen, chafed feet, Brown said.
“Both of our feet were so bad,” Brown said.
Sometimes, Davenport said, he would ask her, “Where do you think we’ll go when we die?”
Davenport said she thinks she knows.
This is what she told her friend, Dunbar, who she and Brown described as the peacemaker on the streets, as the last among them who anyone would expect to be shot down, a spiritual man.
Davenport told him: “A resting place.”
Broken by crack cocaine
You go get Harlan, Jackson’s cousin told her.
This was in May 2016. Dunbar’s mother — Jackson’s grandmother — Marietta Dunbar had died. They knew how much Dunbar loved her, and how Marietta Dunbar had never given up on her son.
The family wanted him to help with the funeral plans. His mother would have wanted him there.
Dunbar had been broken by crack cocaine. He had fallen from his family around Jackson’s third grade year. She carried memories of her father helping her with homework. He was the smart one, Jackson’s mother would say.
She knew that when addiction overtook him, his pursuit of drugs was landing him in jail. Charged different times with possession of drugs, or possession with intent to distribute.
In jail — that’s when her father would write her letters, ask her how she was doing in school, tell her that he loved her.
As she grew up, she would occasionally go find him. But it pained her.
This time when she was circulating through the neighborhood in her car, she was angry that he had failed in this moment of all moments to join up with his family.
“Have you seen Harlan?” she asked through her rolled down window to one person after another on the street. Soon she was pointed in the right direction and she saw him. But he ducks around a corner.
Angry, Jackson wheeled her car around him and cut him off, the passenger-side door waiting him.
He got in. He was not well. And he sunk his head and muttered, “Damn.”
Jackson cried as she recounted that story with Brown at Cherith Brook.
Brown consoled her. Dunbar took the death of his mother very hard, she said. He’d lost his last chance to right himself before she died.
“You know your father was loved,” Brown said. “He had a sickness, but he loved you.”
A culture of suspicion
The people who come to Cherith Brook — whether for a meal, or a hot shower, of a cup of coffee, or just to sit and visit — walk under “a culture of suspicion,” said Jodi Garbison.
She and her husband, Eric, have spent 12 years leading this Kansas City piece of the Catholic Worker national service movement.
Many come in “fresh from suffering violence,” she said. Often they are dealing with “aggressive” police.
“They can’t hide behind their car or their home,” she said. “They have no lawyers. No support.”
The violent crime has been rising to the point it is breaching the necessary emotional and psychological walls people who live and serve in this neighborhood have built.
“You get numb to it,” she said. “It’s not indifference. It’s just that you can’t live in sustained shock.”
At the Norton Heights Community of Christ Church, just two blocks north from where Dunbar was killed, they’re building small crosses.
The small congregation is planning a vigil for Dec. 9 at 4:30 p.m. in the grassy lawn north of the church at 436 Norton Ave. where they will plant the crosses.
As of last week, they need 133 — one for each of the people murdered in Kansas City this year. They plan to put names on each of them, including the five for the deaths this fall along the Independence Avenue corridor within a mile of their doors.
No. 117, Lovell J. Smith; No. 118, John “Bam Bam” Owens Jr.; No. 120, Harlan Dunbar; No. 124, Bobbie Bailey; No. 131, Alton D. Hughes.
“We’re planting stakes in the ground, claiming our neighborhood for peace and justice,” said church member Leon Berg, “…for all human beings without judgment. They are our brothers and sisters.”
That Saturday afternoon that Jackson joined Dunbar’s friends in the park, she held in her hands a small box she might use to collect something for the cost of her murdered father’s cremation.
Quickly, money started to drop in.
Nobody in that park had money to spare. They were people living on the sparest means like her father, or people who’d given their lives over to non-profit social services.
But the coins came. And some bills. Jackson isn’t sure how much it totaled, but the generosity brought her to tears.
She met the Garbisons there, and the following Monday morning she went to Cherith Brook to see this place that had offered so much to her father and his friends.
She’s been a regular volunteer ever since.
She wrote a thank-you note on the event page for her father’s vigil on Facebook.
“I thanked them,” she said, “for the hugs, and all the stories and for letting me cry.”
Now if only she — along with all the people she met who understand the struggle and fear — can inspire others as her experience in her father’s death inspired her to comfort and aid the afflicted.
“I had to go find him,” she said. “I had to be at the vigil. I had to come here” to Cherith Brook. “They helped him.”
Here she sees all the smiles. She sees people treasuring simple pleasures, living another day.
Community vigil for murder victims
Dec. 9 at 4:30 p.m. on the north lawn of the Norton Heights Community of Christ Church, 436 Norton Ave., Kansas City, Mo.