I grew up in a small town called De Soto about an hour south of St. Louis. The place was quiet. We left our keys in the mailbox. Most of the kids I went to school with were white, and the median annual income was around $30,000.
At least once a month, we’d drive to St. Louis to go shopping or eat out. But there were parts of the city that we never went to, that I only heard about on the news as another young black face flashed across the screen, earning a few seconds of airtime, at most. Another young man who’d lost his life to poverty, to crime, to guns.
I didn’t know that when I was on the highway to Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, I was on roads that pass over neighborhoods filled with burnt and crumbling buildings and empty lots littered with trash. I’d learn later about the legacy of white flight, abandonment and poverty that has led to concentrations of crime and, more specifically, gun homicide.
According to an analysis of Gun Violence Archive data and St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department data, in 2016, approximately 93 percent of Missouri’s gun homicides occurred in predominantly urban counties. Over 40 percent occurred in St. Louis City alone, where the population makes up only 5 percent of the state. Within St. Louis, almost 70 percent of homicides occurred in North St. Louis, where the population is around 94 percent black and is still suffering from the legacy of segregation. And more than one in five happened in just three neighborhoods: The Greater Ville, Jeff Vanderlou and Wells-Goodfellow.
Most people don’t remember Jamyla Bolden, the 9-year-old girl who was doing her homework when she was shot on her mother’s bed in Ferguson in 2015. Nor do they remember 21-year-old Courtney Williams, who was shot and killed a year earlier while he was driving down Kensington Avenue in North St. Louis on Christmas Eve.
Missouri’s legislature has made it easier to acquire, carry, and use guns over the past decade. Most recently, the state eliminated permitting and training requirements for concealed handgun carriers, after a “stand your ground” law took effect last fall. The lawmakers who voted for those changes represent districts that are on average 93 percent white and 43 percent rural, not the few city neighborhoods where the vast majority of gun homicides are concentrated.
Over the past few months, St. Louis representatives have introduced bills to combat the changes. One bill called for mandatory reporting of a lost or stolen firearm; another for a dedicated youth violence prevention day. Neither bill has even received a hearing.
In the meantime, the burden remains heavy on the state’s poorest and most disadvantaged communities. But more and more, some St. Louis residents are also making sure that the disproportionate gun violence that they live with is no longer invisible to the rest of the state.
When I visited James Clark at his office inside an old elementary school, he told me that we come from two different worlds. Clark grew up in North St. Louis and returned in the late 1980s after serving in the Army. A framed picture of him in uniform hangs on the wall in his office.
“I believe in maps,” Clark says as he unrolls one and slams his desk with his hand for emphasis. “Give me a map, and let’s go take some territory.” But Clark’s not talking about going to war, he’s talking about addressing gun violence in his community: “We’ve got to get surgical. We’ve got to look at the neighborhoods where crime and violence are more prevalent, and we’ve got to have a boots-on-the-ground approach, door-to-door, direct neighborhood engagement.”
Clark works as the vice president of community outreach at Better Family Life, a community nonprofit on Page Boulevard in North St. Louis. In 2005, the organization bought and renovated what used to be Emerson Elementary School, which closed because of population decline in the neighborhood. The 60,000-square-foot stone building and its manicured lawn provide one of the few reminders of a once-thriving community. Today, several of the old, brick buildings on Page have boarded-up windows. Grocery stores and restaurants are scarce.
There were 15 homicides on Page Boulevard between 2008 and 2016, according to data from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. That’s roughly two people killed annually on a single four-mile stretch of road.
“The life’s trajectory of a young boy or a young girl should not be established at birth based on the neighborhood that they were born into,” Clark says. “We have volumes and volumes of publications in St. Louis that point to the same side of town, that point to the same zip codes and that point to the same blocks.”
After more than 25 years working to try to prevent shootings, Clark got fed up. He felt like people weren’t talking about gun violence the way they should be, neither within his community nor outside of it. So, in 2015, he started making signs. On them, the St. Louis Arch stretches across the white cardboard background, framing a message in black lettering: “We must stop killing each other.” The signs ended up in the yards of more than 14,000 homes in North St. Louis.
In December 2016, Better Family Life took another step, setting up a phone line that people could call to enlist the organization in de-escalating conflicts. People started calling. They knew someone who might get shot or who might shoot someone, but didn’t know where to turn for help. They didn’t trust the police. When they did, they say they saw no results.
Better Family Life was contacted by a Pizza Hut employee who was afraid the brother of her manager and another co-worker were going to shoot each other. Another caller tipped Clark’s group to a man who was ready to shoot someone at a bus stop for disrespecting his wife.
These aren’t the stereotypical gang wars or drug disputes. They’re conflicts among people that escalated because of factors like toxic stress and poverty and were made potentially lethal by easy access to guns. Before, the people who knew about the conflicts had no one to tell. But now, they have Clark.
He and his outreach specialists take a different approach to each situation, searching for the lever that will resolve the fight before one party reaches for a gun.
They might call the mother of the potential shooter, or go visit the potential victim at home. Some days, as many as 10 new calls come in. “When this phone rings, whatever I’m doing stops,” Clark says. Better Family Life has expanded its de-escalation efforts to include Tuesday evening sessions at four area churches where people can talk to trained counselors about potential gun violence. By the end of last year, Clark says, the effort resolved 15 conflicts that might have resulted in gun violence.
One weekend, a 17-year-old boy was worshiping at New Horizon Seventh Day Christian Church in North St. Louis County, just a few miles west of Page Boulevard. The next weekend, he was dead. The church’s pastor, B.T. Rice, felt like he was presiding over almost as many funerals for young gunshot wound victims as he was Sunday services. Like Clark, he felt compelled to do something. So he founded the St. Louis Initiative to Reduce Gun Violence, or SIRV. Its goal is to bring together all the different people who are working to end gun violence, from police chiefs to community workers to members of the faith community.
Rice soon realized the scale of the problem he was taking on. “I’ve reached the point where I can’t straighten it all out because it ain’t going to get straightened out just by me,” he says as he sits with Matt Brummund and Steven Parish, who both work with SIRV, at his office at New Horizon Christian Church. He’s talking about the neighborhood’s staggeringly high shootings rates, but he’s also talking about the social and economic disparities that contribute to cycles of violence.
To the west of the church is Kinloch, a once-vibrant black community developed in the early 1900s as a haven for those who’d been excluded from other neighborhoods by racist policies and discriminatory lending practices. Kinloch is now almost completely abandoned. Lambert-St. Louis International Airport started buying up nearby property in the 1980s to expand, and the population has plummeted since. Most of the residents who remain live in poverty. In 2015, the estimated median household income was $13,542, according to the American Community Survey.
A few miles farther to the north is Ferguson, where less than two years ago the death of Michael Brown sparked a movement against the disproportionate number of young, black men getting shot and killed by the police.
Historically, loose incorporation rules made it easy for whites to create tiny municipalities just outside the city. When the city desegregated, many blacks left the confines of North St. Louis City for these inner suburbs. But as blacks moved in, whites moved out, taking centuries worth of accumulated wealth and educational advantages with them. So once again, the black community was isolated. Rice works in many of these communities just outside the city limits.
Rice, Parish, and Brummund rattle off a list of issues that come with that history: access to health care, grocery stores, transportation and jobs. Brummund is a white FBI agent who collaborates closely with SIRV. He’s got two kids who attend a St. Louis public school where the parent-teacher association struggles to attract and retain members. “Something that you would just take for granted at most schools isn’t there,” Brummund says.
Parish runs an in-school program through SIRV that teaches kids about topics like toxic stress and conflict resolution. “We’re talking about the age-old issue of what happens in oppressed, depressed, and suppressed communities,” he says. “Violence is just an outgrowth.”
This is exactly the type of conversation Rice wanted to start when he founded SIRV. Its goal is to bring together different people who are working to end gun violence.
“Pastor (Rice) can get everyone in the same room,” Brummund says. “When you get around the issue of gun violence, it can be very divided. The police perceive it one way, and that community that’s suffering from the violence feels it a different way, and they’re kind of at odds.”
The members of SIRV think improving police-community relations through ride-along programs and door-to-door relationship building is key to reducing gun violence. “[What] we generally encounter is their fear of the police — and we’ve got to dispel that fear,” Rice says.
Outside of city neighborhoods plagued by shootings, people don’t understand the problem or how complex it is, he says. “If you tell them the police acted inappropriately, they say, ‘You must be crazy.'”
The disconnect affects the way the legislature regulates guns. Rice believes lawmakers should be working to cut the flow of guns into his community, rather than allow easier access, but the people making those decisions aren’t the ones impacted by the results. “They don’t have to have the kids get on the floor once they hear ‘pop, pop, pop’ in the middle of the night,” he says.
Sam Dotson, a former chief of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, sits on SIRV’s board. Last fall, he spoke against the state’s adoption of “stand your ground” and the deleting of the training and permit requirement for concealed-gun carriers. “When you take that away, you take away their proficiency in the weapon,” he says in a phone interview. “You take away their understanding of how to interact with law enforcement. I really believe that it leaves everybody in the community more at risk, makes our job more dangerous and, at the end of the day, I think that we see more violence, not less violence.”
Almost a decade after I left my quiet, small town south of St. Louis, not much has changed. After watching the nightly news, people still forget the names and faces of the countless young black men killed by firearms in North St. Louis city and county. The people who live south of Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis still rarely cross into the northern neighborhoods. And the racial and poverty divisions between the two remain frozen.
But Christine Ilewski is trying to change that with art.
A mile away from New Horizon Christian Church, where Pastor Rice preaches, five quilts hang in a gallery on the University of Missouri-St. Louis’s North Campus. The hand-painted portraits, mostly of young black faces, are tied together with black ribbon to form each quilt. On the other side of the room, cardboard cut-outs of outstretched arms stick up from a pile of dirt. “Hands up, don’t shoot” reads a sign.
The exhibit’s sculptures and paintings highlight the disproportionate loss of black life to guns. Most allude to the recent unrest in Ferguson, only a few miles from here. But Ilewski’s quilts highlight a different part of the conversation, something, she says, that didn’t receive as much attention in the aftermath of the Ferguson protests: All the young, black kids who die every single day because of gun violence.
The Faces Not Forgotten project is Ilewski’s way of healing. Her father shot himself when she was 20 years old; 27 years later, in 2009, one of her close friends was fatally shot. These losses prompted her to start painting portraits of young people in St. Louis who’d been killed by firearms. She’s now expanded the project to cities across the country, recruiting local artists to paint similar portraits.
One goal of the project is to fight misconceptions about young gun-violence victims and their families. “People think they must have been in trouble — dealing drugs,” she says. But “so many are in community college, top-performing students.” She’s frustrated that lawmakers aren’t doing more to help them and that the general population isn’t paying more attention. She’s doing her part through art.
The portraits are also meant to give comfort to the victims’ families. “People who get hand-painted portraits are politicians and famous people,” Ilewski says. “The premise of the whole project is that a hand-painted portrait is a sign of dignity and honor.”
And she hopes to empower people, to cause the people driving by and looking past the problem to pause and take action. “Just … looking at a wall of faces, I feel empowered more to say, ‘Stop it. Look at this. This is what is happening,’” she says. “How can you look at these faces and look away?”
[Data analysis and map by Erin McKinstry and Chen Chang]