A young boy visits a makeshift memorial on November 23, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, a St. Louis suburb where Michael Brown was killed by a police officer. Since April 2019, at least a dozen black children have been shot and killed in St. Louis. | Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
At least a dozen black children have been shot and killed in the city since April. Their deaths are part of a larger problem.
It’s been a deadly summer for black youth in St. Louis.
Since April, at least 12 children — ranging from ages 2 to 16 — have been killed in fatal gun violence incidents. All but one of the cases have languished with few updates and no suspects. In 2018, 19 kids were killed in the St. Louis metropolitan area; so far in 2019, at least 18 have been killed.
The shootings fit into a larger problem with homicides in cities like St. Louis, which has reported the nation’s highest big-city murder rate every year since 2014. The recent murders are affecting black children and teenagers living in predominantly black neighborhoods, several of which struggle with high crime rates and poverty.
The wave of deaths in St. Louis has seen increased national attention in recent days, due in part to an August 24 press conference, in which Mayor Lyda Krewson announced that police would offer a $100,000 in rewards for information in some of the cases. The money breaks down into $25,000 for each of four recent cases involving the death of a child under 10. The reward will be available until September 1.
Krewson, who made the announcement just one day after the death of Jurnee Thompson, an 8-year-old killed shortly after a community football jamboree, says that the sizable reward and limited deadline is intended to encourage people with information to come forward as quickly as possible. “The message to the shooters is now there will be a significant incentive for anyone with information that could lead to your arrest,” she told reporters.
Several issues have been blamed for the current crisis. Some local politicians say the violence is partly fueled by Missouri’s “permitless carry” gun law, which allows adults who have not been convicted of a felony to possess and carry firearms without training or a concealed carry permit.
Community organizers argue that local officials and police officers care less about the deaths of black children, leading police to spend less effort in trying to solve the cases. Law enforcement argues that the spate of killings is the result of emboldened criminals, and has been exacerbated by community members’ hesitance to share information with police. Residents counter that they don’t trust the police because officers don’t solve cases in their communities, leaving them to deal with situations on their own.
At a bare minimum, there is a deep-seated lack of trust between the community, law enforcement, and elected officials in St. Louis — a problem that has also emerged in other American cities where majority-black neighborhoods grapple with poverty and violence.
Still, the deaths have fueled demands for something to be done. The mayor has asked for increased assistance from the state, and the police department says that it will increase officer overtime and assign more detectives to the cases. Local politicians have also turned to Missouri’s GOP-led state legislature, with black lawmakers calling for their colleagues to pass new gun control measures. National politicians like Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke have also weighed in, saying that the shootings are a powerful reminder of the “of the individual lives lost” to gun violence every day in America.
Every year, nearly 40,000 human beings lose their lives to gun violence. That number is so incomprehensibly large—so tragic—we lose sight of the individual lives lost. So tonight, I want to focus on one city, where an 8 year-old and a 15 year-old were shot dead this weekend. https://t.co/Z7UYnr6p4B
— Beto O’Rourke (@BetoORourke) August 27, 2019
The St. Louis shootings have called new attention to a number of concerns that are found in other areas across the country, concerns about race, poverty, crime, policing, and gun violence and how these issues effects on communities of color. And with the deaths of several children in the national spotlight, the question now is what can be done about it.
Since April, at least 12 black children and teenagers have died
As CNN reports, the recent string of deaths dates back to April, when 2-year-old Kayden Johnson was found dead in his home alongside his mother. The deaths are being investigated, but no arrests have been made.
In the months since then, at least 11 other kids have been killed in various incidents around St. Louis. In May, 16-year-old Kristina Curry died from gunshot wounds shortly after she was found near her former high school. In June, at least five kids and teenagers died, four of them — 16-year-old Jashon Johnson, 3-year-old Kennedi Powell, 11-year-old Charnija Keys, and 16-year-old Myiesha Cannon — were killed in a five-day period from June 8 to June 12. Two weeks later on June 25, 15-year-old Derrel Williams was found on the north side of the city with multiple gunshot wounds. He later died in the hospital.
July 19 brought the death of Eddie Hill IV, a 10-year-old killed when a drive-by shooter opened fire on Hill and his family as they sat on their front porch. August ushered in another wave of young lives lost, including 7-year-old Xavier Usanga, 16-year-old Jason Eberhart, and Thompson, the 8-year-old killed last Friday. On Sunday, one day after Krewson’s August press conference, news broke of the death of 15-year-old Sentonio Cox a short distance away from his home.
— Robert Cohen (@kodacohen) August 13, 2019
This is not a complete list of youth fatalities in the area; the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has been tracking other incidents that occurred before April, and other cases have not been included because the cause of death is still being determined. The city is currently investigating nine of the recent deaths as homicides. Two of the others, that of Keys and Cannon, have been classified as “suspicious sudden deaths,” according to a statement from police spokesperson Evita Caldwell to CNN.
As of now, besides the shared race and age range of the victims, there is nothing fully connecting their cases. In many of the incidents — like that of Kennedi Powell, who was shot in a drive-by shooting as she held a slice of pizza, or Xavier Usanga, who was killed after a bullet pierced his throat as he played with his sisters in his backyard — the children were hit by stray bullets fired during a drive-by shooting or exchanged in a dispute between adults.
In other cases, where the youth were found alone, like that of Derrel Williams and Myiesha Cannon, there are fewer details about what happened to them before their deaths. In at least one case, that of Charnija Keys, the Post-Dispatch has reported that the girl might have died after she accidentally fired her mother’s gun.
Even so, the sheer number, frequency, and seeming randomness of the shootings has put community members on edge. Local residents note that some of the deaths, which saw children killed as a shooter targeted someone else, or shot alongside their parents, suggest that shooters aren’t avoiding harming children. Others argue that the violence feels more widespread. “It’s like this neighborhood itself has become a target,” Nyeshia Haymore, Kennedi Powell’s mother, told the Post-Dispatch.
No matter what factors are behind the shootings, residents say that they are concerned that so many have happened, and that almost all have not resulted in an arrest.
“Ask anyone in this city about this and they will tell you that we are going through an extreme time,” Meredith Pierce, a spokesperson for the St. Louis Public Schools, which several of the victims attended, told BuzzFeed News on Monday. “This has been a more violent time than I can ever remember.”
Residents argue that police aren’t doing enough to solve the cases. Police counter that community members need to help.
In recent months, residents in areas where shootings have occurred argue that police aren’t doing enough to make arrests in the cases. And they say that this delay is in part due to the race of the victims, with critics arguing that police care less about solving cases involving black children in predominantly black neighborhoods.
“I just don’t think the police give a damn about little black kids being killed out here like that,” Michelle Jenkins, the aunt of Derrel Williams, told local reporters.
The unsolved deaths have made St. Louis the latest example of a nationwide issue the Washington Post documented in 2018: the difference in homicide clearance rates based on race. The Post’s investigation found that in 52 cities it surveyed, there were “racial inequities in homicide arrest rates no matter the location of the killing: A black homicide was less likely to lead to an arrest than a white homicide in either majority-black neighborhoods or majority-white neighborhoods.” Black victims, the Post noted, were the majority of homicide victims, but they were “the least likely of any racial group to have their killings result in an arrest.”
And as Vox’s German Lopez has written, these disparities create a cycle in which people of color abandon belief that police care about black victims and crimes in black communities. Coupled with mistrust due to police violence and misconduct, this can lead black residents to avoid sharing information with officers. The decrease in information can make it harder for officers to make progress on cases, reinforcing the disparities.
In St. Louis, officers have argued that they are treating all cases equally, and have been calling for community members to come forward.
“This case should be solvable,” St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden said earlier this month when publicly discussing Xavier Usanga’s case. “This can’t be, ‘I’m afraid to talk to the police.’ I’m hoping people will listen to my pleas.”
There is increased pressure on Missouri lawmakers to do something. So far, they have no plans.
As the deaths of black children and teenagers continue to be reported, attention has turned to the Missouri state government. Over the weekend, the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus, a group of 19 African American state legislators, submitted a letter calling for the state’s GOP-led General Assembly to hold a special session on gun violence. The letter specifically called for the assembly to approve a measure allowing municipalities to enact their own gun control measures.
Missouri’s gun laws have been in the news as coverage of the fatal youth shootings intensifies. And one law in particular, the measure allowing anyone 19 or older to legally carry a concealed weapon with no training and no concealed-carry permit, has been highlighted as an example of how easy it is to obtain a gun in the state.
“One size statewide laws do not always serve the best interests of all the residents of our state. Local elected public officials, policing agencies, and our residents must deal with the catastrophic impact of gun violence. We need the freedom to address local solutions,” the letter from the black lawmakers stated.
“We took this action in the wake of tragic deaths of over a dozen children this year,” caucus chair Rep. Steve Roberts said. “We consider this an emergency that demands the attention of the entire General Assembly and the Governor. Action must be taken to stem this rise in gun violence in our cities and to help local law enforcement protect our children.”
On Monday, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson responded, saying that the special session “is not the correct avenue” to discuss gun control measures.
“While the issue of how to reduce violence in our urban areas certainly needs [addressing], there are also many different opinions on how to find a solution,” he said, without offering any alternatives.
Another lawmaker, Missouri State Sen. Dave Schatz, told the Post-Dispatch that he is open to hearing different proposals to address the violence. But he also told the outlet that he hadn’t heard a proposal that would pass the GOP-dominated legislature.
“Obviously, anytime we see a rise in this kind of violence it is a problem,” Schatz said. “But I don’t know if anything is on the horizon. I don’t know if anyone has the answer.”
But for black families in St. Louis, the deaths of local youth is an issue that needs to rise above politics. “The streets are not safe no more, not even for your kids,” Tanisha Smith, the mother of a 6-year-old girl injured in the June shooting that killed Kennedi Powell, told a Fox affiliate in St. Louis. “This is a war zone now.”