Humanity has a distance quotient.
That was a lesson Greg Dobbs taught me many years ago.
Dobbs, a former ABC News foreign correspondent, was giving a speech in Evergreen, Colo. He talked about how news consumers in the U.S. respond to an earthquake or tsunami that kills thousands in India or some other faraway land.
In effect, he said, one death on your block trumps five deaths 10 miles away, which trumps 20 deaths elsewhere in the country, which trumps hundreds or thousands in a place you might never go.
On Saturday, seven people were killed in a terrorist attack in London in which the attackers drove a van into a crowd and then started stabbing victims with large knives.
Two days later, a gunman who was angry about being fired walked into an Orlando business and shot and killed five people, and then himself.
In St. Louis, at least six people died over a two-day period in multiple shootings. Much of the city’s attention, though, turned to a solitary victim, 7-year-old Deniya Irving of Webster Groves, who was shot while she sat in a car in which her parents were both killed. As of press time, Deniya was clinging to life, though some family members say she is brain-dead. They are hoping to donate her organs if she dies.
Shootings occur every day in St. Louis. It’s so bad in some neighborhoods on both the north and south sides that gunfire isn’t enough to solicit a 911 call anymore. But when a child gets caught in the crossfire, a community pays attention.
“This has got to stop,” said Interim Police Chief Lawrence O’Toole on Saturday morning. O’Toole was at St. Peter’s A.M.E. Church at a community gathering called to discuss the recent spate of violence.
A couple of years ago, the dead child who would spur such calls was Jamyla Bolden. She was 9 when she was shot to death at her Ferguson home while doing homework on her mother’s bed. Before Jamyla there was 6-year-old Marcus Johnson Jr., killed in the crossfire of a rolling gunbattle near O’Fallon Park in 2015.
Every time a child dies in tragic fashion in a St. Louis shooting, we pause for vigils. We demand change. We proclaim, “This has got to stop.”
But it hasn’t.
On Monday I searched the Post-Dispatch archive for “7-year-old shot and killed.”
The first clip that came up was a short note teasing to a larger story in the Metro section in May 1998.
“A 7-year-old girl was shot and killed Wednesday afternoon in front of her home near Fairground Park. Police say they believe the shooting was gang related.”
Inside, reporter Bill Bryan told readers about Dominique Evans, who was actually 6.
She was playing with other children on Linton Avenue when men in a yellow pickup drove by firing guns at some other young men in the neighborhood. They ducked. Dominique died.
“This is going to happen again,” one woman predicted at the time. “It’s sad, and it’s a shame, but it’s going to happen again.”
Indeed it has, over and over again, often in the same neighborhoods, to families who feel abandoned by police, forgotten by the city, left to live the same horror one year after the next.
Before Deniya Irving, before Jamyla Bolden, before Dominique Evans, there was Christopher Harris.
The 9-year-old boy was killed in the summer of 1991 when a drug dealer used him as a human shield in a gunfight with a rival. His death spurred then-Mayor Clarence Harmon to institute a gun buyback program that collected more than 7,000 guns in one month. Harmon commissioned a statue of the child. Since 1997, a bronze likeness of Christopher has stood guard outside Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital on South Grand Boulevard.
It’s about 8 miles between where the statue stands and where Deniya was shot. Twenty-six years passed between the similar tragedies. For a snippet of that time, it seems, some lessons were learned.
In 1991, there were 260 murders in St. Louis, far more than the spike of 188 killings in each of the past two years. In 1993, murders rose to 267, but for the next couple of decades, they trended down, hitting a low of 74 in 2003. After Christopher died, the community rallied. It did so again after Dominique.
After the recent series of St. Louis shootings, Mayor Lyda Krewson said the city needs a tax increase to hire more police officers and increase their pay. It’s sure to be a popular idea, and it might even help, though some of the folks who live in neighborhoods where children get shot say that the problem is the cops St. Louis has right now don’t spend enough time in the city’s most dangerous places.
When children die, mayors and police chiefs have to say something. They decry guns. They build statues. They demand: “This has to stop.”
For a few metaphorical moments, the words fill a void.
At nightfall, the sounds of St. Louis return.