A couple of friends have one of those “never forget” traditions.
Each year on the anniversary of the slaughter of children and their teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School, they tweet the name of the victim they promised to remember.
In St. Louis, the list of children killed by gun violence is growing.
Kennedi Powell, 3; Charnija Keys, 11; Myiesha Cannon, 16; Jashon Johnson, 16; Derrel Williams, 15.
Five dead children. Each felled by a bullet in a city that knows this narrative far too well.
It’s a story Bruce Franks has been living for far too long.
“The recent shootings are absolutely terrible and triggering,” Franks told me. He had recently resigned his position as a state representative. He did so amid an investigation into allegedly false time cards at the public agency where Franks worked as a mentor. He said he was leaving the Legislature to deal with his own mental health, strained, in part, by years of going to too many funerals of young, black children mowed down in a hail of bullets.
One of them was his brother, Christopher Harris.
Harris was 9 years old in the summer of 1991 when a drug dealer used the child as a human shield.
There’s a statue of Harris outside Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital on South Grand Boulevard, one of the hospitals in the city where too many young people have died after showing up with bullet holes that can’t be repaired.
The statue is filled with gun parts collected during former Mayor Clarence Harmon’s gun buyback program in a particularly brutal summer, much like this one, where too many children were killed.
I wrote about Harris two years ago, and the headline was one of those rinse and repeat ones:
“Another child is shot,” it said. “This has to stop, we say. But will it?”
As happens every time there is a spate of tragic killings, the calls for new policies are coming fast and furious.
Congressman Lacy Clay wants to pass a federal bill that will allow cities to approve their own gun restrictions. Because pro-gun Republicans run the Missouri Legislature, the city can’t pass commonsense gun restrictions, even though nearly all of its elected representatives want to.
Police Chief John Hayden, with the support of Mayor Lyda Krewson, has his own proposal: Get rid of the city’s residency requirements for police officers to make it easier for him to put more cops on the streets. The city is 147 police officers short of its authorized size. The Board of Aldermen advanced a proposal last week that would allow voters a say on the change to the city charter.
More cops. Fewer guns. These aren’t necessarily bad ideas.
But they are often the only things that get any serious talk every couple of years when children die.
It was that way in 1991, in 1998, in 2015, in 2017.
Only the names change. Christopher Harris. Dominique Evans. Jamyla Bolden. Kennedi Powell.
“So many people say this isn’t the time to blame or point fingers, but it is,” Franks told me. “The problem is, after we point the fingers and talk about the real problems, our egos and politics won’t allow us to work together for one common goal.”
For Franks, the script after a summer of death is too often the same.
Violence is condemned. Justice is sought against those who would take innocent life. The U.S. attorney, and maybe the Missouri attorney general, will announce new “tough on crime” initiatives. More men will go to jail. And then, for those who live in communities ravaged by poverty, violence and drugs, the status quo returns.
“As rightful as it is to condemn the behavior that takes an innocent life, we should condemn the systems that perpetuate oppression and poverty,” Franks says.
We close schools, not jails. We build stadiums, not neighborhoods. To some degree, this has always been the story of St. Louis.
When Christopher Harris died, neighbors told a story that has been repeated in communities in north and south St. Louis dozens of times since.
Children said they didn’t feel safe riding their bikes in the neighborhood.
Old-timers no longer sat on the front porch to chat.
On the day Harris was laid to rest, the lead story in the Post-Dispatch was about Alderman Stephen Conway pushing for more money for cops.
Now he’s the chief of staff to a mayor trying to do the same thing amid another spate of killings.
The blocks shift but the story remains the same.
Too many children are dying in neighborhoods frozen in time.