Growing up between abandoned buildings and empty lots, Xavier Usanga brought love and affection whenever he could. Those who knew him say he gave off joy like it was a superpower, enveloping everyone he knew in the glow.
Last month, a day before starting second grade, the seven-year-old was shot dead in crossfire outside his home. His story is grimly familiar in St Louis, Missouri, a city of more than 300,000 that sits on the west bank of the Mississippi River and where 13 black children have been fatally shot since April.
Had those 13 children died in one fast hail of bullets, that tally would rank in the nation’s 20 deadliest mass shootings. If they had been white, it is likely they would have had more media attention.
Illustration: Constance Chou
Instead, these children died in the dilapidated parts of town most people are told to avoid — sometimes alone, sometimes as family stood helplessly by. In these corners of the city, parents tell their children the loud banging outside is fireworks, but because it is really gunfire, they do not let them outside to see.
Xavier was in his backyard. He was heading back from a neighbor’s house with two of his older sisters — Trinity, 10, and Angel, 12 — when gunshots rang out. The girls ran into their home, where they realized Xavier was not with them, and turned back and found his body under a bush. They told their grandmother he took a deep breath and was gone.
Michael Johnson, a pastor who helped support the family, was close to Xavier and was with his mother to help identify the body. Johnson said Xavier was “a sponge for love — he needed it, he absorbed it.”
“He would never walk into a room without coming to give you a hug, whether you saw him an hour earlier or you saw him two weeks ago,” Johnson said. “He always came, looked at you, and smiled and wanted a hug.”
Xavier’s mother, Dawn Usanga, told the Guardian that Xavier “lit up every room he walked into” and was popular with many people in their neighborhood.
“For seven years old, I don’t know, he was just so innocent, he was sweet, everybody just took to him,” she said. “I think the only thing that gives me any kind of comfort is that St Louis never got to ruin my son,” Usanga said. “Anything could have gotten to him — drugs, the violence, the guns, influences of other kids. Children can get turned around so fast and get running and do the wrong things.”
ACCESS TO GUNS
For at least four years of Xavier’s short life, St Louis has been the murder capital of the US. It has had the highest gun homicide rate per capita of any big city since 2014. This violence disproportionately affects the city’s poor black neighborhoods, and this year children as young as two have become a symbol for how entrenched the city is in violence. St Louis County, the suburbs which border the city, have also seen a high child murder rate with seven children shot dead.
St Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson has offered US$25,000 for information on four of the dead children’s cases, a grand total of US$100,000. The city is also planning to spend US$500,000 on the lauded crime reduction program, Cure Violence, and another US$1.5 million on violence prevention efforts.
The city also has programs to provide food, recreation and jobs to low-income people, as well as large-scale efforts to demolish derelict homes. This year, St Louis plans to tear down 700 homes, and has programs that allow people to purchase homes for US$1.
“It’s a multipronged effort, but we all know this violence is a function of generational poverty and a lack of opportunity and it’s something that St Louis is not immune to just like all these other cities,” said Koran Addo, director of communications for the office of the mayor.
Missouri Governor Mike Parson announced on Sept. 19 that the state would deploy more police to the area and provide prosecutorial assistance. This plan of “targeting violent criminals and getting them off the street” does not include any changes to the state’s lax gun laws, which allow people to carry handguns and rifles without a permit.
There is a deep distrust of police in the city and people in the affected neighborhoods said they cannot see a way out of the problem without addressing the lack of jobs, neglected buildings and drug addiction. Because guns are so easily purchased illegally, there is little faith that strengthening the state’s weak gun control laws would resolve the issue.
“More young men have access to guns than wallets in their back pockets,” said James Clark, vice-president of community outreach for the not-for-profit Better Family Life. “That’s a major issue, but now, it’s one thing to have a gun, it’s another thing to be willing to pull that trigger.”
Clark said family and community structures in the city’s impoverished neighborhoods have disintegrated so much that things have become more violent, fueled by a lack of hope and support.
Better Family Life runs a gun violence de-escalation program, providing mediation in interpersonal conflicts that could result in gun violence, and a Clean Sweep program that works to demolish abandoned and blighted buildings that have overtaken the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
“The root cause of violence is poverty. It took us 10 years to all agree on that. It will take at least three generations to eradicate poverty, at least three, and that’s if we started right now,” Clark said.
This constant stream of violence meant that when the first of the 13 children was gunned down this year, there were a few local news reports, then most of the city moved on. As the numbers rose, with children getting caught in crossfire while playing outside their houses or killed inside their own homes, the anxiety grew.
The first and youngest child to die this year in St Louis city was two-year-old Kayden Johnson. He and his mother, Trina’ty Riley, were found dead in their home in May. Elijah Johnson, the father of the child, told KMOV4, a St Louis TV station, that he was heartbroken after the shooting.
“Just a lot of pain, it was unbelievable,” Johnson said. “I could not believe it.”
There have been no public developments in the case on who killed Kayden and his mother, nor has there been much progress in finding who is responsible for the other deaths.
Only one of the cases has seen someone charged with homicide — the killing of Sentonio Cox, 15.
Sentonio, who was retreating with his hands up when he was shot, according to court papers, was found with multiple gunshot wounds in a lot down the street from his home. He was the second of his mother’s six children to be fatally shot.
“It’s like a nightmare that you can’t get over, like a bottomless pit,” Roxyzanna Edwards, his mother, told local TV station KSDK.
Police have charged two men, aged 47 and 54, with Sentonio’s murder.
The same weekend Sentonio was killed, Nyla Banks, 10, and Jurnee Thompson, eight, were also fatally shot. No one has been charged in the deaths of the two young girls.
Kim Gardner, the circuit attorney for the city of St Louis, said the city and state needed to take this systemic cycle of trauma into account to combat gun violence.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this, we can’t prosecute our way out of this. We have to figure out why a person is picking up a gun and shooting into a crowd,” she said.
She is the first black female prosecutor in St Louis and has faced severe criticism while promoting progressive criminal justice reform.
The state has prioritized policing in responding to gun violence, and directly challenged efforts to address poverty, such as when Missouri’s government voted to lower the minimum wage from US$10 to US$7.90 an hour in 2017 (voters passed a law in November last year to increase it again).
In the past decade, Missouri has also made it easier for people to obtain guns. In the state, anyone 19 or older can legally carry a concealed weapon without a concealed-carry permit or any training. These changes coincided with a 16 percent increase in homicides over a six-year period where the nationwide gun homicide rate decreased.
T-Dubb-O, a rapper and activist born and raised in the city, said he wishes people had another way to solve their problems than violence, but when he was shooting at people and being shot at as a teenager, it was often the only way to keep himself alive.
The number of illegal weapons flooding the streets would not be changed much by stricter laws, T-Dubb-O said, adding that he does not leave the house without a gun. He, like others, also does not think it would address the underlying issues driving someone to use a gun to resolve a conflict.
“I can’t say why somebody shouldn’t do what they do if they feel hopelessness, I don’t know their mental state or how to stop that, but what I do know is we can stop those conditions,” he said.
He does outreach with the group HandsUp United, a collective which provides food, technical classes and social justice education to the community. As a father of four, T-Dubb-O is also focused on keeping his children away from the chains of poverty.
“I don’t care what I have to do,” he said. “Even if it means going back to selling drugs, I’ll make sure I have life insurance, and if somebody kills me, then they’ll have enough money to survive and go off to a nice college and I got a wonderful woman who will make sure they go at it in the correct way.”
T-Dubb-O and his partner, Rika Tyler, were part of the uprising in Ferguson, a suburb of St Louis which attracted international attention in August 2014 after a white police officer, Darren Wilson, fatally shot the unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Tyler lived five minutes away from where Brown was killed and went to the scene as the teenager’s body lay in the street for four hours.
She said the intense protests that followed were about more than just Brown: It was an expression of frustration with how the black community in St Louis, and across the US, encounters more policing, fewer job opportunities, worse health outcomes and lower-quality schools.
“It was just the straw that broke the people’s back,” Tyler said.
Missouri hosted one of the most prominent legal controversies about slavery when Dred Scott, enslaved at birth, fought slavery in the US Supreme Court. The court ruled in 1857 that Scott and other African Americans cannot be considered American citizens, setting up course for the civil war.
In the early 1900s, just 50 years after slavery was abolished in the US, St Louis voted in favor of an ordinance that prevented someone from moving into a neighborhood if it was predominantly home to people of another race. Though the US Supreme Court struck down the ordinance, city planners had families in certain neighborhoods sign documents saying they would never sell to an African American family. Housing discrimination was outlawed in 1968, but in practice segregation persists.
Weaving between blocks in St Louis, and the suburbs that surround it in St Louis County, the racial and class divides are blatant. In the city’s JeffVanderLou neighborhood, the life expectancy is 18 years lower than it is in the wealthy, majority-white suburb it borders, Clayton, according to a 2014 report.
In Clayton, which is in St Louis County, 78 percent of residents are white and the median household income is US$90,000, while in JeffVanderLou, 95 percent are black and the median household income is US$15,000.
Drive about nine minutes from the city’s ritzy Central West End and the clothing boutiques, artisanal ice-cream shops and cafes quickly give way to crumbled homes and emptied streets. Sex workers and people with drug addictions occupy the playgrounds and children are mostly kept indoors.
Yolanda Whittier, a 29-year-old mother of two, said she could move out of a neighborhood where shootouts happen outside their front door, to one where you can only hear the sound of bullets, if she got a job that paid an extra US$200-US$250 a week. She was offered such a position, but could not take it after failing the required eye exam because she has not been able to afford glasses since losing her security guard job in May.
“I never thought I’d be living like this,” she said, as her five-year-old, Mark, and three-year-old, Kenzi, buzzed around her legs.
When Whittier pulls back the heavy, dark curtains covering her living room windows, she sees one potential answer to some of the problems in her community. An unusually manicured lawn and newly built apartment building stand facing an old home that looks like it has been bombed.
“Better buildings, better people,” she said.
‘HE’S STILL MY BABY’
Seven-year-old Xavier’s case is also one of the few to lead to an arrest. Malik Ross, 27, was arrested for theft and told police he shot Xavier accidentally after seeing men with a gun on a nearby porch.
“It was them or me,” he told police. He has not been charged with the murder.
Xavier’s grandmother, Mary Norwood, has lived in Ferguson for 12 years, a few blocks from where Brown was killed on West Florissant Avenue. She avoids driving down the busy thoroughfare because it still reminds her of the smoke, smell and noise from the weeks of protests.
For 66 years, she has watched family and friends go to prison, struggle with addiction and drop dead. One nephew was fatally shot by police and Norwood was addicted to drugs and alcohol until 1993. A survivor of domestic abuse, she is now studying for her third master’s degree.
After Xavier was shot, Norwood took care of her youngest granddaughters, who witnessed the shooting, while their parents were at the hospital, inconsolable after his death.
Norwood said the trio of kids “had more energy than the law allows” and were known in the neighborhood as the “welcoming committee” because they would greet new neighbors and share what they learned with the rest of the neighborhood.
Norwood fears for the man responsible for Xavier’s death.
“I am a mother of the race,” she said. “Even if he killed my baby, he’s still my baby.”
She is worried that if the assailant goes to prison, he will be put on a path of more destruction and suffering.
“If nothing came out of Xavier’s death except the young man was able to look and see the error of his ways and that changed him in some kind of way, then Xavier’s death wasn’t in vain,” Norwood said.
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