In Detroit, a crusade to stop child killings

Why they're rising in some cities

Sitting in the summer sun watching boat races from the beach at Detroit's Belle Isle, Sandy Gary keeps her daughter Shaliesha close by.

It's become something she does all the time. It's the way Ms. Gary helps ensure that the smiling 9-year-old with bows in her braids is safe. Keeping kids out of danger has become an overriding concern for many parents in Detroit. Since the beginning of the year, 15 children have been murdered in the Motor City – almost as many as were killed in all of 2000.

From neighborhoods to pulpits to city hall, the trend is fueling a determination that Detroit, for decades virtually synonymous with violent crime, not become the murder capital of the US again.

The spate of child deaths – some innocents caught in gun crossfire, others unintentional victims of revenge – is part of an overall hike in the homicide rate that has ticked up in dozens of US cities in the past year. In a handful of them – Detroit, Boston, and Memphis, Tenn. – the number of child victims has struck a deep chord, renewing fears of the rampant, indiscriminate killings that beset many American cities during the late 1980s and early '90s.

The reason criminologists cite for the hike in the overall murder rate is a combination of the economic slump, a demographic bulge of teens in their peak crime-committing years, and a large number of felons now back on the streets after serving their time for crimes going back to the '80s.

But in Detroit's distressed neighborhoods, parents, grass-roots activists, and civic leaders are looking for deeper answers. What they're finding is a community in crisis due to several leading causes. The first is a broken criminal justice system that cycles felons in and out of jail, angry and unrepentant. Then there are sex- and violence-obsessed music videos, blockbuster movies, and the like, with their hard-edge rap lyrics and glorification of guns. Finally, they've found a dangerous ignorance when children have children and are left to raise them on their own in isolated poverty.

Combine them all in neighborhoods where drugs and guns are easily available, and you get what criminologist Carl Taylor of Michigan State University calls the rule of the hood.

"We have a culture that has normalized violence and ignorance," he says. "Many kids here see having sex and being violent as a way of getting notches on their belts."

Looking for solutions

But Detroit is also a community full of people determined to heal. And they're now looking inward for both the causes of the killings, as well as the solutions.

"We're dealing with a cultural problem here ... and the only way we're going to solve it is to get the community to step up in a mighty way and wrap our arms around our children," says Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. "What we need to have here is a spiritual movement in the city of Detroit."

This is the once-powerful Motown, the country's automotive engine that's now sputtering. In 30 years, half its population has fled – most of the middle class, white and black. Well-maintained brick homes now sit beside boarded-up, abandoned houses and vacant lots, knee high with grass and weeds. Teenagers openly roll blunts – the thick, potent marijuana cigarettes – while filling up their SUVs at the corner gas station. Top-of-the-line assault weapons are as easy to buy as Saturday night specials at a body shop just a five-minute drive from downtown.

But in the past decade and a half, city leaders and community groups have fought to turn around the city and its image. Under Mayor Dennis Archer, economic development plans spurred more than $13 million of investment in downtown. The Detroit Tigers – with financing help from the city – built a 40,000-seat stadium. Three glittering new casinos are drawing people downtown and generating more tax revenues. A few blocks closer to city hall, workers are soldering glass panels into Compuware's new international headquarters.

But a dozen art-deco skyscrapers still stand abandoned, and more than a quarter of the city's usable office space is vacant. They're physical reminders of the challenges that remain – from overhauling its inefficient police department to educating the almost 50 percent of adults who are functionally illiterate.

Turmoil in the '70s and '80s

Still, Detroit is far safer than it was 25 years ago. A common joke then summed up the city's prospects: The last person out should simply turn out the lights. The homicide rate, which had leveled off after spiraling up in the '70s, was ticking upward again. In 1986, 365 children under age 16 were shot. Forty-three of them died.

One of them was Clementine Barfield's 16-year-old son. Like several of the children killed this year, he was simply caught in crossfire, as one kid shot at another.

Ms. Barfield's response was to found a group known around the city as SOSAD. It stands for Save Our Sons and Daughters and is dedicated to helping victims of gun violence and promoting "peaceful communities."

"We have to think of Detroit as a city that's not well," she says. "[What we're seeing now] is the long-term impact that violence and homicide has had on our people. Detroit has had one of the highest homicide rates in the nation for 35 years. It started to increase right after the riots in 1967, when we had a huge influx of guns and drugs dumped into the city."

In a conference room next to her office, a three-sided bulletin board is papered with programs from the funerals of kids killed since the organization was founded in 1986. From the cover of one of the most recent ones, a smiling 10-year-old, DeAntoine Trammell, looks out. He wanted to be a basketball star and loved to sing blues and gospel songs on the way to school with his mother. He was at home sleeping on June 3 when his aunt and her boyfriend got into a drunken fight in the kitchen. The boyfriend allegedly threatened to kill himself, but instead fired into the wall. The bullet pierced it and killed DeAntoine in the next room.

That kind of senselessness marks many of the children's deaths here. In March, 3-year-old Destinee Thomas was killed while sitting at home watching TV. According to police, two petty drug dealers opened fire on the house with an AK-47 in a dispute over turf. In April, 8-year-old Brianna Caddell was also killed by an AK-47 sprayed indiscriminately into her house.

That was in revenge for an earlier shooting. She was asleep in bed at the time.

Then there's 16-year-old Alesia Robinson. She was sitting on her front porch with her boyfriend, a 19-year-old convicted drug dealer. He was playing with his gun. She'd asked him to stop. Instead, according to police, he pointed it at her and fired, killing her almost instantly.

In a less violent, but perhaps more chilling case, Tarajee Shaheer Maynor left her two children in a hot car for 3-1/2 hours while she got a massage and her hair done. They suffocated to death. She told police she was "too stupid" to know that would cause them any harm.

Each individual's worth

"The real issue is that these young people have no value for others' lives, because there's no value on their own," says one of the city's leading black activists, the Rev. Horace Sheffield III, head of the National Action Network's Michigan chapter. "That's what we've got to work at, to find a way to let these people know they have some value, and they can contribute no matter what the circumstances are of their birth and upbringing."

Mr. Sheffield believes that can be accomplished without new money or programs, if all the city's churches work together and coordinate their efforts.

"The church really needs to find a way to take responsibility for this," he says, "even if it means walking the streets at night and doing whatever is necessary to talk some sense into our young people."

But others say the city has a major role to play, too. Its police department is being overhauled and is working cooperatively with county and state law enforcement to stem the gun violence.

In addition, Mayor Kilpatrick is pledging to tear down as many as 4,000 abandoned houses near schools where he says drug dealers stash weapons and prey on nearby neighbors.

Yet his real focus, he says, is on the city's children. This fall, Detroit will start what's called "mayor's time" from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Adults will provide supervised programs for the estimated 50 percent of kids who say they take care of themselves either before or after school.

Although to pay for it in this cash-strapped city, in essence the mayor has had to go begging. He's trying to raise $30 million in private money to fund that and other priorities.

Needed: positive entertainment

Criminologist Taylor says such programs will help, but the media have a key role to play in changing the hard-edge nature of youth culture as well. He wants rappers, in particular, to stop glorifying guns, violence, and rape, and begin sending positive messages to kids.

"When I play aggressive hip hop, it makes me very agitated," he says. "If the music is healing, then it sets the tone."

That was clear recently at Belle Isle, during the annual Metro Youth Day. Fifteen thousand elementary and junior-high kids from around the city descended on the Detroit River island park for a day of games, music, pie-eating contests, and wrestling matches.

Hundreds of them danced around a makeshift stage in a field while a local rap group got them to sing along. "When I say drugs, you say, 'No!' " the rappers shouted to the crowd of smiling, rocking kids, who sang back, "No, no!"

For 14-year-old Shardae Jones, who was helping with younger kids at the event, this is exactly the kind of thing adults should be doing more of. She's already seen some of the kids she's grown up with get heavily involved with drugs and drop by the wayside.

"I try to talk to them, but talking to them don't change anything. They still feel the same way," she says.

That bothers her, just as it scares her when she walks to school, because of the recent spate of killings. Her friend Laquail Ramos doesn't like it either.

"Adults could do a lot more, but they don't, because they're lazy," Laquail says. "All of the parents should come together and work things out. They shouldn't just worry about just their own kids. They should worry about all of our kids."

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