Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives - Gary Younge (2016)
THE MOST COMMON ADJECTIVE EMPLOYED BY WEATHER REPORTERS on Saturday, November 23, 2013, was treacherous. But in reality there was not a hint of betrayal about it. The day was every bit as foul as one would expect the week before Thanksgiving. A “Nordic outbreak” of snow, rain, and high winds barreled through the desert states and northern plains toward the Midwest. Wet roads and fierce gusts in northeast Texas forced Willie Nelson’s tour bus into a bridge pillar not far from Sulphur Springs in the early hours, injuring three band members and resulting in the tour’s suspension. With warnings of a five hundred–mile tornado corridor stretching north and east from Mississippi, the weather alone killed more than a dozen people.1 And as the storm front shifted eastward, so did the threat to the busiest travel period of the year, bringing chaos so predictable and familiar that it has provided the plot line for many a seasonal movie.
There was precious little in the news to distract anyone from these inclement conditions. A poll that day showed President Barack Obama suffering his lowest approval ratings for several years. That night he announced a tentative deal with Iran over its nuclear program. Republican Senate minority whip John Cornyn believed that the agreement, hammered out with six allies as well as Iran, was part of a broader conspiracy to divert the public gaze from the hapless rollout of the new health care website. “Amazing what WH will do to distract attention from O-care,” he tweeted.2 Not surprisingly, another of the day’s polls revealed that two-thirds of Americans thought the country was heading in the wrong direction. That night, Fox News was the most popular cable news channel; The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was the highest-grossing movie; and the college football game between Baylor and Oklahoma State was the most-watched program on television.
It was just another day in America. And as befits an unremarkable Saturday in America, ten children and teens were killed by gunfire. Like the weather that day, none of them would make big news beyond their immediate locale, because, like the weather, their deaths did not intrude on the accepted order of things but conformed to it. So in terms of what one might expect of a Saturday in America, there wasn’t a hint of “betrayal” about this either; it’s precisely the tally the nation has come to expect. Every day, on average, 7 children and teens are killed by guns; in 2013 it was 6.75 to be precise.3 Firearms are the leading source of death among black children under the age of nineteen and the second leading cause of death for all children of the same age group, after car accidents.4 Each individual death is experienced as a family tragedy that ripples through a community, but the sum total barely earns a national shrug.
Those shot on any given day in different places and very different circumstances lack the critical mass and tragic drama to draw the attention of the nation’s media in the way a mass shooting in a cinema or church might. Far from being considered newsworthy, these everyday fatalities are simply a banal fact of death. They are white noise set sufficiently low to allow the country to go about its business undisturbed: a confluence of culture, politics, and economics that guarantees that each morning several children will wake up but not go to bed while the rest of the country sleeps soundly.
It is that certainty on which this book is premised. The proposition is straightforward. To pick a day, find the cases of as many young people who were shot dead that day as I could, and report on them. I chose a Saturday because although the daily average is 6.75, that figure is spread unevenly. It is over the weekend, when school is out and parties are on, that the young are most likely to be shot. But the date itself—November 23—was otherwise arbitrary. That’s the point. It could have been any day. (Were I searching for the highest number of fatalities, I would have chosen a day in the summer, for children are most likely to be shot when the sun is shining and they are in the street.)
There were other days earlier or later that week when at least seven children and teens were shot dead. But they were not the days I happened to choose. This is not a selection of the most compelling cases possible; it is a narration of the deaths that happened. Pick a different day, you get a different book. Fate chose the victims; time shapes the narrative.
And so on this day, like most others, they fell—across America, in all its diverse glory. In slums and suburbs, north, south, west, and midwest, in rural hamlets and huge cities, black, Latino, and white, by accident and on purpose, at a sleepover, after an altercation, by bullets that met their target and others that went astray. The youngest was nine, the oldest nineteen.
For eighteen months I tried to track down anyone who knew them—parents, friends, teachers, coaches, siblings, caregivers—and combed their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. Where official documents were available regarding their deaths—incident reports, autopsies, 911 calls—I used them, too. But the intention was less to litigate the precise circumstances of their deaths than to explore the way they lived their short lives, the environments they inhabited, and what the context of their passing might tell us about society at large.
The New York Times quotation for that day came from California Democratic congressman Adam B. Schiff, who found twenty minutes to meet with Faisal bin Ali Jaber. Jaber’s brother-in-law and nephew were incinerated by a US drone strike in rural Yemen while trying to persuade Al Qaeda members to abandon terrorism. Schiff said after the meeting, “It really puts a human face on the term ‘collateral damage.’”5 My aim here is to put a human face—a child’s face—on the “collateral damage” of gun violence in America.
I AM NOT FROM America. I was born and raised in Britain by Barbadian immigrants. I came to the United States to live in 2003, shortly before the Iraq War, with my American wife, as a correspondent for the Guardian. I started out in New York, moved to Chicago after eight years, and left for Britain during the summer of 2015, shortly after finishing this book.
As a foreigner, reporting from this vast and stunning country over more than a decade felt like anthropology. I saw it as my mission less to judge the United States—though as a columnist I did plenty of that, too—than to try to understand it. The search for answers was illuminating, even when I never found them or didn’t like them. For most of that time, the cultural distance I enjoyed as a Briton felt like a blended veneer of invincibility and invisibility. I thought of myself less as participant than onlooker.
But somewhere along the way I became invested. That was partly about time. As I came to know people, rather than just interviewing them, I came to relate to the issues more intimately. When someone close to you struggles with chronic pain and has no health care or cannot attend a parent’s funeral because she is undocumented, your relationship to issues like health reform and immigration is transformed. Not because your views change, but because knowing and understanding something simply does not provide the same intensity as having it in your life.
But my investment was also primarily about my personal circumstances. On the weekend in 2007 that Barack Obama declared his presidential candidacy, our son was born. Six years later we had a daughter. I kept my English accent. But my language relating to children is reflexively American: diapers instead of nappies, stroller instead of push chair, pacifier instead of dummy. I have only ever been a parent in the United States—a role for which my own upbringing in England provided no real reference point. For one of the things I struggled most to understand—indeed, one of the aspects of American culture most foreigners find hardest to understand—was the nation’s gun culture.
In this regard, America really is exceptional. American teens are seventeen times more likely to die from gun violence than their peers in other high-income countries. In the United Kingdom, it would take more than two months for a proportionate number of child gun deaths to occur.6 And by the time I’d come to write this book, I’d been in the country long enough to know that things were exponentially worse for black children like my own.
It ceased to be a matter of statistics. It was in my life. One summer evening, a couple of years after we moved to Chicago, our daughter was struggling to settle down, and so my wife decided to take a short walk to the local supermarket to bob her to sleep in the carrier. On her way back, there was shooting in the street, and my wife sought shelter in a barbershop. In the year we left, once the snow finally melted, a discarded gun was found in the alley behind our local park and another in the alley behind my son’s school. My days of being an onlooker were over. Previously, I’d have found these things interesting and troubling. Now it was personal. I had skin in the game. Black skin in a game where the odds are stacked against it.
Around the time of my departure, those odds seemed particularly bad. The children and teens in this book were killed four months after George Zimmerman was acquitted for shooting Trayvon Martin dead in Sanford, Florida (which was when the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was coined) and nine months before Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, Missouri (which was when #BlackLivesMatter really took off). In other words, they occurred during an intense period of heightening racial consciousness, activism, and polarization. The deaths covered in this book don’t fit neatly into the established #BlackLivesMatter narrative. None of the victims were killed by law enforcement, and where the assailants are known they are always the same race as the victim. The characters in this book cannot be shoehorned into crude morality plays of black and white, state and citizen.
But that doesn’t mean race is not a factor. For in the manner in which these fatalities are reported (or not reported), investigated (or not investigated), and understood (or misunderstood), it is clear that whatever American society makes of black lives, in many if not most instances black deaths such as these don’t count for an awful lot. On a typical day, of the seven children and teens who die from guns, one would be female, three would be black, three white, and one Hispanic. And every five days, one of those seven deaths will be a child of another race (Asian, Pacific Islander, Native America, Native Alaskan).7 But precisely because the day was random, it was not typical. Of the ten who died during the time frame of this book, all were male, seven were black, two Hispanic, and one white. In other words, black men and boys comprise roughly 6 percent of their cohort but 70 percent of the dead on the day in question.
You won’t find another Western country with a murder rate on a par with that in black America; for comparable rates, you have to look to Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, or Rwanda.8
This is not a book about race, though a disproportionate number of those who fell that day were black, and certain racial themes are unavoidable. It is not a book that sets out to compare the United States unfavorably with Britain, though it is written by a Briton to whom gun culture is alien. Finally, it is not a book about gun control; it is a book made possible by the absence of gun control.
This is a book about America and its kids viewed through a particular lens in a particular moment. “Whether they’re used in war or for keeping the peace guns are just tools,” wrote the late former Navy Seal Chris Kyle in American Gun: A History of the U.S. in Ten Firearms. “And like any tool, the way they’re used reflects the society they’re part of.”9 This book takes a snapshot of a society in which these deaths are uniquely possible and that has a political culture apparently uniquely incapable of creating a world in which they might be prevented.
FOR A RELATIVELY BRIEF moment, there was considerable national interest in the fact that large numbers of Americans of all ages were being fatally shot on a regular basis.
It followed the shootings in the small Connecticut village of Newtown. Less than a year before the day on which this book is set, a troubled twenty-year-old, Adam Lanza, shot his mother then drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School and shot twenty small children and six adult staff members dead before turning the gun on himself. Even though mass shootings comprise a small proportion of gun violence in any year, they disturb America’s self-image and provoke its conscience in a way that the daily torrent of gun deaths does not.
“Individual deaths don’t have the same impact and ability to galvanize people because mass shootings are public spectacles,” New York Times journalist Joe Nocera told me. “They create a community of grief. So it stands to reason that Newtown would be the thing that wakes people up. . . . I was galvanized by Sandy Hook.”
Sandy Hook’s political impact was not solely about the numbers. It was also about the victims’ ages. Most of the victims were first graders—aged six and seven. It was the pathos of hearing how Lanza picked them off one by one, how they cowered in bathrooms and teachers hid them in closets. These facts forced a reckoning with what could and should be done to challenge this ever happening again. “Seeing the massacre of so many innocent children . . . it’s changed America,” said West Virginia’s Democratic senator, Joe Manchin, who championed a tepid gun control bill that would not even come to a vote in the Senate. “We’ve never seen this happen.”10
The truth is it’s happening every day. Only most do not see it. November 23, 2013, was one of those days.
TO SAVE US ALL FROM STRAW MEN AND CONFUSION, A PROJECT such as this must be as transparent and clearly defined as possible. To that end, I want to make explicit three basic parameters on which this book is based.
First, although the time frame spans twenty-four hours, it is not a calendar date. This allows for more flexibility but not more time. A US calendar day, spanning from the East Coast to Hawaii, is longer, stretching twenty-nine hours. This book covers the gun deaths that occurred between 3:57 a.m. EST on November 23, 2013, and 3:30 a.m. EST on November 24.
Second, the book covers the gun deaths that occurred within that twenty-four-hour period—which is not quite the same as including those who were shot on that day and then died on a later date. Jaiden Dixon was shot on Friday, November 22, but not pronounced dead until Saturday, November 23. He’s in the book because he died within the time frame in question. Quindell Lee, who was shot in the head on November 23 in Dallas by his thirteen-year-old brother while his stepfather “stepped out for 15 minutes,”1 is not in the book, because Quindell wasn’t pronounced dead until Monday, November 25.
Finally, the book includes children and teens. That is not the same as minors. Some are legally adults; more than half are over 16. The median age is 17.5; the average age 14.3. You can slice and dice the data and definitions any way you want. But once you’ve seen their pictures, encountered the braggadocio on their Facebook pages, and seen the peach fuzz referred to in autopsy reports, the arguments become moot. It’s not complicated. They’re kids.
But perhaps the most important thing for you, the reader, to know is that these were not necessarily all the gun deaths of young people that day. They are all the gun deaths I found. I found them through Internet searches and on news websites that tracked gun deaths on a daily basis. There was no other way.
Each of the more than three thousand counties in the country collects data in its own way and has different rules for how the information can be disseminated. Some will tell a reporter if there have been any gun-related fatalities in the last week; others refuse. Meanwhile, it takes more than a year for the numbers to be aggregated nationally by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So a project like this, which seeks to report on the cases in a more timely manner, is necessarily reliant primarily on local media. These are the gun deaths that I found that got reported.
As such, one important and sensitive category is absent: suicides. On average, around two of the seven gun deaths that occur in the United States each day involve young people taking their own lives.2 (They tend to be disproportionately male, white, Native American, or Native Alaskan.) Unless these tragedies are emblematic of some broader issue—online bullying, academic pressure, or a mass shooting—they are generally not reported. It is, apparently, in no one’s interest for suicides of any age group to become public knowledge. For the family the pain is compounded by stigma. For the media it is considered too intrusive and inherently unappealing to ask; mental health professionals fear publicity will encourage the vulnerable to follow suit. “They don’t like to report them on the television because it’s bad for advertising,” a representative of C.A.R.E.S. Prevention, a suicide-prevention organization based in Florida, told me. “They’re too much of a downer.” So more children and teens were almost certainly shot that day. These are just the ones we know about.