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Antonio French: Enough thoughts and prayers already

Antonio French: Enough thoughts and prayers already

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Let’s stop with the thoughts and prayers already. The senseless murder of 7-year-old Dmyah Fleming this week was tragic, heartbreaking and unimaginably painful for her grandmother, who also lost her 26-year-old son in the same Central West End shooting. But we need to stop acting like it is surprising. Children being murdered in St. Louis has become all too normal.

We have fallen into a shameful pattern. Shock at the news of an innocent child’s violent end. Followed by momentary outrage. Then subsequent amnesia until it happens again a few days or weeks later. We did it 17 times in 2020. And 11 times in 2019. In fact, a 2019 Post-Dispatch analysis showed at that time nearly 600 kids had been murdered in St. Louis since 1990. Seventy-two percent of those children were murdered in north St. Louis. So be outraged, shed tears as I have at countless memorials over the years. But don’t act surprised. Not today and not when it happens again in a few days. This is what is allowed in St. Louis.

“Absolutely heartbroken tonight over the senseless killings of these two people,” Mayor Lyda Krewson tweeted Sunday night. “Especially this young child caught up in a deadly dispute among adults. Prayers to their families and my thanks to [police] working the case. Tragic!”

Such killings don’t demand press conferences in this city. No summoning of the police chief and his boss, the public safety director, to demand a plan of action to catch this killer and ensure no other children are killed this week, month or year. No, a tweet is all that is required to show sufficient awareness before moving on to tweet about “terrific news” a few hours later. The mayor likely won’t ever be asked about Dmyah Fleming again.

People are murdered in St. Louis at a rate higher than any other city in America. Yet somehow there is no visible urgency to prevent the predictable violence that will take hundreds of lives this year and forever change tens of thousands more. Where have we seen this kind of dangerous indifference before? Oh yes, that other pandemic taking lives at an alarming rate.

Americans like to consider themselves a compassionate people. But that, like so many other aspects of our nation’s self-image, has been shaken in recent years. Are we really compassionate? Is a stranger’s life worth the inconvenience of wearing a mask, or a license or background check to own a gun? So many say no.

St. Louisans like to consider themselves generous and kind in a Midwestern kind of way. But are we? The indifference we regularly demonstrate at the rate of murder and death disproportionately affecting Black people, particularly Black children, suggests otherwise.

Whenever I write about this subject, I always receive emails and social media comments about “Black on Black crime” and how “they need to stop killing each other.” I’m always amazed at how easily people lump victims and their abusers together when they are both of African descent. It is perhaps this implied guilt of the majority of St. Louis’ homicide victims that prevents the kind of response that the numbers warrant.

Or maybe it is the same kind of cognitive dissonance we are witnessing in so many Americans during the coronavirus pandemic. Many can’t seem to process what our failure to prevent the deaths of our neighbors says about us.

At the beginning of the pandemic, around March 2020, I remember watching a historian on television. He was asked why so much of the last pandemic had faded from our memory since 1918. He said Americans simply didn’t talk about it when it was over. Why? Because they were ashamed of how they behaved.

We have much to be ashamed of in 2021. The mayor, public safety director and the police chief should be ashamed for failing to keep our city’s children safe. Citizens should be ashamed for failing to hold them accountable to do it. The governor and state lawmakers should be ashamed of their indifference to the deadly effects their gun fetish is having on men, women and especially children in St. Louis as they continue to block any effort to restrict guns in the city.

When the pandemic still spreading across the nation is finally under control and life begins to return to normal, we owe to all the victims to never forget our failures so that, hopefully, we will never repeat them again.

And we owe to Dmyah and the hundreds of St. Louis children murdered before her more than just our thoughts and prayers. We owe them action to prevent the next 200 murders that will predictably occur this year. And we must stop forgetting that children are regularly murdered in this city, because it will be that shame that forces the changes needed to finally make St. Louis safe for all our children.

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Antonio French is an opinion columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He is also a member of the editorial board.

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