I grew up in a small town called De Soto about an hour south of St. Louis. The place was quiet. We left our keys in the mailbox. Most of the kids I went to school with were white, and the median annual income was around $30,000.
At least once a month, we'd drive to St. Louis to go shopping or eat out. But there were parts of the city that we never went to, that I only heard about on the news when I saw another young black face flash across the screen — almost an afterthought. Another young man who'd lost his life to guns, to crime, to poverty.
I didn't know that when I was driving the highway to Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, I was driving over burnt mansions with missing roofs and lots littered with trash. I'd learn later about the legacy of white flight, abandonment and poverty that has led to concentrations of crime and, more specifically, gun homicide.
Most don't remember Jamyla Bolden, the 9-year-old girl who was doing her homework when she was shot on her mother's bed in Ferguson in 2015. Nor do most remember the 21-year-old Courtney Williams, who was shot and killed a year earlier while he was driving down Kensington Avenue in North St. Louis on Christmas Eve.
Missouri's legislature has made it easier to acquire, carry and use guns over the past decade, passing "stand your ground" and "permitless carry" provisions that went into effect in January. The representatives who voted for the recent changes represent districts that are on average 93 percent white and 43 percent rural, not the urban areas where most people are killed with guns.
In the past few months, St. Louis representatives introduced bills to combat the changes. One bill required the reporting of a lost or stolen firearm; another authorized a tax deduction for the cost of gun safety and training courses. The state legislature hasn't passed those bills.
In the meantime, the burden remains heavy on the state's poorest and most disadvantaged communities. But more St. Louis area residents are fighting to make that invisible problem visible.
THE NEIGHBORHOOD APPROACH
When I visited James Clark, he told me we come from two different worlds.
Clark grew up in North St. Louis and returned in the late '80s after serving in the Army. A framed picture of Clark in uniform hangs on the wall in his office. He speaks in practiced, mobilizing phrases.
"I believe in maps," Clark says as he unrolls one and slams his desk with his hand for emphasis. "Give me a map, and let's go take some territory." But Clark's not talking about going to war, he's talking about addressing gun violence in his community: "We've got to get surgical. We've got to look at the neighborhoods where crime and violence are more prevalent, and we've got to have a boots-on-the-ground approach, door-to-door, direct neighborhood engagement."
Clark works as the vice president of community outreach at Better Family Life, a community nonprofit on Page Boulevard in North St. Louis. In 2005, the organization bought and renovated what used to be Emerson Elementary School, which closed because of population decline in the neighborhood. The 60,000-square-foot stone building and its manicured lawn provide one of the few reminders of a once-thriving community.
Page Boulevard saw 15 homicides from 2008 to 2016, according to data from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. That's nearly two people killed per year on a single 4-mile stretch of road. Several of the old, brick buildings on Page have boarded-up windows, and it's hard to find a grocery store or a restaurant nearby.
"The life's trajectory of a young boy or a young girl should not be established at birth based on the neighborhood that they were born into," Clark says. "We have volumes and volumes of publications in St. Louis that point to the same side of town, that point to the same zip codes and that point to the same blocks."
After more than 25 years of attempts to persuade the city to adopt his approach to gun violence, Clark decided to take action. He says he felt like people weren't talking about gun violence the way they should be, not within his community or outside of it. So, in 2015, he started making signs. On them, the St. Louis Arch stretches across the white cardboard background, the gateway for a message in black lettering: "We must stop killing each other." The signs ended up in the yards of more than 14,000 homes in North St. Louis
Then, Better Family Life opened a de-escalation phone line in December 2016, and, suddenly, people started calling. They knew someone who might get shot or who might shoot someone, but they didn't know where to turn for help. They didn't trust the police, and when they did, they saw no results.
Better Family Life was contacted by a Pizza Hut employee who was afraid the brother of her manager and another co-worker were going to shoot each other. The organization also learned about a man who was ready to shoot someone at a bus stop for disrespecting his wife.
These aren't your typical stories of gang involvement or drug disputes. They're conflicts among people that escalated because of factors like toxic stress and poverty. Before, the people who knew about the conflicts had no one to tell. But now, they have Clark.
He and his outreach specialists approach every situation differently. They might call the mother of the potential shooter or go visit the potential victim at home. Clark opened a dedicated phone line and started getting as many as 10 calls a day. "When this phone rings, whatever I'm doing stops," he says. He also opened Tuesday evening de-escalation centers in four churches where people could talk to trained counselors about potential gun violence. By the end of the last year, 15 conflicts involving gun violence were resolved.
This program is a fresh perspective on how Clark thinks the community members will solve gun homicide. Clark's program is an attempt at solving a problem so complex, so embedded in historical and structural context, that tackling it requires a multifaceted effort. He recognizes that the police, the courts and the legislature all have roles to play.
Missouri's recent changes to gun laws might make Clark's job much harder, according to University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist Richard Rosenfeld, because gun permits are no longer required by law. He says people who use guns in crimes usually get them through people they know and that eliminating permit requirements makes guns cheaper and more accessible.
"My best guess is that (the laws) will worsen conditions in those communities," Rosenfeld says. "Guns do not fall out of the sky into the hands of criminals or law-abiding people."
One weekend, a 17-year-old boy was attending New Horizon Seventh Day Christian Church in North St. Louis County, just a few miles west of Page Boulevard. The next weekend, he was dead. The church's pastor, B.T. Rice, says he felt like every week or so he was presiding over another funeral of a young person who'd been shot and killed. He had to do something. So he founded the St. Louis Initiative to Reduce Gun Violence, or SIRV.
When Rice first moved to St. Louis from Denver in 1979, he realized he had a lot of work to do. "I've reached the point where I can't straighten it all out because it ain't going to get straightened out just by me," he says as he sits with Matt Brummund and Steven Parish, who both work with SIRV, at his office at New Horizon Christian Church. He's talking about gun violence in his community, but he's also talking about all the other disparities that fuel violence.
To the west of the church is Kinloch, a once-vibrant black community. It developed in the early 1900s as a haven for those who'd been excluded from other communities by racist covenants and discriminatory lending practices. Kinloch is now almost completely abandoned. Lambert-St. Louis International Airport started buying up nearby property in the 1980s to expand, and the population has plummeted since. In 2015, the estimated median household income was $13,542, according to the American Community Survey.
Historically, loose incorporation rules made it easy for white homeowners to create tiny municipalities just outside the city to restrict access through land use zoning. Whites had the power to control who moved into their communities in a way that other minority groups didn't.
When white families moved to the suburbs in the '50s and '60s, they took accumulated wealth and educational advantages with them. Black families faced too many obstacles to leave just yet. They were able to move to the small inner suburbs of North County in the '70s and '80s, and once again, the black community was isolated.
Rice, Parish and Brummund rattle off a list of issues that come with that history: access to health care, grocery stores, transportation and jobs. Brummund is an FBI agent who collaborates closely with SIRV. He says there's a lack of parental involvement in the parent-teacher association at the Saint Louis public school his two middle-schoolers attend. "Something that you would just take for granted at most schools, isn't there," Brummund says.
Parish runs an in-school program through SIRV that teaches kids about topics such as toxic stress and conflict resolution. "We're talking about the age-old issue of what happens in oppressed, depressed and suppressed communities," he says. "Violence is just an outgrowth."
This is exactly the type of conversation Rice wanted to start when he founded SIRV about four years ago. Its goal is to bring different people together who are working to end gun violence: such as a white FBI agent, a black community worker and a black pastor.
"Pastor (Rice) can get everyone in the same room," Brummund says. "When you get around the issue of gun violence, it can be very divided. The police perceive it one way, and that community that's suffering from the violence feels it a different way, and they're kind of at odds."
The members of SIRV think improving police-community relations through ride-along programs and door-to-door relationship building is key to reducing gun homicide. "(What) we generally encounter is their fear of the police — and we've got to dispel that fear," Rice says.
Outside inner city neighborhoods, people don't understand the problem or how complex it is, he says. "If you tell them the police acted inappropriately, they say, 'You must be crazy.'"
The disconnect affects the way the legislature regulates guns. Rice says lawmakers should cut the flow of guns into his community rather than allowing easier access, but the people making those decisions aren't the ones impacted by the results. "They don't have to have the kids get on the floor once they hear 'pop, pop, pop' in the middle of the night," he says.
Last fall, the former St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department's police chief, Sam Dotson, who sits on SIRV's board, spoke against recent changes to Missouri's gun laws such as deleting the training requirement. "When you take that away, you take away their proficiency in the weapon," he says. "You take away their understanding of how to interact with law enforcement. I really believe that it leaves everybody in the community more at risk, makes our job more dangerous and at the end of the day, I think that we see more violence not less violence."
FACES NOT FORGOTTEN
A mile away from New Horizon Christian Church, five quilts hang in a gallery on the University of Missouri-St. Louis' North Campus. Hand-painted portraits, mostly of young black faces, are tied together with black ribbon. On the other side of the room, cardboard cut-outs of outstretched arms stick up from a pile of dirt. "Hands up, don't shoot" reads a sign.
The Faces Not Forgotten project is Christine Ilewski's way of healing. Her father died by gun suicide when she was 20 years old, and then her close friend died by gun homicide. After the losses, she started painting portraits of young people in St. Louis who'd been shot and killed. She's now expanded the project to cities across the country, recruiting local artists to paint the vignettes. She says the pictures comfort the victims' families.
"The premise of the whole project is that I feel a hand-painted portrait is a sign of dignity and honor," Ilewski says. "Just the power of looking at a wall of faces, I feel empowered more to say stop it, look at this, this is what is happening. How can you look at these faces and look away?"
Ilewski fights misconceptions and prejudices against families who've lost kids to gun violence. "(People think) they must have been in trouble — dealing drugs," she says. "So many are in community college, top performing students."
She doesn't understand why the legislature isn't doing more to save them.