Vigil for 7-year-old Xavier Usanga who was killed by a stray bullet in the Hyde Park neighborhood.-Photo courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
When you kill a neighborhood, you kill familial networks, valuable, intimate connections and history. You kill the historical chain of migrating freed slaves forced into segregated Northern enclaves where they had no choice but to depend on themselves. You kill the tradition of a teacher knowing a student’s mama because that teacher went to school with the mother. You kill the history of poor moms and dads who, as children, sat in the same classrooms, played Double Dutch, stick ball or basketball on net-less hoops. When you kill a neighborhood, you’ve taken away the ability of an adult to correct the bad behavior of any neighbor child. And that child knowing a whupping is waiting at home when their parents found out that a neighbor had to correct them.
Political and civic leaders here have been killing poor, black neighborhoods for the past 70 years. And they are aggressively planning to kill more. More family and neighborhood connections will deteriorate, more people will be banished to unknown vistas. There will be more poverty, more crime, more death and more babies will die.
Political and civic leaders here have been killing poor, black neighborhoods for the past 70 years. And they are aggressively planning to kill more.
St. Louis is currently the “murder capital” of the United States. To date, eleven children have been gunned down in our city since June. The latest, 7-year-old Xavior Usanga, of the Hyde Park neighborhood, was shot and killed while playing in the backyard with his siblings.
Let me be clear, any violent death, especially the death of a child, is a tragedy that shouldn’t be taken lightly. For me though, it’s equally painful to hear the same old angry responses and the same old “blame game” from the usual sources.
|Photo courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch|
Since Usanga’s death, I’ve heard the mayor, the police chief and other public officials blame the black community for these murders. In programmed unison, they insist poor blacks are somehow complicit in these deaths. “Surely,” they insist, “someone knows who the murderers are.” This tired script insists that black people in crime-infested areas just refuse to call or report crimes or help police solve them.
I cry “bullshit!” This accusation of collective, community cover-up is only assigned to poor people experiencing the highest rates of crime. White people or entire white communities are not complicit in the violent crimes of angry, racist mass shooters, methamphetamine or heroin dealers, child molesters or white men who kill multiple family members. How often have we seen neighbors of white killers on the news saying something like “he seemed like such a nice guy?” Their responses aren’t widely scrutinized. There is no mass shaming from police, politicians are the horrified public.
The police department that claims poor blacks refuse to cooperate with them is the same one that terrorizes them. This is department that was exposed nationally for posting hateful, racist and violent content on social media. It’s the one that donned military gear and gassed, used mace and brutalized those who demonstrated against their selective violence. It’s the one that has faced multiple lawsuits based on allegations that they treat citizens unfairly based on skin color. After a child dies, we hear from the same media pundits, mayor, police chief and police officials who have tirelessly worked to smear, bully and block the efforts of the first black Circuit Attorney, Kim Gardner. Why? Because she had the audacity to call for police accountability.
The police department that claims poor blacks refuse to cooperate with them is the same one that terrorizes them.
Let’s say there’s some truth to the claim that poor black people won’t cooperate with police. Why should they? Why would any rational person trust anyone who has the power to harass them, beat them and even shoot them with little regard or redress? Who can put their faith in someone who doesn’t know them, their neighborhoods; who walk the beat in tony, majority white areas but offer nothing but drive-by contempt for poor, black people?
Killing communities also results in killing resources to those communities. It allows the media, politicians and police to ostracize them and pretend that the people they’ve denied resources and opportunities aren’t really people. They’re statistics, sub-humans, the “less than” who don’t love their kids enough to work with police.
I must admit to an equal amount of frustration with black politicians, so called “black leaders” and black adults in general. Every time a child is gunned down, we point fingers, we demonize our youth, we stage vigils and call for much-needed change.
But we place the onus of “change” in everybody’s hands but our own. To be honest, we have willingly participated in the killing of our own neighborhoods. In the wake of civil rights legislation, we ran for the ‘burbs and accelerated white fight in the new areas we chose. We’ve abandoned our neighborhoods and closed our businesses to seek fortune and security from white corporations and enterprises. We allowed millions of dollars to be diverted from city schools to those in the county under the foolish premise that our kids would do better, learn better if they could only mingle with white students.
Don’t get me wrong, America needed change, it needed to cleanse itself of economic and social discrimination. The trade-off for mingling with white people, however, shouldn’t have been the wholesale abandonment of black communities.
In my book, When We Listen…” I emphasize the truth that our young did not create the violent, chaotic neighborhoods in which they were born. They bravely navigate the hopelessness, disinvestment and mess inherited from adults. They live and breathe the results of inhumane social experiments known as slavery, Jim Crow racism, exclusion and oppression and the psychic trauma from a “war on drugs” that shepherded generations through the kindergarten-to-prison-back-to-neighborhood phenomenon.
The trade-off for mingling with white people, however, shouldn’t have been the wholesale abandonment of black communities.
We, black folk, have turned our kids over to broken educational, economic and criminal justice systems that were not designed for their social, physical or mental uplift. Yet, we act surprised that our kids, who’ve we’ve failed to provide opportunities, seek their own backwards, destructive and violent means of survival.
I maintain that the only way we can “save our babies” is to reclaim and revitalize our own communities. This is not a new mandate. It dates back further than the times of Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
This message, which has been repeated for centuries, is ignored because the work is too hard. It’s not a quick fix. It’s not one of those convenient, political soundbites that calls for the national guard, more militarized police, tougher laws or the non-sensible remedy of locking up yet another generation of young people.
Apparently, it’s too hard for black leaders to go about the long, strategic business of generating opportunities in dead neighborhoods. It seems difficult for black politicians to demand that a sliver of the same government resources they’ve doled out to corporations, rich developers and already stable areas be afforded to the black residents and neighborhoods they supposedly represent.
Apparently, it’s too hard for black leaders to go about the long, strategic business of generating opportunities in dead neighborhoods.
For the past 70 years, politicians and city leaders have displaced black people from downtown, Grand Center, the Grove, the Skinker DeBaliviere area near Washington University and other areas of new prominence and stability. Like unwanted gypsies, blacks have been pushed outside city limits to areas like Ferguson, where police were ordered to target them, fine them and treat them as cash-cows for municipal revenue.
With the announcement of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) headquarters in north St. Louis, the clandestine procedure of killing more neighborhoods has begun. I’ve seen the NGA expansion map. It goes from Jefferson Ave, on the southern tip to Natural Bridge on the Northern edge. Within its imprint is the old Pruitt Igo site, Carr Square, Vashon Highschool, the Old North neighborhood, right up to the edges of Fairgrounds and Hyde Park where Xavior Usanga was gunned down.
Good-paying jobs, city rebirth, new businesses and neighborhood development are all good things. But St. Louis doesn’t know how to invest in diversity. City leaders, blacks included, have no taste for equity. I haven’t seen any plans from black politicians to create stable black neighborhoods with affordable housing and diverse businesses that may complement the NGA plan. They seem impotently compliant with plans to use eminent domain and mass displacement to carve a nice niche for NGA’s expansion.
Until city leaders wake up and move beyond their limited worldviews; Until black folk step up, strategize and execute solid plans for specific troubled neighborhoods, vicious, deadly cycles will proliferate. More people will be pushed from familiar neighborhoods. Links of shared history, family and community bonds will be broken.
Unfortunately, there will be more displacement, more poverty, hopelessness, crime, violence and sadly, more babies will die.
Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the founder of the Sweet Potato Project, an entrepreneurial program for urban youth and the author of the newly released book “When We Listen: Recognizing the Potential of Urban Youth.”