The national News21 Initiative brings together a select group of student journalists to produce a major national investigation into a topic of wide interest. This year, News21 has documented the struggle over gun rights and regulations in America. Under the direction of some of the nation's best professional investigative journalists, 29 students from 16 universities have traveled the country to produce text, videos and interactive graphics to tell the story "Gun Wars: The Struggle Over Rights and Regulation in America." Over the next two weeks we will be featuring much of their reporting. You may view the entire project at the News21 website.
R.I.P.s are scrawled on the shell of a burned-out brick building, pockmarked by bullet holes. Overgrown with vines, its dilapidated outer walls recall the ruins of a fortress, a monument to a long-finished battle. But a war still courses through the streets of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In the past decade, it’s claimed the lives of hundreds of people — most of whom were black and barely into adulthood.
In Flint, Michigan, swing-sets in Mott Park are empty as drug dealers and gang members claim the turf as their own, guns tucked in their waistbands. During summer months, parents keep their children indoors, rarely letting them play outside in the daytime. Kickball at night isn’t even a thought. The recreation centers created to give the city’s youth a refuge are now hotbeds of violence, referees replaced with police.
Amid the crumbling row houses in once-industrial Camden, New Jersey, murals are dedicated to the fallen, hundreds more lost in one of America’s deadliest cities. One is dedicated to a veteran who survived his deployment in Iraq unscathed only to be shot and killed in his hometown.
“This is not a war you can win in one day,” one Camden police officer said. “This is not a war where you can go and get rid of the bad guys and say, 'OK guys, here’s your city back.'
“We have to occupy this city forever.”
Homicides are down across most of the country, but little has changed in these three cities. Parents are still losing their children at an alarming rate. Over 40 percent of all victims of firearm-related homicides are 25 or younger. In Camden, Flint and Baton Rouge, the typical victim is just 22.
A News21 analysis of the FBI’s national database of supplementary homicide reports found that across the country, 17,422 black men between ages 13 and 30 have been killed by firearms since 2008.
Patrick Holmes has a large pink scar running from his right wrist to the top of his little finger, a remnant of a gunfight he got into when he was 16. Next to the scar is a tattoo — a black, cursive “R.I.P.” On his left hand is one word: “Lawrince,” his best friend, now dead.
“I was crying, high, drinking, ain’t want to talk to nobody, couldn’t eat for a couple weeks,” Holmes said, of the day his friend was killed.
Now 19, Holmes points to an overgrown yard across from the train tracks that run along a busy highway in a neighborhood of north Baton Rouge called Scotlandville. In the distance is a new, two-story police station. This is where his friend was shot in the chest in September 2011 - collateral damage in someone else’s fight over a girl. He says it took 30 minutes for the police to respond.
News21’s analysis found 74 homicides in Baton Rouge in 2012, giving the city of 230,000 a homicide rate that is nearly seven times higher than the national rate. The data shows that a majority of Baton Rouge’s homicides — 85 percent — involved firearms, and the victims in 68 percent of all firearm-related homicides in Baton Rouge were 30 or younger in 2012.
“Murder in Baton Rouge, period, is glorified,” Holmes said. “The dude that go to school … he get his GED, high school diploma — he get all that, he a square. You ain’t nothing until you get out here and shoot you somebody. You get yourself a body.”
Louisiana’s murder rate has been the highest in the country, with 10.8 murders for every 100,000 people. Some have attributed Louisiana’s high murder rate to the prevalence of weapons in the state and its strong gun culture.
Holmes said he got his first gun when he was 11. He knew where a man kept it, so he stole it and sold it for $150 the same day. Stealing is just one way to get a gun in Baton Rouge -- with $50, it’s easy to buy one on the street, Holmes says.
Perry Brooks, 42, is a substitute teacher in the city. He lives in Scotlandville, just across the train tracks from Southern University, and is a mentor to many former students, including Holmes. The kids in Scotlandville respect him — he’s not afraid of them. Brooks survived a gunshot wound to the head when he was 20. He says it’s not surprising to see 11-year-olds with guns. He’s seen fourth-graders bring them to class. He was disappointed when one of his 10th-grade students, who had a 3.79 GPA, was kicked out of school for selling a gun on campus.
“You’ve got to have guns to ward off people who intend to do harm with them,” Brooks said. “If I have a shotgun, someone is less likely to rob me.”
For Holmes and many of his friends, carrying a weapon is about the economics of survival. He says that most of the kids he knows are raising themselves. They might not know their parents or have a place to live. In Scotlandville, 56 percent of children under the age of 18 live below the poverty line according to U.S. Census data.
“It’s so many situations people grow up in … seeing his mother get beat or on dope and he got to get it for his family,” Holmes said. “He’s 5 years old, breaking into everybody’s cars trying to get something to eat for his little sister or something. You think he get old enough and he get a gun, you think he ain’t going to rob somebody? You think he won’t kill you to go bring that back to his people?”
“This environment don’t do nothing but just swallow you up.”
Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore says he sees kids on the witness stand, no older than 15, who have a three-page rap sheet. He often asks where they see themselves at age 18.
“There’s generally two answers,” Moore said. “The answer is either at Angola (prison) doing a life sentence for killing someone … or being dead.”
Last year, Baton Rouge received a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to reduce youth violence. The grant helped the city fund the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination program (BRAVE), which is modeled after “Operation Ceasefire,” a crime-reduction strategy that’s effectively reduced gun crime in many American cities since it was first implemented by the Boston Gun Project in 1996.
The program’s primary goal is to get youth to put their guns down and stop shooting each other, Moore said.
The grant is directed at one ZIP code: 70805. Just north of downtown Baton Rouge, bordered on the west by the mammoth ExxonMobil refinery, the 70805 area is predominantly black, and very poor. Moore said it accounts for 13 percent of the city’s population, but 40 percent of all police calls in Baton Rouge come from there.
Moore attributes a drop in Baton Rouge murders last year — from 72 in 2012 to 61 in 2013 — to BRAVE. However, while crime fell in BRAVE’s target area, it rose in some neighboring areas.
On March, 27, Lashona Mosby’s three sons were shot in broad daylight in an area of Baton Rouge referred to as “the Jungle” — just east of 70805. Two survived: her youngest son, age 21, was shot once and the oldest, 25, was shot twice. But her 23-year-old middle son was shot three times in the head and twice in the upper torso. He did not survive.
“We are rooted and grounded in God,” Mosby said. “But I do have my moments when I’m at home, and I might scream. Like today I woke up, I went outside. About 6 o’clock in the morning I began to cry out, to shed tears, because as days go by, months go by I’m missing my son even more so.”
Recently, Mosby has been attending anti-violence events. She hopes to form a support group for mothers who have lost children to violent crime .
“We’re not speaking up enough,” Mosby said. “We’re not being those people that we used to be, whether we’re white, black, no matter what we are, just stand together, pull together.”
Around the corner from Hurley Medical Center, a teaching hospital that treats dozens of shooting victims in Flint, five men rest on the rotting wooden steps of a chipped and crooked house. They say they’re exhausted from a day of work on the streets.
“I don’t like doing that shit man. I don’t like feeding my kids with drug money,” one man says.
Flint residents say the robberies and violence stem from drugs, a lack of education, and a lack of jobs. When General Motors and other factories left, the city’s fall from grace came shortly after. For years, it topped lists as the most-violent city in the nation.
One of the men, who calls himself “Big Hurt,” has lived in the city his whole life and laments how much it has changed and how violent it has become. “I just got shot, around June 5 of last year, like right here,” he says, while pointing at the corner right in front of the home. “Over a whole bunch of bullshit. But I ain’t crying over it…it is what it is.”
In 2012, there were 64 murders in the city, which had 101,632 residents that year, 13 times higher than the national murder rate. Nearly 90 percent of those homicides were firearm-related.
The numbers don’t surprise these men, whose conversations are strewn with murder stories. A man who called himself “Boobie Dawg” said his nephew went to prison because of a $32 gun.
“Him and another friend, they went half on it. Him and another friend were running around going ‘I got you, I got you’ with the gun .... My nephew was f---ing around, he pulled it and he killed somebody. He’s in prison right now. He didn't mean to shoot him, but he shot him.”
It’s Porsha Fluker’s 21st birthday. She’s trying to enjoy a rare day off work, to celebrate with family and friends. But she can’t help thinking about her older brother, now dead. It’s her first birthday without him and the trial of his accused killer is set to start in the weeks to come.
“There is not a day when I’m not thinking about him. I think what hurts more is that I’ll never see him again,” Fluker said, fighting to hold back tears until she no longer can.
He brother, Terience Demonte Johnson, was 26 when he was shot and killed on Oct. 12, 2013. Shortly after his death, Fluker got a tattoo in his memory. It’s a lifeline, like one from a cardiac monitor, intended to represent the peaks and valleys during his short life.
The peaks include the times Johnson cheered on Fluker at her basketball games, and the birth of his two daughters, now 6 and 8 years old.
The low points are run-ins with the law. Johnson did some time in jail for selling drugs, but his grandmother, Star Kelly, said, “He was trying to turn his life around and we thought things were going good.”
A suspect is in custody, but Johnson’s family still doesn’t know why he was killed, or exactly how it happened. No witnesses have come forward. Kelly says it’s difficult to find people willing to speak to police or in court in Flint, as they fear retaliation.
“We’ve seen people try to tell what they’ve seen and the next day they’re dead,” she said.
Although she may never know why her brother had to die, Fluker hopes the trial will bring her peace, and her brother justice.
“I hope that he do life in prison and whoever else was involved I hope they go down too,” she said of her brother's killer.
If there’s redemption to be found, it comes at the Foss Avenue Baptist church where the Brothers Battling Bloodshed are trying keep young men from killing and dying.
“Thank you Lord for everything you’ve done for us,” they pray at their meeting. “Thank you for motivating us to move past any situation or any wrong, Father, that may try to hold us back.”
In a city where little is sacred, Foss Avenue Baptist’s basketball court and community garden are sanctuaries. All of the youth in Brothers Battling Bloodshed live in close proximity to the church, making it easy for them to meet, garden, talk politics and go to theater performances together.
The program director, Roderick Green, hopes he can keep kids from picking up guns by keeping their minds on other things.
Isiaha Canada’s best friend encouraged him to join the outreach group. The 16-year-old had some close calls — including having a gun pointed to his head — and his friend thought that the group might be able to protect him.
“My friend got shot in front of me on my porch,” Canada said. “You see that happen you be like, ‘Oh, shit, it’s a body in front of me, it’s bleeding.’ You don’t know what to do … I was scared.”
Canada says it’s common to see kids as young as 14 carrying guns. He used to be one of them, and reluctantly admits he once shot someone he didn’t like.
“I did what I did,” he said. “I can’t go back in time and stop what I did, but I was young and dumb. Just seeing older people do it, I do it.”
According to Canada, guns in Flint are “dirt cheap” and he says they mostly come from predominantly white suburbs like nearby Grand Blanc, Michigan.
Throughout his first term in office, U.S. Congressman Dan Kildee has fought to secure federal resources for cities like Flint to combat violent crime. In May, Kildee introduced an amendment that would add $15 million to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives budget to fund partnerships of local and federal organizations to “go after these basically bad guys with guns” as he puts it.
The bill failed, and Kildee says many in the government don’t believe there’s “a legitimate federal role” in supporting cash-strapped cities like Flint. But Kildee, a Democrat who was born and raised in Flint, believes the city can only improve if given federal assistance and that it’s the government’s “most significant” responsibility to provide for the basic safety of its citizens.
“The thing to keep in mind is that the people who live in Flint, they’re not any different than the people who live anywhere else,” Kildee said. “They have the same aspirations that anyone else does. They just need to be given the same opportunities. And we, as a society, have a responsibility to them.”
Every other week, the mothers of Camden meet at Virtua hospital, where they come to talk about the dead. They cluster around a table, where the windows behind them frame an American flag flying in front of the towering oxidized copper spires of a historic Catholic church.
Each one raised children in the city; each one lost children to the city.
"I don't think I can really ever 'get over' losing my son," says one of the women. "They told me to go to counseling, but those psychiatrists haven't gone what I've gone through."
Cheri Burks started the support group, United Mothers Stand, after her son was shot and killed on Mother's Day last year. He was 24 years old.
“Nobody here has money,” Christina “Goosie” Carstarphen said. “Nobody has a bank account, nobody has homes, nobody has a business.”
Carstarphen saw her son, Robert, lying in an alley after he was shot and killed in 2012.
“For him to be gunned down like he was, in an alleyway, like a dog, that wasn’t right,” she said. “I couldn’t even cry, I was so angry. It was just like, something just ripped out of my body, like a part of me just went.”
After her son’s death, she installed blackout blinds throughout her apartment. She wanted to grieve in the dark.
“I lost my job and everything when my son died,” Carstarphen said. I didn’t want to leave the house. I shut myself down.”
Camden is a community that has been wrecked by gun violence. In 2012, the small city — only nine square miles with a population of 77,000 — had a murder rate that was 17 times higher than the national murder rate. Since then, the number of murders has fallen, down from 65 in 2012 to 58 in 2013 and 19 so far in 2014, according to statistics from the Camden County Police Department.
Despite the falling homicide rate, the problems plaguing Camden and spurring violent crime are numerous. Police Chief Scott Thompson calls the city “the perfect storm of social inequities.” Its streets are deteriorating. There are no supermarkets, and restaurants are hard to find. It is one of the poorest cities in the United States with a per capita income of around $13,000, and there are few job opportunities.
One factor contributing to the killings is the proliferation of illegal firearms. About eight out of 10 guns the police confiscate are from out of state, Thompson said, coming from Pennsylvania and Maryland, both of which have more relaxed gun laws than New Jersey. Frequently, they end up in the hands of Camden’s youth.
Former Camden County Prosecutor Diane Marano said young men in Camden carry guns for protection after they start working on the streets. Marano, who wrote a doctoral thesis on juvenile gun acquisition, interviewed many jailed youth from south New Jersey. In an environment of acute economic deprivation, a gun was "a key to anything you want to do," one teen told her.
Thompson says that with so many guns accessible, they’re commonly used to resolve street-corner disputes.
Camden County Police — successors to the Camden Police Department, which was disbanded in 2012 after the city ran out of money to pay for its own force — has taken on a more prominent role in the community since its was formed in 2013, increasing foot patrols and installing additional surveillance cameras. Thompson said the heightened police presence seems to be helping, with murders down by 35 percent so far this year.
Nevertheless, many Camden residents say they do not feel any safer. People are still reluctant to venture far beyond their “'hoods” -- there’s still a feeling that safety is only possible if you stay within a stone’s throw of your own house.
Thompson concedes that the police will never be able to solve every problem the city is facing.
“We got a gun and we got a pair of handcuffs,” he said. “The pistol and the bracelets aren’t going to fix the problems of our city, and we try to use those as tools of last resort.”
The first line of defense is the community.
Hamzah Hamid is a fixture on Haddon Avenue. Shouts of “Assalamu Alaikum” typical of this heavily Muslim community greet him. He’s a religious man; a prayer bump on his forehead from his daily devotions proves the intensity with which he practices his faith. He feels it’s his destiny to stay in Camden, to keep kids from going down the same path he did: Hamid served three years in prison for selling drugs.
Hamid is one of the co-founders of Rising Leaders, an outreach group trying to create positive opportunities for at-risk youth. He talks to kids in Camden about everything from job readiness, budgeting, and healthy eating. He wants them to have goals, to plan for a future many have trouble imagining.
"We're just trying to show these young bulls that they can do something else with their lives besides dealing drugs and gang-banging," Hamid said.
He says the young people he works with turn to crime because they’re frustrated and alone. They have no place to go, and no positive role models. Part of Hamid’s work is simple: Give the kids something to do besides run the streets. On the bottom floor of his house, Hamid offers drop-in karate courses and lets neighborhood kids play videogames.
“If there were two or three more people like Hamid in Camden,” said Dexter Hart, Hamid’s father-in-law, “the city would be a lot better off.”
A few blocks north of Rising Leaders' makeshift headquarters, a Jesuit priest is fighting the same battle. The Rev. Jeff Putthoff, is the founder and executive director of HopeWorks N' Camden, a group that focuses on helping youths who come from unstable housing situations. The program offers temporary housing and helps young men and women get jobs and GED certificates.
The cornerstone of the program, however, focuses on the youths’ pasts. HopeWorks provides counseling, employing a form of treatment called trauma-informed care that looks at the impact trauma has had on the lives of youths in the program.
“The people living in Camden, especially the youths, have been exposed to so much stress in their lives due to the poverty they've grown up in and the violence all around them,” Putthoff said. “This hurts them when they try to get and hold a job.”
Puthoff says that many young people turn to drugs to alleviate the distress caused by trauma.
"I see a future of healing, but a future that requires a lot of work," he said. “Healing takes work, healing is sweaty.”
“Hope is sweaty.”
A few years ago, Pyne Poynt Park in North Camden was a notorious open-air drug market, littered with needles. But in 2011, Bryan Morton founded the North Camden Little League, remaking the park as one of the only places offering recreational activities to the city’s youth. Now, he says, summer is the best season in Camden.
“Everybody is out, everybody is connected,” Morton said. “Nobody wants to leave the park, nobody wants to go home, everybody wants another at bat.”
He says he founded the baseball league to give fathers the chance to be fathers, mothers a time to relax, kids the opportunity to be kids and to let everyone forget for a moment that they live in the most-dangerous city in America.
He loves the view from the baseball field.
“The sun’s setting, the back channel of the Delaware, light breeze blowing through the trees, kids and coaches. Parents looking on. That’s all-American,” Morton said.
“This is reminding us of our place in this society, and it’s reminding the society that we are here.”
And that they want their children to live.
Erin Patrick O’Connor, Jon LaFlamme, Claudia Balthazar and Jackie DelPilar contributed to this report. O’Connor is an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation News21 Fellow; LaFlamme is a News21 Weil Fellow and DelPilar is The John and Patty Williams Fellowship Fellow.