It was a holiday weekend, the evening before Independence Day, and 16-year-old Asir Brown and his teenage friends were hanging out in the backyard of his aunt’s house in South Philadelphia, after a barbecue with a mixed group that included Brown’s football coach. The event had been a typical Philly affair, the kind of casual cookout common in a neighborhood where the sweet smoke of charcoal fires drifts over homes all summer long.
The peace was shattered a few ticks before midnight, when a dark-colored car stopped in the alley on the other side of a black wrought-iron fence that bordered the yard. A gunman in the backseat opened fire. A dozen rounds hit the gate and the house. Another struck Asir, puncturing his back. When the shooter finished, the car disappeared into the dark, leaving Asir clinging to life on the cool concrete patio. He was the only person wounded.
A neighbor who heard the shots, Saleem Jones, and his wife, Danielle, rushed over. Arriving within minutes, the couple found a distraught crowd surrounding Asir, who was lying face-up on the patio. Saleem ordered everyone to move so Danielle, a nurse, could perform CPR. She knelt down and tried to keep Asir’s heart beating while his friends cried out for him to hang on.
“I really wasn’t thinking, I just knew it was a young boy,” Danielle Jones, 30, says. “I had to help.”
As police cars pulled up, she checked Asir’s pulse. She didn’t find one. He was pronounced dead at a hospital less than 40 minutes later.
There are few pastimes as all-American as the summer barbecue. Three out of every four homes in the U.S. are equipped with a grill or a smoker. Cookouts offer an opportunity for people to partake in the most basic of human social activities, eating a meal together, while also (ideally) enjoying sunny, warm weather. They are the consummate family, and neighborhood, affair.
In some places in the U.S., especially in African-American communities where gun violence is a scourge that routinely upends lives and destroys families, cookouts are yet another place where people die.
So far this spring and summer, at least 19 people have died and another 52 have been injured in shootings at cookouts, according to an examination by The Trace of news and police reports. The overwhelming majority of victims were black. The first shooting happened on March 9; the most recent, July 4.
The profile of the typical victim so far this year closely resembles that of who is most likely to be shot in gun violence in incidents across America. More than half of all homicide victims in the U.S. each year are young men. Two-thirds of these, like Asir, are black.
The cookout holds special cultural significance in black communities, says Adrian E. Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. That so many gatherings are marred by gunplay is a corruption of a vital community event, he says.
During slavery, African Americans were often forced to cook barbecue for social gatherings, Miller says. After emancipation, they used those learned culinary skills to their advantage, setting up barbecue joints around the South. During the Great Migration in the early and mid-1900s, African Americans spread their cooking methods around the country, and the popularity of barbecue soared.
Not that they were always tame affairs.
Old newspaper accounts show that barbecues, fish fries, and other large social outings occasionally became violent — especially when alcohol was involved, Miller says. But “with the availability of guns that we have today, what may have been a knife-fight or just some shouting a hundred years ago is an actual shooting now,” he says, “and it’s terribly sad.”
Bullets have ripped through at least 26 cookouts this year, at gatherings in cities and towns from Florida to Alaska. There were six shootings over the Fourth of July weekend alone, resulting in five deaths and 16 injuries. Sixteen of the shootings identified by The Trace had more than one victim, and seven shootings had more than three victims.
Some incidents involved drive-by shooters or gunmen who fired into crowds, striking women and children. Others involved arguments that boiled into bloodshed or people intent on settling a score.
In Florida, a 5-year-old boy and a 20-year-old woman were wounded while fleeing from a gunman who opened fire outside a “Stop the Violence” barbecue in Avon Park. In Troy, North Carolina, two brothers were killed and a third man was injured when an argument at a Father’s Day cookout escalated into a shootout. In Maryland, four people, ages 12 to 24, were injured when someone shot a group grilling at a block party in Northeast Baltimore. Earlier this month, seven people in their 20s were hurt when a man who had been denied entry into a Brooklyn cookout fetched his gun and exacted revenge on the crowd.
Warm weather inexorably draws Americans outside to their grills, making it easier for assassins to pinpoint their marks. That’s what happened in the Pittsburgh suburb of Wilkinsburg in March, when a family capitalizing on unseasonably warm temperatures threw a backyard cookout and were attacked by two gunmen seeking retribution for the earlier slaying of a friend. Six people were killed and three were wounded. The death toll included a pregnant woman and her unborn son, who were buried in the same casket.
It has been an especially bloody spring and summer in Philadelphia, where at least 10 people have been killed or injured at three separate cookouts.
Police have not released a motive for Asir’s killing, which took place in the Grays Ferry section of South Philadelphia, and it wasn’t clear whether he was the intended target. In the aftermath of the shooting, family and friends said that the act was fueled by a spat that developed over social media — a common occurrence.
“It’s stupid,” said James Harris, who coached Asir’s Pop Warner football team, and was present the night of the shooting. “It’s really stupid.”
Residents said his death was only the latest spasm of violence in a community that was already shell shocked.
One woman, who first learned about the killing from a reporter who knocked on her door, broke into tears as she spoke about how many young people had been cut down.
“This is not how I grew up. You could have a cookout and play outside,” she said.
The public housing development where Asir was shot was once named the Tasker Homes. In the early 2000s, the Philadelphia Housing Authority tore down the crumbling World War II-era projects and built lower-density townhomes, rebranding the neighborhood with a more genteel-sounding moniker: the Greater Grays Ferry Estates. Housing chief Carl Greene declared that the new homes would “become a force for unity among all residents of this community.”
Despite the improvements, residents still call the development “Tasker.” And while by some indications the neighborhood is safer than it was two decades ago, homes with tidy green lawns are bordered by sagging row houses and trash-strewn streets where armed young men still turn guns on each other with regularity.
Data published by the Philadelphia Inquirer shows that violent crime in and around Grays Ferry increased more than 16 percent in the first six months of 2016 over the same period last year. Crime remains so pervasive in the area that the local Chinese restaurant serves Styrofoam containers of chicken and rice from behind bulletproof glass.
Martin Derbyshire, a Philadelphia police captain, says gentrification has caused declines in robberies and burglaries in Grays Ferry. But shootings have remained a stubbornly persistent problem, at least in part because area gangs are at war with rivals in the nearby Wilson Park project.
“Kids who grew up in one area don’t get along with kids who grew up in another area,” Derbyshire says, “and that’s historical, and it goes back generations.”
Several current and former residents have stories about nearly getting caught in the crossfire as feuds play out in the streets: One remembered running outside to rescue her kids when gunfire erupted. Another recalled sitting on his couch when a bullet struck the wall inches above his head.
“This is the O.K. Corral,” says a woman in a car idling outside her home. Like many others interviewed for this story, she declined to give her name for fear of retaliation.
Sharney Richburg, 45, said her television stopped a bullet about a year ago that surely would have hit her daughter. In another incident, a “little baby” was gambling outside when he got shot in the foot, she says.
“He was like 6 years old,” Richburg said, in an interview in her living room.
“He was 8,” corrected one of her grandsons, who sat with his feet dangling off the couch.
Asir lived in North Philadelphia, a half-hour drive away. But he played for the South Philly Hurricanes football team, and often visited his aunt.
Harris, his coach, said Asir was a wide receiver and safety who wanted to play one more season before he aged out of the league. Harris and other adults who knew Asir said he was a gifted athlete who dreamt of going pro.
“He was a good kid, always laughing, good spirit. He had respect,” Harris said, adding later: “He’s like a son to me.”
As in other dangerous neighborhoods, sports in South Philadelphia are seen as a way for kids to escape lives of crime. “It’s either youth sports or the corner,” said Deborah Bennett, who helps manage the Hurricanes football program.
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One day after the shooting, Annie Washington, 82, invited her daughter and a local pastor, Reverend Annie Bradshaw, over to grill hot dogs and sausages on her back patio. Washington’s house connects to Asir’s aunt’s, which had holes in the rear siding and gashes in the gate from the previous night’s shooting.
With the grill smoking outside, Washington and the other two women sat in the living room and prayed. Bradshaw implored God to support Asir’s mother. “There’s a mother grieving right now over losing her child,” she said, her eyes closed and head shaking back and forth.
At one point, a young girl came inside and sat alone on the couch near the staircase, burying her face in her hands.
Bradshaw thanked God for sparing her grandson, who she said was standing next to Asir when the gunfire started. He told her bullets passed so close that he could feel their heat.
The next evening, dozens of Asir’s friends and family members crowded onto the front lawn of his aunt’s house for a vigil in his honor. Jones, the nurse who tried to save Asir, joined them. Less than 48 hours earlier she had washed Asir’s blood off her hands.
Standing on the front porch, Asir’s family called for the violence to end and urged anyone who knew about the shooting to speak up.
The crowd counted down from three before releasing dozens of black and white balloons into the sky. One of the teen’s friends collapsed in tears on the grass.
Even though residents of Grays Ferry expressed reservations about their kids playing outside, the aroma of grilled food lingered in the air. The cookouts went on.
“You can’t stop living,” a woman said.
[All photos by Dave Londres for The Trace]