A Boy Called Moose by Santi Elijah Holley

Editor Daniel Elder, Editor's Choice, July 22nd, 2019

"But while the nation’s attention is diverted, black men, women, and children continue to die."

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Personal Essay by Santi Elijah Holley

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Venus had been in labor for over 24 hours. This was her first birth, and it was proving to be an exhausting experience. She had moved to Portland, Oregon only six months ago, in February 1999, in part because she didn’t trust the hospitals in Chicago. She had also come to be near her mother, Donna, who had moved to Portland the year before. With her mother by her side, at Northeast Portland’s Providence Hospital, after a painfully long delivery, Venus Hayes welcomed her first child, on August 2, 1999.

          While the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon flickered on the television screen above her hospital bed, Venus considered her new son.

          “His hair was sticking up on edge. He was just so odd looking,” she remembers. “I looked at the television screen, and I looked at him, and I was like, ‘Bullwinkle T. Moose.’ And it kinda just stuck. Everyone called him ‘Moose’ after that.”

          The boy would come to introduce himself to others exclusively as Moose, and he was addressed as Moose by family and friends. His coaches and teachers knew him as Moose. But officially, on his certificate of birth, his name was Quanice Derrick Hayes, and that’s the name that would be filed on his death certificate, 17 years later, after being fatally shot by Portland Police, three miles from the hospital where he was born.

 

I’d heard about the shooting the day it happened, Thursday, February 9, 2017, but details were scarce. All we were told in news outlets was that a person suspected of armed robbery was shot dead by the police, near Northeast 82nd Avenue, at 9:20 that morning. Nothing more was known about the suspect, except that he had allegedly stolen a man’s food benefits card two hours earlier, and he was also suspected of prowling cars in the neighborhood near Northeast 82nd and Halsey. Why he was shot was still unknown, as was his identity. The identity of the officer who fired the fatal shots was also unknown. A handgun, thought to belong to the suspect, was found near the scene, but it was unclear whether the suspect fired any shots or pointed the gun at the officers. There was no cellphone footage, no body cams. All we knew was someone was dead.

          More details began to emerge the next day. The officer who fired the shots was Andrew Hearst, an officer with the Portland Police for seven years. The suspect was a 17-year-old African American boy named Quanice Hayes (pronounced Qua-niss). The handgun found at the scene turned out to be a replica.

          Local newspapers printed what appeared to be a mugshot of Quanice, without providing context or explanation. In the photo he has almost-chin-length dreadlocks, and a drowsy look in his eyes. He isn’t looking at the camera, but at something to the left of the room, as though he isn’t at all concerned about having his booking photo taken. He doesn’t look ashamed or angry. He looks like a typical bored kid, waiting until he can get back to whatever he was doing before he’d been interrupted.

          Quanice’s death came after the country had already endured and condemned the killings of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, and Alton Sterling, among others. Each new police-involved death brought fresh outrage, more calls for reform, more marches, more protests from protesters, more commentaries from commentators. By the end of 2016 it felt like the nation was suffering from police shooting fatigue.

          In Portland we watched all of these deaths happen from a distance. Though commonly branded by national media as “the whitest city in America,” with a black population stubbornly lingering near 6%, Portland is also considered a progressive paradise, where people encourage each other’s eccentricities and live their lives in relative safety. But on the morning of February 9, 2017, we learned that not even Portland is immune to the epidemic afflicting the rest of the country.

          Quanice wasn’t yet eighteen; not old enough to be considered an adult, yet old enough to be killed by the arm of the state. He was shot only a few miles from where I lived, where I’d probably at that moment been in bed, thinking about breakfast or work. The media began to publish more photos of Quanice, provided by his family, in the days following his death. In one photo, he appears to be sitting on a school bus, wearing a backpack, affecting a model’s pose. In another photo, a selfie, he and his younger brother are framed by an opened window, both of them with a shy smile.

          Portland mayor Ted Wheeler and Multnomah County chief deputy district attorney Don Rees stated that the investigation would take at least four to six weeks. After the investigation was complete, a grand jury would be asked to decide if Officer Hearst was justified in shooting Quanice. Four to six weeks was a long time. Enough time for the public to grow bored and move on to something else.

          During a public vigil on the Saturday night following the shooting, Quanice’s mother Venus delivered a prepared statement to the press: “Quanice’s personality was magnetic,” she said, as her family gathered around her and wept. “He was the person you liked and remembered the moment you met him…The oldest of five children, Quanice was the love of my life. Quanice was idolized by his siblings and adored by his family. We are all struggling to find sense in his death and are mourning the loss of a life taken too soon.”

          I reached out to Venus online, asking if she would be open to speaking with me about her son. Three days later she wrote back and said she was willing to meet me. We exchanged phone numbers and arranged a time to meet. On the morning of March 20, I drove out to Venus’s home in Southeast Portland.

 

Venus Hayes was raised by her mother Donna in the Henry Horner Homes, an infamous public housing project in Chicago’s West Side, plagued by gang violence and crushing poverty. The first phase of Henry Horner’s seven-year demolition began in 2001, two years after Venus relocated to Oregon.

          Venus was six months pregnant with her first child when she moved to Portland. She and Quanice’s father had been friends since childhood, and grew up together in Henry Horner, but he stayed behind while Venus moved across the country to be near her mother. The first few years of Quanice’s life were nomadic, as Venus shepherded her son across the country, staying with relatives in Mississippi, New Mexico, Denver, California, and Las Vegas, before finally returning to Oregon for good in 2004.

          Quanice was an intelligent young boy, and his precociousness would often set him apart. He would come home after trying to play with kids his age and complain to Venus: “They don’t understand me, Mom.”

          Venus gave birth to her second child, a girl, Nevaeh, in 2006, followed in 2013 by Adonis “Donny,” then Prince the year after that.

          I learned all of this while seated in Venus’s living room, alongside Donna, Adonis, and Prince. On my visit that first morning, I’d explained to Venus my intention in speaking with them. I wasn’t a beat reporter; I wasn’t seeking clues or nosing around crime scenes in pursuit of anything regarding the case, which was still under investigation. I honestly didn’t know what I was looking for. Perhaps I’d thought that if people could only get to know Quanice’s life, who he was before he became a statistic, it would be less likely we would forget him.

          Venus went into a room and came out a moment later, carrying a cardboard shoebox. She placed the box on the dining room table and took out a handful of photographs: Quanice as a toddler, Quanice as an adolescent, goofing for the camera.

          “This is what gets lost,” she said, as she filed through the photos. “This is what people don’t understand. Quanice was just a boy.”

          When he was nine years old, Venus told me, Quanice joined a crew of older boys who practiced the new “Jerkin’” dance style. Calling themselves the Bedrock Boyz, the boys competed in the NW Jerk Fest, hosted by the all-ages venue Backspace, in Portland’s Old Town, on November 28, 2009. Venus filmed the competition on her cellphone, but she was heartbroken to discover she’d since lost the video.

          Later that week, I scoured the Internet, trying out different combinations of words: “backspace” and “jerk dance contest,” “bedrock boyz” and “moose.” Finally I found two videos on YouTube, captioned “NW JerkFest,” posted by WeRJerkVids. I played the first video, filmed on somebody’s phone, wondering if this was even the same event, and then, near the 40-second mark, the camera turns and focuses on a boy, younger than the others, dancing solo in a circle of mostly teenage spectators. I wasn’t certain this was Quanice. His hair was shorter, but he had the same dark complexion, big ears, and quietly determined look in his eyes I’d seen in the photos. Though he stood a full head shorter than the other dancers, the boy—wearing white pants and a black-and-silver T-shirt—goes just as hard as his teammates, if not more so. What he lacked in technical skill he made up for with enthusiasm and energy. The second video showed the last few seconds of his dance. He does a handstand, hops around on one foot, and does a few quick spins, before sinking back into the crowd of spectators.

          I emailed Venus links to the two videos. “Is this Moose?” I asked.

          She wrote back the next day. “I can’t believe you found this,” she said. “That was moose the 1st lil boy that danced he had on the white pants. Thank you so much for finding this!”

          The Bedrock Boyz defeated the competing Rip City Jerks, winning 500 dollars. Backspace closed four years later, in 2013. The only thing that remains of what was possibly Quanice’s proudest moment are a couple of shaky cellphone videos, filmed in a place that no longer exists.

 

Shortly after the birth of her fourth child, Prince, Venus and her family moved to Ontario, Oregon, a six-hour drive southeast from Portland. Ontario is a small, desert town, immediately west of the Idaho border. The Hayes family relocated there in 2014, so Venus could pursue a prospective job as a corrections officer at Snake River Correctional Institution, a medium security prison.

          Quanice had a difficult time adjusting to his new surroundings. There isn’t much by way of entertainment, and if an African American family was a rare sight in Portland, it was a complete oddity in Ontario. But Quanice found ways to keep himself occupied. He developed a crush on a Hispanic girl in town, and in an attempt to impress her, he’d put on a nice suit and accompany her family to Catholic Mass.

          He was also scouted, doggedly, for the local basketball team. Quanice recognized their eagerness to recruit him as an opportunity.

          “Moose was the star of the team before he even got on the team,” Venus said. “They would send me dinner, take us out to eat, everything, trying to get Moose to play for their team. And he was like, ‘Mom, just hold it down. I’m gonna play for them, I’m just holding out, to see what they gonna give us.’”

          Quanice did eventually join the team, but his stint wasn’t long. Snake River soon learned about Venus’s DUII conviction the year before, which she’d neglected to mention on her application, and she lost the job. Venus was upset, but her children were not disappointed to leave Ontario and return to Portland. Back in the city, Quanice continued to pursue sports. He wasn’t discriminatory about which sport he played. He liked them all.

          “Basketball was his favorite, but Moose played everything,” Venus said. “Soccer, football. He even told me he was on a rugby team. I was like, ‘Who plays rugby?’”

          His passion for sports, however, got in the way of his education at Centennial High School. His grades began to slip, and soon he was cutting classes altogether. Some of his coaches would try to work with him, to get his grades up so he could remain enrolled in school. Other coaches would cover for him, send Venus gifts or packages, whatever they could to convince her not to pull Quanice from the team. But over time his behavior had become too erratic.

          After an argument with a teacher, he walked out of class, and then got into a fight with another student. Enough was enough. Quanice was finally kicked off the basketball team. He wasn’t the same after that. He would often stay away from home for short stints of time, sleeping on friends’ couches or God knows where. He would disappear for longer stretches of time, until he stopped coming home altogether. His name was added to Oregon State Police’s clearinghouse for missing persons.

          Quanice didn’t resurface until November 4, 2016. Responding to reports that two people had broken out the window of a car, Officers Gregory Adrian and Stephanie Hudson arrived at Southeast 148th Avenue, at 12:45pm, and found Quanice and another teen male sitting inside a car that belonged to neither of them. While questioning the two teens, the officers discovered a replica black handgun in a backpack. Quanice and the other boy were arrested for unlawful entry of a vehicle. They were handcuffed and taken in for mugshots and fingerprinting.

          In his report after the arrest, Officer Adrian wrote, “I told both of them that the toy gun looked real and may get them killed if they carried it or pointed it at someone.”

 

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I was 13 when I was caught stealing CDs from Tower Records in my hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. I wasn’t in any particular need. I probably could’ve paid for the CDs with whatever money I’d earned doing household chores for my mother, or whatever birthday money I’d saved. I just didn’t want to pay. When I was caught by the secret shopper, they called the police, and I was handcuffed behind my back, as though I were some kind of immediate danger to the public. I was put into the backseat of the cruiser, handcuffs digging into my bony wrists. I was driven to the police station, fingerprinted, and charged. They called my mother.

          She was furious. She couldn’t believe she’d raised a son who would be so foolish. I wept bitterly as she drove me home from the police station, asking how I could be so selfish. I was embarrassed, I’d embarrassed my mother, and I’d brought shame to our family. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me now. I thought my life was over.

          A fine was paid, community service hours were completed, and the charges were wiped from my record. That was that. I cried my tears, asked my mother’s forgiveness, did my community service, and lived another day.

          I think about that moment in my life when I think about Quanice. Shoplifting CDs from Tower Records is not the same as playing with toy guns, of course, but when it comes down to it, is it really so different? We were teenage boys being foolish. We were teenage boys who knew better. We were teenage boys raised by single mothers who wore themselves out chasing after us, trying their best to keep us out of trouble without any help from anyone. Sometimes they lose sight of us. Sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for a few days. But they never think that they might lose us forever.

 

On the evening of March 21, after hearing two days of testimony, a grand jury decided not to pursue criminal charges against Officer Hearst. At a hastily arranged press conference the next morning, Venus stood in front of the Portland City Building, joined by family, friends, supporters, and lawyers, and delivered a short statement.

          “Quanice was on his knees when he was shot in the head and in the chest,” Venus began, before going off-script. “I think that’s important, when anybody wants to say that he was this dangerous robber, which is irrelevant at this point, because he’s not here to stick up for himself.”

          I was at the press conference that morning. There were about two dozen onlookers, in addition to the assembled media. The group Don’t Shoot Portland—led by local activist Teressa Raiford—wore masks made from paper printouts, bearing the faces of African Americans shot by police, while holding banners advertising their organization. There were a few video journalists, who film demonstrations on their smartphones with running commentary and upload them to YouTube. And there was yet another contingent of young white men dressed in black, whose contribution consisted of standing apart from everyone else and hurling epithets at the workers coming and going from the City Building.

          “I would like the community to stand with us, with me and my family,” Venus said in her concluding remarks. “Obviously the D.A.’s office is not for us, so I would like a higher authority to help us do an investigation, so we can learn the truth about what happened to my baby.”

          In all the noise from the onlookers and video journalists and protestors, Venus’s words were all but drowned out.

          A memorial for Quanice was held two days later, on the afternoon of March 24, at Northeast Portland’s Philadelphia Missionary Baptist Church. It was a grey, overcast afternoon, and we lined up along the sidewalk to enter the church one at a time. Aside from the immediate Hayes family and friends, the majority of guests filing into the church were white—many of them under 30 years old, wearing hooded sweatshirts, or cutoff jeans, or carrying bicycle helmets under their arm. Many of these visitors had likely never been in a church like this before, or any kind of church at all.

          Quanice himself had never attended this church. The Hayes family were not members of any particular church, and this one was miles away from Venus’s home. The memorial was held here at Philadelphia Missionary only because they offered it to the Hayes family. A plain-looking building on a quiet residential street corner, Philadelphia Missionary is not a large or flashy church. The approximately 300 people crowded inside on this Friday afternoon made for possibly the church’s largest ever attendance. It was almost certainly the most amount of white people the church had ever seen. In addition to the many people filling out the pews or standing along the walls, almost a dozen reporters and news anchors and photographers created a media phalanx in back, aiming their cameras at the front of the church, where, just below the small stage, sat a cream-colored casket.

          Venus and her family sat in the front pews. Terrence Hayes, Quanice’s cousin, delivered the eulogy, which was less a eulogy than a plea for black kids to take seriously the threats against their lives.

          “Young men, young women—they ain’t playing with yall lives. Don’t look at this casket and just think, ‘We lost Moose,’” Terrence said, while pointing toward his cousin’s closed casket. “This is the reality of the war on some of yalls lives. And some of yall still playing with these people.”

          After the service ended, we filed back outside, where it had begun to rain. Despite the rain, a group of 50 protestors went into the street and blocked what little traffic there was on the intersection. They unfurled their banners and held their signs aloft. Teresa Raiford initiated a call-and-response chant, in which she would command, “Say his name!” with the others responding, “Quanice Hayes!” Many of the people standing in the street, getting soaked by the rain, mispronounced Quanice’s name, shouting, “Qua-nees Hayes,” over and over and over, until it occurred to me that, whatever their motivation or reason for attending this memorial service, it was not to pay their respects.

          Five days after the memorial, on March 29, at 1:30pm, a group of 60 demonstrators briefly blocked downtown traffic, and disrupted a City Council meeting at the Portland Building. They chanted Quanice’s name and held up their fists. Police and pedestrians scuffled with the protestors. Six people were arrested. By 3:30, the protest had broken up.

 

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I drove to Venus’s home twice more, each time for about an hour. Adonis and Prince had begun to recognize me and seemed to enjoy my visits. Adonis wanted to show me that he and I owned the same style shoes: black Adidas Sambas. Prince climbed onto my lap. Venus folded laundry while Adonis and Prince took turns running up to her and whispering in her ear or hugging her or asking for a cookie. After all that had happened in the last month-and-a-half, Venus was still, at the end of the day, a mother, and she still had two young boys, a daughter, and an infant to care for. She didn’t stop being a mother once Quanice had died.

          Venus told me she had tried to keep Adonis and Prince from learning the circumstances surrounding their big brother’s death, but they’d found out anyway. And now, at four and three years old, Adonis and Prince had already learned to fear the sight of a uniformed police officer.

          “They’ve really, really changed. Donny yells, he has nightmares,” Venus said. “They can’t even see the police without being like, ‘Mommy, mommy, there go the police. Is that the one?’”

          Since the grand jury’s decision not to indict, people had begun to abandon her. People who said they’d stick with the family now didn’t return her phone calls. Lawyers disappeared. Reporters stopped calling. Not even two months had passed since Quanice’s death, and already folks were moving on. He had been buried less than a week, but he had long been buried by local apathy. Or perhaps Quanice just had the misfortune of being shot and killed by the police when national outrage at these events had subsided, replaced with a general and less-specific political outrage. But while the nation’s attention is diverted, black men, women, and children continue to die.

          I thanked Venus again for making the time to speak with me. I said goodbye to her and Adonis and Prince. I walked down the street to my car, then drove away and headed west down Southeast Division Street. I pulled onto the freeway in time for rush-hour traffic, and inched along with thousands of other Portlanders, heading back to their families, looking forward to sitting down and having dinner with their loved ones. The sun began its descent behind the West Hills, as the sky turned purple and orange over the Portland skyline. It was the beginning of spring. I never saw Venus again.

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Header image courtesy of Ervin A. Johnson. To view his artist feature, go here.

Santi Elijah Holley is a freelance journalist and essayist with work in Tin House, The Atlantic, VICE, Atlas Obscura, and elsewhere. He is a recipient of the 2017 Oregon Literary Fellowship for nonfiction, and his work has been cited by the 2018 Best American Essays anthology. He is currently working on a book about American folk music and British ballad traditions for Bloomsbury Academic’s 33 1/3 book series. Follow him on Twitter at @SantiHolley.

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Daniel Elder

Daniel Elder is a New York City native who now calls Portland home. He is the author of a self-published collection of essays and is currently revising a novella. He lives in an attic with his cat, Terence.