Arts & Culture » Fall Preview

Gary Younge’s quest to ensure that ten lives aren’t ten shooting deaths

In a forthcoming book, the author and onetime Chicagoan explores American gun violence by telling victims' life stories.

by

comment

The premise of Gary Younge's new book Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives (which will be released on October 4 by Nation Books) is both very simple and very chilling: on any given day, on average, seven children age 19 and younger will be shot to death somewhere in this country. Younge chose a random date, November 23, 2013, and set out to find all the kids who died from gunshots that day and document their lives.

The project has its roots in a lengthy article with a similar premise that Younge wrote in 2007 for the Guardian, where he was then the U.S. correspondent. One of the deaths particularly struck him. Brandon Martell Moore, a 16-year-old in Detroit, was shopping for video games with his friends when he was shot in the back by an off-duty cop moonlighting as a security guard. The cop, it turned out, had been suspended from the force for a DUI but was reinstated and had subsequently shot his wife and a neighbor, also while off-duty; after Moore's death, which was ruled justifiable homicide, the cop was reassigned to the traffic division. Neither of Detroit's daily newspapers reported the story beyond reprinting the press release from the police department. "That was enough for a bloody book in itself," Younge says. In the article format, though, he had only 600 words for Moore's story. A few years later he had the chance to expand the piece into a book and leaped at it, but he decided to start over with a different, more recent day.

November 23, 2013, was a Saturday. Statistically, there are more gun deaths on weekends than on weekdays, but Younge points out that if he were really trying to game the numbers, he would have chosen a day in the summer. There's no central database that tracks the number of gun-related homicides; in 2013, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre in December, 2012, both Slate and the New York Times kept tallies of gun deaths across the country, but they were by no means complete. Younge found the names of the ten young people in the book through Web searches, and then located their families through the White Pages and by traveling to their hometowns and visiting their neighborhood churches and funeral homes.

The deaths that day were, by and large, representative of what we've become accustomed to thinking is typical of gun-related child homicides. All ten were boys. They ranged in age from nine to 19. Seven were black, two were Latino, and one was white. One was from the south side of Chicago. Several were involved in gangs. At least two were probably involved in some sort of illegal activity when they were shot. All were killed by members of the same race as their own. Of the ten shooters, five were identified. Of those five, two were imprisoned.

There were a few variations from expectations. None was killed by a cop. None was a suicide. (Those, Younge says, are usually not reported.) And though two of the deaths were the result of kids playing with guns, none involved a toddler. (On average, there is one toddler-related shooting every week.) "But part of the power of the concept," Younge notes, "is that you kind of take what you get, and that it's a day."

Though Younge is British—he grew up in London, the child of immigrants from Barbados—he's married to an African-American woman, and they have two children, a three-year-old girl and a nine-year-old boy. During their last four years in America, they lived in Chicago, in Uptown, and Younge began to realize that there were particular challenges to being the parent of an African-American boy.

"The thing that surprised me most in writing the book was the degree to which the fear that a child, your child, might be shot dead had been baked into the African-American experience," Younge says. "I had been in the country for 12 years. I was embedded. But I wasn't quite prepared for that, the degree to which every family, when I said, 'Did you think this could happen? Did you imagine this could happen?' They would say, 'Well, yeah.' It's a lot to be walking around with, to have that as a baseline possibility that your child might be shot. It wasn't an epiphany, but after a while, I kept hearing these parents say, 'Yeah, this was something that obviously was a surprise to us that our child on that day was shot dead, but the notion that our child on some day could be shot dead, that we knew.' Well, that is like living in a state of terror. It's slow-motion terror, and it's horrible, and I hadn't really figured that, and then of course I realized that this, too, was something I had baked in, that this was part of the fear that I had."

If his son were shot to death, he realized, "It would be understood as being kind of collateral. I would have to prove why my kids shouldn't have been killed."

Younge is quick to say that if he wanted to avoid racism, he wouldn't have moved back to England. "Every country has racism," he says. "There's mental health issues in every country. There's poverty in every country. What there isn't in every country is all of those things and guns to the extent that there are in America."

The ten boys who were shot on November 23, 2013, lived in all regions of the country, from Newark to San Jose. The families of two of them, 19-year-old Kenneth Mills-Tucker and 18-year-old Pedro Dado Cortez, declined to speak to Younge, but the rest welcomed the chance to talk about their lost children.

"One of the things that's striking about this was the extent to which most of them had never been spoken to," Younge says. "You have a child, you would like people to know that they were here, and you would like to correct the way in which the child's been written about—or at least offer something more than is possible in a short news story. I would tell them—and it was true—anything you want to tell me about your child, I would like to hear."

Through interviews with family and friends, and also through Facebook and Twitter, Younge tried to get a sense of what each boy had been like. For the most part, they were unremarkable. "He wasn't an angel," says one of 17-year-old Stanley Taylor's former teachers, "but he wasn't the worst, either. Not by a long way. He was just a typical teen."

He could have been speaking of any of the kids in the book. They argued with their parents about homework or girls or staying out too late with friends the parents didn't trust. They liked messing around with electronics, or playing video games, or recording raps they had written themselves. Their families described them as "goofy." They drank and smoked pot. They had already lost friends to gun violence; their social media accounts were full of RIP posts and tributes. They were making plans, either on their own or with sympathetic teachers, to work harder in school or get a steady job: 18-year-old Gustin Hinnant was just a day away from leaving his home in Goldsboro, North Carolina, to look for work in Raleigh.

While nine-year-old Jaiden Dixon was shot in his own home by his mother's ex-boyfriend while he was getting ready for school, some of the other boys could not be described as "innocent" or "angels." As Younge writes of Tyshon Anderson, the 18-year-old Chicagoan who was already a powerful member of the Lakeside Gangster Disciples, "If I'd chosen another day, I could well have been reporting on one of Tyshon's victims." But Tyshon, like all the others, was also still a human being. He had parents and friends who loved him and now miss him and mourn him. "It goes against the natural order of things," Younge writes, "that a parent would ever have to bury her child."

"I had in this book kids who I knew as much as I could about, and therefore could act almost as proxies for other kids that I didn't know anything about," Younge says. "What I hope is that the book enables some empathy, that these are kids like your kids. These aren't some other species of child. There's nothing defective about these children. There's something defective about a society that makes them vulnerable to this kind of death."

In each of the stories, Younge teases out larger themes to create a picture of a culture where death by shooting seems less extraordinary than inevitable. He visits an NRA convention and the rural Michigan town where 11-year-old Tyler Dunn lived and died, where guns, especially during hunting season, are a standard piece of hardware. He looks at the ways gangs are so dominant in certain neighborhoods, like the part of Houston where 16-year-old Edwin Rajo lived, that almost everyone is a member by default. He describes how easy it is to fall from the middle class into poverty and those bad neighborhoods, as 16-year-old Samuel Brightmon's family did, and the larger economic forces—like the decline of manufacturing in Newark, 18-year-old Gary Anderson's hometown—that gut entire cities. He investigates the role of the media, which fails to report shootings in poor black neighborhoods, and the segregation that makes these stories easier for residents of wealthier areas to ignore.

"You get a sense that in the way [shootings are] reported and the way they're understood, these deaths, to a significant portion of the population, they don't matter," Younge says. "It's more white noise to another day in America, really. That's what happens. It's not surprising that a kid would be shot in that neighborhood. That if a kid gets shot in the south side of Chicago, somehow it's not news—it's what might happen to a child on the south side of Chicago."

Younge was very careful to make sure that Another Day in the Death of America would be a reported testimony of ten lives cut short by gun violence, not a polemic on the necessity of gun control. But he does note that on the same day that Adam Lanza took his gun to Sandy Hook Elementary, Min Yongjun, a mentally ill man in China, brought a knife into a school in Henan province. Min stabbed 23 children and one woman; none died. "Whatever one makes of the NRA axiom that 'guns don't kill people, people kill people,'" Younge writes, "it couldn't be clearer that people can kill people more efficiently with guns than with almost anything else that is commercially available in the United States."

"There's something really . . . troubling is too banal a word, but unsettling about the fact that on any given Saturday or Friday, you can wake up and know that seven or eight kids are going to be shot dead," he says. "You don't know who they are, you don't know when their number's going to come up. But the number's out there. And you can do that with such certainty that a book like this can be written. This is a book about how kids die. This is a book about how people live in this complicated way. Life is complicated, and people's lives are complicated."  v

Add a comment