I refuse to move on from a grieving mother’s haunting words.
A man murdered Dawn Usanga’s 7-year-old son, Xavier. He is one of 12 children fatally shot in St. Louis since June. Two days after Xavier was killed, Usanga talked to a colleague of mine. Her words ran on the front page of the paper:
“In a way, I’m happy he died at 7. The streets didn’t have a chance to ruin him. He could have just as easily been swept up in this war, and the boy who shot him could have been my boy someday.”
The helplessness and hopelessness in what she said shook me. This mother lives 25 miles from where I live — not in a war-torn country across the world. And violence has become such an accepted part of life that she took some comfort in the fact that her child was murdered, not the murderer.
This should do more than shock our collective conscience. It should spur each of us, most especially our elected officials, to take ownership of this crisis in a way we have yet to see.
Lewis Reed, president of the Board of Aldermen, pushed to get $500,000 to bring the Cure Violence program here, for which Mayor Lyda Krewson has requested emergency implementation. Reed was quoted in the paper as saying the program didn’t compare to efforts locally because “there isn’t a program in the city right now that’s coordinating with all the nonprofits, with the police department, with the courts system, that is providing a common platform across all agencies, and that is using data to drive policy.”
Why hasn’t there been?
This is a question for everyone in leadership: Krewson, Director of Public Safety Jimmie Edwards, Police Chief John Hayden, Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner and Reed.
The high rate of violent crime has plagued the same areas for as long as I can remember. Why hasn’t there been a coordinated effort across all departments? Why hasn’t there been a detailed data-driven plan, shared with the public, with concrete steps, follow-up and accountability?
Why haven’t we been doing this for years?
What priority in our entire region is more pressing than stopping the murders of innocent children?
We have major research universities in town, one with its own top-ranked school of social work. Who has approached them for help in collecting and analyzing data that can be used to better inform policy decisions and allocate resources?
Where’s the specific call to action for CEOs and philanthropists who have the means and desire to help address the violence synonymous with certain ZIP codes?
Where’s the detailed call to action for citizens in the rest of the region?
There’s plenty of research that suggests effective ways to reduce crime, several of which the city is trying to implement. The Urban Institute and others studies advocate: Expanding drug courts, increasing the use of DNA evidence collection, helping ex-offenders find living wage jobs, adding and monitoring public surveillance cameras, connecting returning prisoners to stable housing, sharing tips with violence interrupters within communities, enacting stricter alcohol policies, such as higher alcohol tax or stricter licensing, increasing hot spot policing, raising the age requirement for dropping out of school and adding behavioral interventions in schools to target youth at risk for violence.
The city’s leadership should detail the actions being taken in each of these areas, in addition to whatever other measures are being taken and what more can be done.
Instead of a sense of resignation, this latest string of children being murdered demands a sense of urgency.
As someone who cares about the future of the city, one of the most frustrating things is how contagious this mother’s helplessness feels. Each time I read about the killings of St. Louis children this summer, I felt at a loss about what type of help would be most impactful.
I shared Dawn Usanga’s quote and my frustration on Facebook. A friend responded with a detailed call to action: “Everyone owns this. Instead of lamenting how sad it is, get involved with an organization that helps kids and mentors parents. Support busing kids to better schools, or better yet, improving schools in local neighborhoods. Help the local churches. Hire an employee and support a schedule that lets them ride the bus to work. Join Big Brothers/Big Sisters. There are so many small ways average ordinary people can get involved to help. Let this spark some outrage to create some change that gives kids like Xavier a fighting chance.”
These are great suggestions for individual action. I want to know where individual efforts have the greatest return on investment. I want to hear a clearly articulated vision. I want to see the same coordinated effort and investment it took to get a new Major League Soccer team dedicated to stopping the murder of our city’s children.
Most city officials would rather focus attention on the successes and progress. But at the heart of our character as a region is how we respond to this anguished mother’s words.
This is not someone else’s problem.
There is no silver lining to Xavier’s murder.
But perhaps his short life will move us to do the big audacious things necessary to restore hope for his mom.