For the past two years I've been part of an investigative project, interviewing mothers of murdered children on the north side of St. Louis. The Peace Economy Project (PEP) received a small grant to research gun violence at home about eight months before Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson. We thought we could identify the efforts to stop gun violence in St. Louis and perhaps identify other cities that were doing a better job of community intervention.
Then on August 9, 2014, Mike Brown was killed. He was unarmed and the police left his body in the street for four and a half hours. Young black men and women gathered and kept vigil that night and for weeks to come. Others rioted and Ferguson became a watchword. "Hands up; don't shoot," the marchers chanted.
These events overtook the PEP researchers. We continued to interview mothers, attend marches and events and speak with activists and groups. But an enormity of bad behavior we had not imagined — by the courts, the police, the politicians, even state university faculty — was spotlighted and splashed across Twitter and Facebook by black protesters, gaining entry by its sheer size into mainstream media.
In one sense, PEP has nothing new to offer. However, we have learned from being on the ground the work that we can do.
Meeting the mothers of murdered children
Three years ago, in September of 2013, a 16-year-old boy was murdered in North St. Louis by — nobody knows who. The family told the police their suspicions, but only very recently has the investigation seemed to pick up. PEP members visited the boy's grandmother who had raised him. She showed us photos of him and pictures he had drawn. He was a talented painter and a tattoo artist besides. His grandmother showed us a butterfly on her ankle that he had tattooed. He was just getting started.
By coincidence, the speaker at a forum I attended on school violence in 2015 was the principal of the high school this boy wanted to transfer to because he was afraid he'd been marked at his own school as a witness of the murder of his friend. The principal, who didn't realize anyone in the audience would know this student, told us the story about his applying and her turning him down because of some misbehavior a couple of years earlier. That's the district policy. She described him crying at the denial and her shock weeks later when she learned of his death.
This is one child. PEP board members interviewed two dozen mothers, aunts, grandmothers, brothers, friends and neighbors — and a couple of survivors and at least one shooter. The shooter admitted this in a group interview, in a moment of heightened emotion. He did not give his name and we didn't ask. He said he thought the man wanted to shoot him, so he lay in wait and shot first. The man survived and never identified him to the police. The shooter said he was so deeply disturbed by the experience of actually hurting someone that he got rid of his three guns and has not touched a gun since.
But the mothers, after they had shown us photos and shared tender memories, always told us that the shooters had not been caught and that they worried they were killing more boys and young men. Sometimes the detective called or visited in the early days of the investigation, sometimes they hadn't heard from the detective at all. But the calls ended, and all they had was the son's or daughter's photo on a poster on the Crimestoppers website.
Visiting the Crimestoppers site, stlrcs.org, is overwhelming. At the top, faces of most wanted suspects move past at the rate of four every five seconds. Below, it's the faces of the victims at the same rate of speed. Click on a victim's photo, and a one-line account of the circumstances of his death appears. Click again to see the Crimestopper's color flier in print format with a few more details about the victim, a phone number to call and information about any reward. Family members told us they print these fliers to distribute to neighbors and to post on light poles in the vicinity where the victim was killed, hoping a witness will speak up to the police.
Many people we spoke with want police officers who know the neighborhood. Their perception is that the officers and detectives are outsiders who are doing a job, often not very well. Over and over they expressed hope that witnesses would speak to the police, but they understood the distance between the families, the victims, the witnesses and the perpetrators on the one side and the police on the other.
We learned that feuds are one of the first recurring elements of gun violence. "He had a beef" was the explanation offered over and over — beefs — such as lovers' quarrels, jealously over a partner flirting, anger at someone who told the partner about the flirting, loss of a job, non-payment of an electric bill, parking in the wrong place. We could hear the residual anger in accounts by parties to the feuds. But bystanders were puzzled or resigned that the situation got carried away to the point of guns.
Feuds, we were told, are reported on Facebook. They are passed along by Twitter and Instagram. They are traced by checking a brother's or boyfriend's cell phone records. I was surprised by the regularity of reports of siblings checking each other's phone logs. Homes are small and crowded, and family members know each other's business. They told us in detail their efforts to trace the last movements of the deceased. This closeness has a downside. It may have kept feuds alive, even when one of the parties thought the argument was over.
Availability of guns
Of course, the availability of guns escalates feuds. One time Charlie, my research partner, was present with the family of his mentee when a parking place feud erupted. When participants went to get their guns, Charlie left.
One interviewee told us he'd bought his gun from a policeman who was the brother of a friend of his. A mother bought her gun after her daughter was killed — telling us the daughter's gun had disappeared from her purse after she was shot, taken by the shooter or else by the police. One of the young men was killed, his family thinks, while trying to purchase a gun. Everyone told PEP that it is easy to obtain a gun.
The mothers we spoke with wanted the killers of their children found and punished. They seem to have lost their fear of neighborhood criminals. They sponsor marches and tree plantings, paint murals of their children on building walls, post Crimestopper fliers on telephone poles. They call the detective on the case and they provide tips. But they do not see the police as doing their job. They are very aware that killers of white people are found quickly while the cases of their sons and daughters languish.
However, friends and neighbors are intimidated by the threat that lurks on the street. They don't want to be caught up in the feud or be seen talking to the police. So recently neighborhood organizations and churches have joined with the families to organize marches and rallies and commemorations of the deceased. Everyone hopes that telling the stories of these killings will encourage any witnesses to come forward.
Black wounds matter
Everyone we interviewed or spoke with informally is suffering because of gun violence from loss, injustice and fear. Everyone is experiencing both sorrow and anger. Some are in pain themselves from gunshot wounds. Everyone also suffers from the more ordinary losses in human experience: ill health, family conflict, money issues. Finally, the stress everyone experiences from their experience of racism, both institutional and personal, is beyond calculation.
One question we asked every family was who they turned to when they learned of the killing. Who was there for them immediately, in the funeral planning, and since. Some have found Mothers in Charge or victims' support groups or have church membership to rely on, but others have faced their children's deaths alone.
Community agencies at work
As well as interviewing mothers, we visited community agencies. Along with supporting the wounded and the families of the dead, they operate community centers, food pantries, youth programs and sweet potato plantings; and they collect guns and call for an end to shootings.
This past August, Lisa L. Miller wrote an op-ed for The New York Times, "Black Activists Don't Ignore Crime," in response to Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani, who have accused Black Lives Matter of being absent within the black community, especially when it comes to crime. On the contrary, Miller wrote, black activists are present, working throughout the black community. But on the political stage, be it city, state or federal, they have no clout to compete with police and prosecutors for the money needed to improve schools, create jobs and improve public health, to address the root causes of urban violence.
That's also what we found: the black community is there, struggling on a dozen local fronts to address causes, proximate and remote, of urban gun violence, but the resources are not there. August's St. Louis Magazine describes hundreds of millions of dollars granted in tax abatements to downtown and upper middleclass neighborhoods — dollars that are lost to city operations, poor neighborhoods and city schools.
When I began this research project, I expected to learn details of the killings, the resources that helped the family cope, and the role of the police and prosecutors. I expected to be deeply touched by each experience; I did not go into this project lightly. I did learn and I was moved, not only by what I saw and heard but also by a community appreciation that we were willing to listen.
But I also expected that our research team would recognize further actions that we could do: develop clear findings, publicize those findings, identify and join with strategies others were using to get guns off the streets and publicize those strategies. Instead, we found what the Kerner Commission found in Los Angeles, Detroit and Chicago in 1968 and the Department of Justice found in Ferguson in 2015: that poor schools, few jobs, a community traumatized by the immediate deaths and bullet wounds and the daily predations of racism lead to civil unrest. There's no money and little political will in the white community to get the guns off the street. The black community is present, using what it has.
The Ferguson Commission Report, "Forward through Ferguson: a Path Toward Racial Equity" hopes to be a different kind of report, one that does not sit ignored on a shelf. It has become an organization, staffed by two young black activists who track the promises of community agencies and politicians.
PEP has taken on two recommendations in the Policing Technology section: passage of the Protecting Communities and Police Act and using technology to limit the use of force. We have been touched by violence at home in a way that foreign arms sales and weapons manufacture have never touched us. We are determined to stand with our black brothers and sisters in their work to end gun violence.
[Mary Ann McGivern has been tracking military spending and weapons production in the United States since the '70s. She writes for the Disarmament Times (U.N. Disarmament Working Group) and the Peace Economy Project, where she serves on the board of directors. She is a Sister of Loretto and a member of the Loretto Committee for Peace. She also works for prison reform.]
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