Summer had barely begun when the grim record was set: forty-nine people murdered at a gay nightclub in Orlando, the worst mass shooting in modern American history. Summer’s end brought another unwanted milestone as 85 homicides — 73 of them by gun — gave Chicago a single-month body count unseen in 20 years and pushed the city past its shooting total for all of 2015. In between, in Dallas, another terrible superlative was notched when a sniper’s rifle delivered law enforcement its deadliest day since 9/11.
Now add in gun violence you didn’t hear about. The period between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekend — 93 days — left more than 4,100 Americans dead from gun homicides and unintentional discharges, according to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Gun Violence Archive (GVA). More than 8,650 others were wounded. That’s a daily average of at least 44 dead and 93 injured, a rate slightly greater than last year, when the totals were higher but a quirk of the calendar also made the summer a full week longer.
The stats collectors at GVA scrape their numbers from news reports and law enforcement feeds; the official federal counts, and their racial breakdowns, will be slower to arrive. But the established pattern offers a safe prediction: Roughly 50 percent of those killed will be shown to be men of color, who make up just 6 percent of the population. The disproportionality carries over to victims of the police shootings that fuel a vicious cycle that leaves the residents of some city neighborhoods trusting street justice instead of law enforcement. When a single summer day in an American city can conclude with 30 people shot, you begin to comprehend how it can be that Black, Male America, if measured as a distinct nation, would have the second highest homicide rate in the world.
This disparity — injustice is the better word — is no recent development. But this summer, in fits and starts, it began to become a national story.
“For so long people have said, ‘Gun violence does not affect my community,’” Amber Goodwin, who founded the Community Justice Reform Coalition to enlist more people of color in the fight against gun violence, told The Trace. “For a lot of marginalized communities, this has always affected us. But now other people are saying, ‘Enough is enough.’”
After Orlando, a filibuster launched by Senate Democrats focused on shaming Republicans for siding with the National Rifle Association on the so-called “terror gap”, but over its 15 odd hours it also brought the spotlight to children living in neighborhoods kids where “police sirens and ambulance sirens are their lullaby at night.” House Democrats followed with an even longer sit-in sustained in part by frustrations over everyday killings and led by civil rights leader John Lewis, who wondered, via Twitter, “What’s the tipping point? How many more mothers? How many more fathers need to shed tears of grief, before we do something?” Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, through radically different messages and policy prescriptions, each in their way decried the epidemic of urban gun violence, making it a presidential campaign issue for the first time in memory. Pollsters went to African American and Latino voters to get their take on the crisis. They were told, in so many words, that change cannot come fast enough.
“From the standpoint of someone who studies crime and justice, statistics and gun violence — this is old news,” said Nancy LaVigne, who directs the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “The question is, how is the media covering it, and is the media finally giving it justice?” This summer, the media could answer, “We are working on it.” The New York Times dispatched a corps of reporters to document Chicago’s bloodshed, while a team from the Guardian dug into the racial dimensions of gun violence as part of a six-part series. A pair of writers at Vox, a site with a mandate to explain the news, reported that during the course of the Democrats’ dual acts of political theater, another 136 people were shot, many of them on the same city streets where those police cruisers and ambulances too often wail. The Undefeated, a new site from ESPN, a media company built on coverage of sports, ran its own week-long series and convened a televised town hall on urban shootings and their hidden costs.
Another Times article, picking up where most Americans still begin when they think of gun violence, looked at mass shootings, but through a distinct lens. The stricter definition of the phenomenon, used by the FBI and some journalists, is reserved for events that leave four or more victims fatally shot, a standard that fails to capture hundreds of major shootings each year — such as when 13 people are wounded at a house party in Connecticut, or two people are gunned down and 18 people are injured at a club for teenagers in Florida. In its investigation, the paper set the bar at least four victims, whether killed or not, and reached a searing finding: Across a pool of 358 such shootings, “nearly three-fourths of victims and suspected assailants whose race could be identified were black.”
Despite the progress, most killings still received less media attention than the latest Trump tweet, and at times the candidates’ attention to urban shootings obscured more than it illuminated. As campaign rhetoric got conservatives and progressives arguing about whether the more accurate picture of violent crime in America is a recent spike or a longer downturn, a more meaningful metric — murder inequality — showed how much the risks of being shot vary by race, and just how acute the danger becomes when a person of color is poor.
Return for a moment to those numbers from Chicago, where one particularly awful weekend left the police superintendent Eddie Johnson bereft. “I’m just sick of it,” he told reporters. “There’s no other way to describe it.” It’s true: Things were dire this summer in Chicago, which has recorded more homicides and shooting victims so far this year than New York City and Los Angeles combined. But it’s also true that per capita rates are worse in St. Louis, Memphis, and Detroit, to name just a few. To really understand how gun violence afflicts a city requires looking at the ranges of safety and danger within it. Chicago’s affluent, overwhelmingly white Lincoln Park had two shootings this summer (the first of which targeted a driver and passenger from outside the neighborhood), and none at all in 2015. At a single intersection in Englewood, a neighborhood where the vast majority of residents are black and the poverty rate approaches 50 percent, there have been five people shot this summer and nine since the beginning of the year.
Pick a different city, and you’ll find a similarly cruel mosaic. Milwaukee, for instance. In August, the shooting of an armed black man by a black officer in the city’s Sherman Park neighborhood sparked an uprising that spanned two days and was a long time brewing: The police districts that Sherman Park straddles have murder rates between 13 and 18 times higher than Milwaukee’s downtown.
Citywide, 46 percent of Milwaukee’s blacks live in high-poverty neighborhoods. “We should not lose sight of the fact that we’re talking here mainly about low-income people of color,” said the sociologist William Julius Wilson. “Better-off blacks are much less likely to be victims of violent crime.”
So this story that America began to tune into this summer is a story of privilege, but one where the dividing line falls between security and slain bystanders, peace of mind and homes scarred by pock-marked reminders of close calls. In bullet-torn neighborhoods, summertime pleasures can be chancy endeavors. Grilling with friends on his back porch in South Philadelphia, a 16-year-old boy was gunned down in a drive-by. Two brothers in North Carolina died when an argument during a Father’s Day cookout escalated. Seven people were hurt in Brooklyn when a man angry over being denied entry to a Fourth of July cookout grabbed his gun and fired into the crowd. So far this year, at least 73 people have been shot at cookouts (some of those shootings fell before Memorial Day, when unseasonably warm weather drew victims out to their barbecues and into harm’s way).
That total does not account for 19-year-old Daquarius Tucker of Houston, killed in July when gunfire exploded at an Independence Day block party. Sixteen days later, his brother, Damarcus Tucker, who had served as a pallbearer at Daquarius’s funeral, was killed when a shooter mistook him for someone else. A mother lost two sons in less than a month.
The mother of Arshell Dennis III lost her son because he went to sit on the porch on a warm summer’s night. The nineteen-year-old son of a Chicago police officer, he was set to return to college in New York City in a few days. His mom and sister were watching a movie and sharing a bag of popcorn he’d popped for them. He said he’d be right outside, which is where he was when the gunman fatally shot him in the chest.
Sometimes not even sleep guarantees safety. Montell Ross, 8, and Jayden Ugwuh, 9, were both killed when gunfire poured into their Kansas City, Missouri, home on August 13 and found them in their beds. Mortally wounded, Ross ran to his big brother, Jayson, who was asleep in another room, and snuggled up next to him as he died. In Florida and Ohio, one-year-old babies were shot as they lay in their cribs.
In the aftermath of senseless slayings, communities often seek solace at candlelight vigils held to honor the dead. The attack on the Pulse nightclub brought out thousands of mourners to a park in downtown Orlando, holding homemade signs. “This is a way for us to get closure, to show that we’re not afraid,” said Manny Carames, 44, who woke up after the shooting to frantic phone calls and text messages from friends making sure he was all right. But imagine being part of the America where routine gun violence offers no sanctuary, even to those already grieving.
In July, someone opened fire at a vigil for a 24-year-old homicide victim in West Baltimore, wounding five people — in the same spot where the person being mourned was gunned down. “We only wanted to celebrate my son, and they’re shooting at us,” the victim’s mother told the Baltimore Sun. “What else is it you want? You got my son, and you’re still shooting at us? When will it end?”
In Miami, Florida, a family was coming together to remember a 19-year-old man shot 13 times when a gunman unleashed a volley of bullets into the crowd, killing a 15-year-old boy and a 22-year-old man. Four others were wounded.
On Chicago’s West Side, Ashake Banks has been to more memorials than she can recall since her 7-year-old daughter, Heaven, was killed in 2012. On August 21, Banks was pulling up to her latest vigil — it was for the 14-year-old son of a friend on Chicago’s West Side — when she found herself coming to the aid of yet another victim. A young girl had been shot and was bleeding from a bullet that had pierced her wrist.
“I can’t imagine anyone in this country not seeing this as a shared duty we all have,” said Amber Goodwin, the gun violence prevention group founder who thinks that the summer of 2016 may have marked a shift.
“There are more people saying not just, ‘enough is enough,’ but ‘what are we going to do?’”
[Photo: Loren Elliott/The Tampa Bay Times via AP]