Joyce Webb watched her grandson toss a Wiffle ball on the sidewalk in front of her home in north St. Louis and considered the political carnival about to descend on her hometown. Neither candidate at the upcoming presidential debate, she declared, has any idea what life is really like in her beleaguered neighborhood.
“I’d like for them to pick someone’s house over this way and live here for one day,” Webb said.
Boom! Crack! What sounded like a shotgun blast, followed by pistol fire, thundered through the alley behind Webb’s house. Her grandson darted out of sight. Kids who had been strolling down the street eating cups of ice cream began to run.
Webb, 61, was unfazed. “So they hear that stuff right there,” she said, without missing a beat. “So they hear a gunshot in their neighborhood.”
On Sunday, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will spar at Washington University in St. Louis, a city that has earned the distinction as America’s deadliest. Last year, 188 people were murdered, almost all by a gun. The city’s homicide rate — at 59.6 per 100,000 people — is more than three times that of Chicago, which has commanded national attention for its relentless gun violence.
Webb and other residents interviewed the weekend before the debate said they hope their newly elected president will do something to slow the bloodshed. But years of neglect and a murder rate that has soared more than 30 percent in five years has left them pessimistic about the prospect of effective government intervention.
Unemployment is high, the schools consistently receive failing grades, and a culture of lawlessness prevails. At the end of 2015, St. Louis police had only solved about one of every three homicides committed that year.
“It’s a total sea of dysfunction that the powers that be refuse to acknowledge,” said James Clark, the vice president of community outreach for the nonprofit organization Better Family Life.
The location of the debate stage has only fueled residents’ sense of marginalization. Washington University lies on the southern side of Delmar Boulevard, in the more white and affluent St. Louis, removed from the lower-income black neighborhoods in the north and on the city’s periphery.
Gun violence steals so many lives in St. Louis that it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t lost a family member or friend. When the sun goes down, the streets empty.
“By 7 o’clock, when these [street]lights hit, you can hear a pin drop,” said Lavern Turner, 48, who narrowly escaped errant gunfire on her way home from her doctor’s office last year. “Everyone is inside.”
St. Louis’s leaders have described gun violence as an epidemic. Mayor Francis Slay told a local television station last year that the problem had become “outrageous” and vowed to push for 160 more cops to curb crime. But he also said the city needed help from the state and federal government, as well as judges and prosecutors.
Clark thinks St. Louis should be embarrassed to be mentioned in the same breath as Chicago. “We are in a sea of gun violence right now,” he said. “We need to declare a state of emergency in the St. Louis metropolitan area.”
A spate of mass shootings, increasing homicide rates, and incendiary language from the gun lobby and Trump about the threat that a Clinton presidency would pose to the Second Amendment has pushed gun violence to the forefront of the 2016 campaign. Clinton supports expanding background checks to private sales and lifting legal protections that shield gun manufacturers from lawsuits. Trump has vowed to defend people’s right to own firearms and to eliminate gun-free zones, such as those around schools.
For all the talk about gun rights and gun control at the national level, very little has happened legislatively in more than two decades. The action has been at the state level. In the South and Midwest, the gun lobby has reeled off a series of victories. Most recently, in September, the Missouri legislature overrode the governor’s veto of a law allowing gun owners to carry concealed firearms without a permit.
Shawn Davis, 56, says he fears the legislation will lead to more gun thefts, and more guns flowing into illegal markets in his city. Last year, gun owners in St. Louis reported the loss or theft of 843 firearms, an increase of 18 percent over 2014, when 715 were reported stolen, according to police.
“It’s easy to get one,” Davis said of an illegal firearm. A minute later, a blast echoed in the distance. Davis didn’t flinch. “Right there,” he said. “You just heard the gunshot.”
Some St. Louis residents said they were arming themselves because they don’t trust police to protect them — or to mete out street justice in the form of revenge killings, fueling a vicious cycle of tit-for-tat violence.
Corliss Mack, 35, lives in north St. Louis. People, he said, are “shooting out here to survive.”
On Sunday morning, St. Louis awoke to news that two white police officers had shot and critically injured a black 14-year-old boy in the northern Walnut Park East neighborhood. The police said the boy fired at them first, but many residents doubted officers’ version of events. Dozens of neighbors and community activists assembled opposite the yellow tape, hurling indictments at the police.
“Put in your paper that we say, ‘Fuck the police,’” said maone man.
“That’s the attitude they have. But how can you not?” said Louise Tyler, 55, one of the onlookers. “They’re growing up thinking that the police are the enemies. Our community is lost.”
Later that night, detectives stood over a bullet-riddled body on the corner of Natural Bridge Avenue and Farrar Street. A few steps away was a sign that read, “We Must Stop Killing Each Other.” The male victim was lying face-up on the pavement. His cousin, Yolanda McDowell, 43, said he had been gunned down as he walked a woman from the corner bar to her car, probably by a rival gang. Her cousin’s friends would never let his death go unanswered. Retaliation was guaranteed. “Homicide better not go to sleep tonight,” McDowell warned.
The violence has some residents contemplating fleeing St. Louis for good. In July 2015, Shadi Khair was enjoying the grand opening of his convenience store when two robbers approached the counter and shot him twice at point blank range. One year later, Khair suffers from flashbacks. He now carries a gun, and says he wants to sell his store and move this wife and three kids somewhere else.
“When I moved to St. Louis, the first thing my friends told me is, ‘Don’t go to the city of St. Louis,’” Khair said. “I didn’t understand why. But now I know.”
Outreach workers at Better Family Life fan out across St. Louis six days a week trying to encourage neighbors to attend weekly events where they can access to job training, mentoring, and financial help with utilities.
Clark, who oversees the organization’s outreach efforts, is fundraising to increase the number of outreach workers from 11 to 50, he says. The organization has been in talks with local clergy about turning churches into “de-escalation centers,” places where people can settle disputes before their conflicts erupt into violence.
“More young men have guns than wallets,” Clark said. “The only way to stem this is to be in the neighborhoods with guys from the street.”
Demetrius Williams, 38, wants to join Better Family Life’s team of new outreach workers. When he was 21, a robber shot him in the face and both legs. A year later, he was sent to prison after he shot a man in the stomach during another street robbery. While behind bars, Williams earned his GED and shed his old look, cutting his dreadlocks and removing the gold from his mouth. Since his release three years ago, he has launched a landscaping business and become a personal trainer.
“I never thought I’d get shot,” said Williams, whose face still bears a scar from the bullet. “Nobody thinks they’re going to get shot.”
Ernestine Brooks grew anxious when her son, Antonio Perkins, didn’t come home one day last December. She contacted police to file a missing person report. A few hours later, the hospital telephoned with grim news: Her boy had been shot while walking in north St. Louis.
He was in a coma until September 18, when the goofy teenager who loved playing Xbox and wanted to go to college died from his wound. Two weeks later, the hearse carrying his body wound through north St. Louis, swerving past potholes as it passed blocks of boarded up windows and doors, graffitied walls, junk yards, and razor-wire topped chain-link fences. At Laurel Hill Cemetery, pallbearers carried Perkins’s coffin to the grave.
Brooks told a reverend, James Cotton, that she wouldn’t be able to take it if she lost another of her three sons to violence. “So many of our mothers and grandmothers are saying what Ms. Brooks told me,” Cotton lamented. “We’re tired of losing our youth; we’re tired of losing our babies. We’re tired of this.”
Later that day, after the gunfire behind Webb’s house stopped, she watched a group of five boys strolling to the corner store. She paused, and leaned in close. Four years from now, she said, “two of them will be dead.”
Clarification: This article was updated with the exact homicide rate in St. Louis.