A year ago, the Ithaca community was rocked by the shooting death of Shawn Greenwood, a 29-year-old African-African man who grew up in Ithaca.
To commemorate the anniversary of Mr. Greenwood's death, several of his friends and acquaintances last week held a vigil across the street from Pete's Grocery, where Greenwood was killed by police on Feb. 23, 2010, when he attempted to flee a warrant that had been issued for his arrest. The memories of friends and acquaintances reveal an upbeat and enthusiastic young man, who despite his troubles with the law and struggles to support his family, was trying to move his life forward at the time of his death.
"He was working six to seven days a week, 12 a.m. to 7 a.m., at his job at Tops Bakery," said Nydia Williams, an Ithaca College student who was close to Greenwood. "After work he would go home to his fianc and two kids and take them to school at BJM. He didn't have a lot of money at the time, and he recognized that he needed to set goals. He applied to TC3 and was rejected because of a previous charge, so he registered at the Elmira Business School, and he was supposed to start in June of 2010."
Ricardo Williams, Nydia's husband, recalls that Greenwood was excited to be out of prison and that he spent a lot of time at the gym.
"You would see him every day, walking around, walking to the gym, walking through the town, greeting people," said Ricardo Williams. "He had been in prison for four years, and he was happy to get out."
When he returned from prison, Mr. Greenwood resumed a relationship with a woman he had known for several years, and she became pregnant. With a child on the way, and struggling to make ends meet on a minimum wage job, Mr. Greenwood turned to selling drugs as a way to make more money, said Nydia Williams.
"When he came home, he fell back into a relationship very quickly, and between the pressure of that low-paying job at Tops and the pressure of having a child, he started selling drugs to make ends meet," said Nydia Williams.
It's true that Mr. Greenwood was not a saint, said Ricardo Williams, but the drug trade is a basic reality of the Ithaca community that is often overlooked.
"Drugs are everywhere in Ithaca," said Ricardo Williams. "There's a lot of rural and urban drug use, and up on those hills, among the colleges, it's everywhere. It's overlooked, the extent of it. Shawn grew up in that environment. He had a tougher upbringing than most. It's part of what he knew. You run into people you've met in prison, and they put that thought into your head, and it's easy to get pulled back in."
All in all, Greenwood was in and out of the criminal justice system for seven years, mostly for drug-related offenses. Under those circumstances it can be difficult to find your feet and make up for past mistakes, said Nydia Williams.
"The whole stigma, that you're a criminal, that really taints you, it goes to the core of who you are," said Nydia Williams. "It's a constant thing you're living under, and all while you're facing the pressure of being a man, a man who is the breadwinner of the family, a man who is masculine."
"You're trying to catch up for the years that you've lost, and that can be really, really tough," said Autumn Newell, another organizer of the vigil.
Greenwood's friends said they organized the vigil because they wanted to create a space in which those who wished to remember Greenwood could do so publicly.
They also hope to encourage a constructive dialogue about some of the larger issues surrounding his death.
"Shawn was half white and half black, he was a product of the Ithaca community," said Nydia Williams. "Every time this issue has been talked about in the press all you hear is the mention of his charges, everything negative. What you don't hear are the younger voices, the voices of his peers, people who understood his life. We need to ask ourselves the bigger questions: why do people sell drugs? What is it about our society, our community, our economic picture, that causes so many people to pursue this kind of life?"