Colourful memorials mark scenes of bloodshed in US cities

Washington - It was an especially bloody July weekend in Washington DC, the US capital.

Alfonso Robinson sat with his mother outside his grandparents' home in one of the city's troubled neighbourhoods when he was killed instantly in a drive-by shooting. The 
13-year-old was not the only victim that night. Six other people were either killed or injured in gun battles.

The ensuing sadness after such tragedies is felt across the city, near the place where the victim fell, often a memorial crops up. At a street sign near the spot where Robinson died, colourful teddy bears, plush stuffed hearts and toys soon marked the spot after his demise. All the items were gently attached to the metal pole.

Such memorials are a phenomenon that occur not only in Washington, but in other parts of the country also. They can be seen on many streets, especially where children and young people died. Friends and neighbours erect shrines to their loved ones creating a type of altar where sadness over the loss of life is openly expressed.

Some are simple with just a single stuffed animal and a photo. Others give the impression that an entire truck full of toys tipped over at the site.

Feelings of anger and mourning mingle at the sites. A note in children's writing attached to a stuffed bear demands an end to the violence. "There is a heaven - Rest in Peace," is the inscription on a card attached to a tree.

Photographer Lloyd Wolf began photographing the shrines in 2003 after working with Dion Johnson, a young man he mentored in a photography programme for homeless youths in Washington. Four members of Johnson's family were murdered in one year and one other member was badly wounded.

"I saw what kind of devastating emotional and other impact it had on him personally, and on his family," Wolf said, who publishes photographs of the memorials on www. dcshrines. blogspot. com.

"I saw many shrines over the years in neighbourhoods. At some point I just decided they should be documented."

He began to see the shrines as powerful expressions of pain, of hope and of memory. But he said it's also a sign that many families are too poor to pay for a marker at the cemetery. The street memorial is often the only vestige of the life snuffed out.

The street shrines can be seen througout the United States. In New York they are likely to include graffiti. In southern states, the Catholic traditions of Latino residents can be seen in the candles and images of the Virgin Mary that are popular in the shrines.

The street shrines in Washington are erected mainly by African-Americans. Colourful toys and collages dominate and the shrines are usually at the base of poles or trees.

"They are a sad, but meaningful form of folk art."

Another characteristic of the DC shrines is the presence of empty liquor bottles, a custom Wolf said stems from the African and middle-Eastern practice of libations - pouring out a drink in honour of someone, or to a god or gods. People gather to honour a departed loved one, then pour the liquid onto the ground as a mark of respect and recognition, Wolf said.

Wolf has documented in photographs memorials where hundreds of vodka, gin and champagne bottles have been carefully placed in a circle. The victim's friends gather at the spot regularly to toast them as portrayed in countless gangster films.

Some of the memorials remain for just a few months; others last for years. Rain, wind and snow gradually take their toll on them. People in some parts of Washington have learned to live with violence. On average a violent death occurs nearly every day in the city, mostly in the poor neighbourhoods in the south-east quadrant.

However, that high murder rate is an improvement. In the 1990s Washington was notorious as the "murder capital of America". After climbing for years, the murder rate peaked at 482 in 1991. The situation has improved, but the violence has not disappeared entirely.

Many citizens fear that the number of murders will increase after the US Supreme Court overturned a ban on handguns that had been in place in Washington since 1975. While queues still form outside gun stores, Wolf trawls the neighbourhoods for shrines after reading an article in the newspaper about yet another youth killing. (dpa)