Written by Eli Saslow for ESPN
Charles Wakefield buckled his 5-month-old daughter, Aavielle, into his Oldsmobile, tightened the straps on her new car seat and double-checked the infant safety locks. His girlfriend climbed into the driverâ€™s seat, and Charles kissed her goodbye before stepping back from the car. â€œBe safe,â€ he told her, because that was what he always said, even though his girlfriend, mother and daughter were driving just four blocks to Save-A-Lot to shop for his birthday cake. Tomorrow he would turn 38. It was the first day of October and also nearly the beginning of the NBA season â€” his favorite time of the year. The Cavaliers had long been his preferred distraction from the blight of East Cleveland, and this year he coveted escape more than ever. The past month had been the cityâ€™s most violent in recent history, with 19 people shot dead, including several shootings near Charlesâ€™ house. He had grieved for three friends and two neighborhood toddlers caught in deadly crossfire, and each time he had pushed Aavielle in her stroller to their memorials.â€Mini-me,â€ he called her, because she had his dark eyes, his rounded cheeks and his throaty laugh, and because she went with him everywhere during the day while her mother worked. Charles had already bought her a LeBron James T-shirt to match his own. Charles walked back toward the apartment where he lived with his girlfriend and Aavielle, but his cellphone rang before he could reach the door. It was his mother, who had promised to call from Save-A-Lot to give him a choice of frostings. â€œTell me they got the buttercream,â€ Charles said as soon as he answered the phone, but on the other end he heard muffled screams. â€œWhat is it?â€ he asked, and now he thought he could make out sirens and hysterical sobs. â€œWhat? What?â€ he shouted.â€Itâ€™s the baby,â€ his mother said, finally. â€œShe got shot.â€
During a terrible year of gun violence and racial tension in Cleveland, in a historically bad month, Charles began sprinting from his apartment toward the cityâ€™s latest crime scene. There, in the fading daylight of rush hour, was his Oldsmobile, riddled with bullets because shooters had mistaken it for a different car. There, sprawled out on the hood, was Aavielle. One of the bullets had pierced the edge of her plastic car seat, hitting her in the side. Charlesâ€™ mother had lifted her onto the hood to administer CPR, and with each chest compression blood trickled out from the babyâ€™s nose. â€œOh god!â€ Charles screamed, and he thought he saw Aavielle lift her eyes at the familiar sound of his voice. But when he picked her up, she was limp in his arms.He cradled her at the crime scene, at the hospital and then for a long while after doctors said there was nothing more they could do. Her skin started to gray. Blood soaked into her sweater. Charles asked doctors to bring more blankets so he could continue to hold her, and as he rocked his daughter at the hospital, the leaders of a city inured to gun violence began repeating Aavielleâ€™s age on the nightly news and grieving not only for her but for what Cleveland had become.â€When are we going to stop counting babies being killed in our streets for nothing?â€ police chief Calvin Williams said that night. â€œThis pervasive violence is crippling us at our core,â€ said Marcia Fudge, a U.S. congresswoman. In those first few hours on Oct. 1, one voice in Cleveland resonated loudest of all. LeBron James was the one person in the city who remained equally popular with politicians, big corporations and residents on the Lower East Side. For more than a decade, he had moderated his political voice, usually speaking in universalities, but on this night he heard about Aavielle and reacted on social media with raw indignation.
â€Like seriously man!!!!â€ he wrote on Twitter to his 23 million followers. â€œA baby shot in the chest in Cleveland. Itâ€™s been out of control but itâ€™s really OOC. Yaâ€™ll need to chill the F out.â€~LeBron James on Twitter
Then, three minutes later:
â€œCâ€™mon man. Letâ€™s do and be better! This canâ€™t be the only way.â€~ LeBron James on Twitter
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