Every day, on average, seven kids and teens are shot dead in America. Election 2016 will undoubtedly prove consequential in many ways, but lowering that death count won’t be one of them. To grapple with fatalities on that scale — 2,500 dead children annually — a candidate would need a thoroughgoing plan for dealing with America’s gun culture that goes well beyond background checks. In addition, he or she would need to engage with the inequality, segregation, poverty, and lack of mental health resources that add up to the environment in which this level of violence becomes possible. Think of it as the huge pile of dry tinder for which the easy availability of firearms is the combustible spark. In America in 2016, to advocate for anything like the kind of policies that might engage with such issues would instantly render a candidacy implausible, if not inconceivable — not least with the wealthy folks who now fund elections.
So the kids keep dying and, in the absence of any serious political or legislative attempt to tackle the causes of their deaths, the media and the political class move on to excuses. From claims of bad parenting to lack of personal responsibility, they regularly shift the blame from the societal to the individual level. Only one organized group at present takes the blame for such deaths. The problem, it is suggested, isn’t American culture, but gang culture.
Researching my new book, Another Day in the Death of America, about all the children and teens shot dead on a single random Saturday in 2013, it became clear how often the presence of gangs in neighborhoods where so many of these kids die is used as a way to dismiss serious thinking about why this is happening. If a shooting can be described as “gang related,” then it can also be discounted as part of the “pathology” of urban life, particularly for people of color. In reality, the main cause, pathologically speaking, is a legislative system that refuses to control the distribution of firearms, making America the only country in the world in which such a book would have been possible.
The obsession with whether a shooting is “gang related” and the ignorance the term exposes brings to mind an interview I did 10 years ago with septuagenarian Buford Posey in rural Mississippi. He had lived in Philadelphia, Mississippi, around the time that three civil rights activists — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner — were murdered. As I spoke to him about that era and the people living in that town (some of whom, like him, were still alive), I would bring up a name and he would instantly interject, “Well, he was in the Klan,” or “Well, his Daddy was in the Klan,” or sometimes he would just say “Klan” and leave it at that.
After a while I had to stop him and ask for confirmation. “Hang on,” I said, “I can’t just let you say that about these people without some proof or corroboration. How do you know they were in the Klan?”
“Hell,” he responded matter-of-factly, “I was in the Klan. Near everybody around here was in the Klan around that time. Being in the Klan was no big deal.”
Our allegiances and affiliations are, of course, our choice. Neither Posey nor any of the other white men in Philadelphia had to join the Klan, and clearly some were more enthusiastic participants than others. (Posey himself would go on to support the civil rights movement.)
It’s no less true that context shapes such choices. If Posey had grown up in Vermont, it’s unlikely that he’d ever have joined the Klan. If a white Vermonter had been born and raised in Mississippi in those years, the likelihood is that he’d have had a pressed white sheet in the closet for special occasions.
At the time, for white men in Philadelphia the Klan was the social mixing place du jour. It was what you did if you had any hope of advancing locally, did not want to be left out of things, or simply preferred to swim with the tide. Since pretty much everyone you knew was involved in one way or another, to be white and live in Philadelphia then was to be, in some way, “Klan related.” That doesn’t mean being in the Klan should give anyone a pass, but it does mean that if you wanted to understand how it operated, why it had the reach it did, and ultimately how to defeat it rather than just condemn it, you first had to understand its appeal in that moment.
The same is true of gangs today in urban America. On the random day I picked for my book, 10 children and teens died by gun. Not all of their assailants have been caught and probably they never will be. Depending on how you define the term, however, it would be possible to argue that eight of those killings were gang related. Either the assailant or the victim was (or was likely to have been) part of a group that could be called a gang. Only two were clearly not gang related — either the victim and the shooter were not in a gang or membership in a gang had nothing to do with the shooting. But all 10 deaths did have one clear thing in common: they were all gun-related.
The emphasis on gang membership has always seemed to me like a way of filtering child deaths into two categories: deserving and undeserving. If a shooting was gang related then it’s assumed that the kid had it coming and was, in some way, responsible for his or her own death. Only those not gang related were innocents and so they alone were worthy of our sympathy.
Making a “Blacklist”
The more I spoke to families and people on the ground, the more it became clear how unhelpful the term “gang related” is in understanding who is getting shot and why. As a term, it’s most often used not to describe but to dismiss.
Take Edwin Rajo, 16, who was shot dead in Houston, Texas, at about 8 p.m. on that November 23rd. He lived in Bellaire Gardens, a low-rise apartment complex on a busy road of commercial and residential properties in an area called Gulfton in southwest Houston. It sat between a store selling bridal wear and highly flammable-looking dresses for quinceañera — the celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday — and the back of a Fiesta supermarket, part of a Texas-based, Hispanic-oriented chain with garish neon lighting that makes you feel as though you’re shopping for groceries in Las Vegas. Opposite it was a pawnshop, a beauty salon, a Mexican taqueria, and a Salvadorean restaurant.
The Southwest Cholos ran this neighborhood, complex by complex. There was no avoiding them. “They start them really, really young,” one of Edwin’s teachers told me. “In elementary. Third grade, fourth grade. And that’s just how it is for kids… You join for protection. Even if you’re not cliqued in, so long as you’re associated with them, you’re good. You have to claim a clique to be safe. If you’re not, if you’re by yourself, you’re gonna get jumped.”
In other words, if you grow up in Bellaire Gardens you are a gang member in the same way that Soviet citizens were members of the Communist Party and Iraqis under Saddam Hussein, the Baath Party. There is precious little choice, which means that, in and of itself, gang affiliation doesn’t tell you much.
Edwin, a playful and slightly immature teenager, was not, in fact, an active member of the Cholos, though he identified with them. Indeed, you get the impression that they considered him something of a liability. “They accepted him,” said his teacher. “He hung with them. But he wasn’t in yet.” His best friend in the complex, Camilla (not her real name), was in the gang, as allegedly was her mother. She sported the Cholo-style dress and had a gang name. After several altercations with someone from a rival gang, who threatened them and took a shot at Camilla’s brother, she decided to get a gun.
“We were thinking like little kids,” Camilla told me. “I didn’t really know anything about guns. I just know you shoot with it and that’s it.”
Sure enough, Edwin was at Camilla’s apartment that night and suggested they play with the gun. In the process, she shot him, not realizing that, even though the clip was out, one bullet was still in the chamber. So was that shooting gang related? After all, the shooter was in a gang. She had been threatened by someone from a rival gang and Edwin may indeed have had aspirations to be in her gang.
Or was it an accidental shooting in which two kids who knew nothing about guns acquired one and one of them got killed while they were messing around?
In an environment in which gangs run everything, most things most people do are in some way going to be “gang related.” But defining all affiliation as a kind of complicity in violence not only means writing off children in entire communities for being born in the wrong place at the wrong time, but criminalizing them in the process.
For one thing, the criteria for gang membership couldn’t be more subjective and loose. Gang leaders don’t exactly hand out membership cards. Sometimes it’s just a matter of young people hanging out. Take Stanley Taylor, who was shot dead in the early hours of that November morning in Charlotte, North Carolina. He spent a lot of his time on Beatties Ford Road with his friends. “I ain’t gonna say it was a gang,” says his buddy Trey. “But it was a neighborhood thing. Beatties Ford. We got our own little clique. We on the West Side. North Side is a whole different neighborhood you don’t even fool with. Everybody was together. This my brother, this my brother. We all in the same clique. We got each other’s back. I’m not going to let nobody else touch you. If you hit him, I’m gonna hit you. Cos I’m his brother.”
Stanley was shot at a gas station in the wake of an altercation with Demontre Rice, who was from the North Side, after Rice allegedly almost ran him over as he pulled in. It’s not obvious that either man knew where the other was from and yet if Rice were in a gang (something I can’t even confirm), that would, of course, make his killing gang related.
Sometimes gangs do have actual rites of initiation. Since, however, gang affiliation can be a guide to criminal activity, authorities are constantly trying to come up with more definite ways of identifying gang members. Almost inevitably, such attempts quickly fall back on stereotypes. A 1999 article in Colorlines, for instance, typically pointed out that in “at least five states, wearing baggy FUBU jeans and being related to a gang suspect is enough to meet the ‘gang member’ definition. In Arizona, a tattoo and blue Adidas sneakers are sufficient.” In suburban Aurora, Colorado, local police decided that any two of the following constituted gang membership: “slang,” “clothing of a particular color,” “pagers,” “hairstyles,” “jewelry.”
Black people made up 11% of Aurora’s population and 80% of its gang database. The local head of the ACLU was heard to say, “They might as well call it a blacklist.”
Under the Gun
Gangs are neither new nor racially specific. From the Irish, Polish, Jewish, and Puerto Rican gangs of New York to the Mafia, various types of informal gatherings of mostly, but not exclusively, young men have long been part of Western life. They often connect the social, violent, entrepreneurial, and criminal.
None of this should in any way diminish the damaging, often lethal effects organized gangs have on the young. One of the boys who died that day, 18-year-old Tyshon Anderson from Chicago, was by all accounts a gang member. His godmother, Regina, had long expected his life to come to an early end. “He did burglary, sold drugs, he killed people. He had power in the street. He really did. Especially for such a young kid. He had power. A lot of people were intimidated by him and they were scared of him. I know he had bodies under his belt. I seen him grow up and I loved him and I know he could be a good kid. But there ain’t no point in sugarcoating it. He was a bad kid, too.” If I’d chosen another day that year, I could well have been reporting on one of Tyshon’s victims.
And although gangs involve a relatively small minority of young people, they still add up to significant numbers. According to the National Youth Gang Survey, in 2012 in the United States there were around 30,000 gangs and more than 800,000 gang members — roughly the population of Amsterdam.
What’s new in all this isn’t the gangs themselves, but how much deadlier they’ve become in recent years. According to the National Youth Gang Survey, between 2007 and 2012, gang membership rose by 8%, but gang-related homicides leapt by 20%. It seems that the principal reason why gang activity has become so much more deadly is the increasingly easy availability of guns — and of ever deadlier versions of such weaponry as well. Studies of Los Angeles County between 1979 and 1994 revealed that the proportion of gang incidents involving guns that ended in homicide leapt from 71% to 95%. “The contrast with the present is striking,” argues sociologist Malcolm Klein, after reaching a similar conclusion in Philadelphia and East Los Angeles. “Firearms are now standard. They are easily purchased or borrowed and are more readily available than in the past.”
This raises the stakes immeasurably when it comes to parents and caregivers trying to protect their adolescent children from bad company or poor choices (as parents of all classes and races tend to do). Identifying with a gang and doing something as seemingly harmless as wearing clothing of a certain color or befriending the wrong person can result in an early death. As a result, Gustin Hinnant’s father in Goldsboro, North Carolina, used to burn his red clothes if he saw him wearing them too often. Gustin died anyway, hit in the head by a stray bullet meant for another boy who was in a gang. Pedro Cortez’s grandmother in San Jose, California, used to similarly hide his red shirts — the color identified with the local Nortenos gang — just in case. Yet on that same November 23rd, Pedro, who was legally blind, was shot dead while walking in a park. He was dressed in black, but a friend who was with him was indeed wearing red.
Gangs are hardly unique to America, nor do Americans make worse parents than those elsewhere in the world, nor are their kids worse. There is, however, an unavoidable difference between the United States and all other western nations, or the book I wrote would have been inconceivable. This is the only place where, in addition to the tinder of poverty, inequality, and segregation, among other challenges, you have to include the combustible presence of guns — guns everywhere, guns so available that they are essentially unavoidable.
As long as Americans refuse to engage with that straightforward fact of their social landscape, the kinds of deaths I recorded in my book will keep happening with gruesome predictability. In fact, I could have chosen almost any Saturday from at least the past two decades and produced the same work.
Dismissing such fatalities as “gang related” — as, that is, victims to be dumped in some morally inferior category — is a way of not facing an American reality. It sets the white noise of daily death sufficiently low to allow the country to go about its business undisturbed. It ensures a confluence of culture, politics, and economics guaranteeing that an average of seven children will wake up but not go to bed every day of the year, while much of the rest of the country sleeps soundly.