Jaco: Have parts of St. Louis taken on a ‘death cult mentality’?

By all accounts, Kayden Johnson was a bright-eyed, smiling kid. He was two. He died May 1 inside his mother’s apartment on Ferris Avenue in the Mark Twain neighborhood. He was killed as his mother, 18 year old Trina’ty Riley, bent over him, trying to protect him from the gunman who also killed her. Some of the slugs went through the mother’s body and into the toddler.

The murders, in the Mark Twain neighborhood, occurred less than a mile from the April double murder of a man and a woman in the middle of Highland Avenue in broad daylight. Inside a car, police found a one year old, unhurt.

About two miles northwest of there earlier this week, police were called to an apartment on Ferris Avenue. They encountered a wounded man on the porch. Inside, they found three bodies, plus another injured person.

All of those men, women, and children are among the 50 people murdered in St. Louis so far this year. In all of these three incidents, the killers are still on the loose. That, according to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, puts them in the majority. Of the 50 killed, arrests have been made in only 12 of the cases.

They also have something else in common. Of the 50 dead, none are white. Forty-eight are African-American, two are Hispanic. That’s not surprising, given the locations of the homicides. According to the cops, six people have been murdered so far this year in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood, four each have been in the Walnut Park East, Baden, and Dutchtown neighborhoods, three have been gunned down  both The Ville and Hamilton Heights, and two each have been murdered in Gravois Park, Lewis Place, Penrose, Mark Twain, College Hill, and Jeff Vanderlou.

The overwhelming majority of the City’s murders, this year as in most years, have taken place on the North Side. Not surprisingly, the most murderous neighborhoods are also the ones where black residents have been leading the charge out of the City, abandoning St. Louis for what they hope is the comparative safety of the County, or another city in another state.

How bad is it? Consider that, so far this year, New York City has had 93 murders out of a population of eight million. St. Louis has had 50 for a population a little over 300,000. If New York had a murder rate like St. Louis’s, the Big Apple wouldn’t have 93 murders so far this year. They’d have 1,375. But in reality, it’s even worse than that. The murders have been almost exclusively among black St. Louisans, who number 143,000.

The epidemic of black people gunning down other black people takes place amid a backdrop of decades of racist redlining and disinvestment that have driven property values close to zero in many neighborhoods, a complete lack of any civic institutions outside of churches, rampant unemployment, soaring infant mortality rates, poverty, and a pervasive mistrust of the police.

But two other things are at work. One is a collection of lax gun laws that, since they were enacted in January 2017, have hampered the ability of cops to get guns off the streets, since Missourians, except for convicted felons, are allowed to carry as many guns pretty much anywhere they wish, legally.

The second is what sociologists call a “death cult mentality”, a phenomenon largely restricted to active war zones and American inner cities, where the physical, social, and psychological destruction of entire neighborhoods and cities results in a kill-or-be-killed mentality that stems from the human fight-or-flight response to danger never shutting down.

And this is the wreckage we’re left with. Not just the wreckage of entire blocks of gutted buildings slowly collapsing into the street. Not just the wreckage of families devastated by murder. Not just the wreckage of dozens of square miles where meaningful economic activity ceased to exist years ago. Not just the wreckage of social life in neighborhoods where basic middle-class institutions like the PTA, YMCA, Scouts, and civic organizations might as well be in the Moon.

The interior wreckage in the minds of the (mostly) young men with guns who are willing to kill anyone, including children, without hesitation, is the real threat that outrages normal people trying to raise children and live a peaceful life in the neighborhoods blown apart by violence.

The gunslingers need help. Anyone can see that. But they can also see these young men are extremely dangerous. And so far, thanks to communities unable or unwilling to come forward, sometimes indifferent police work, and a region that shrugs and says “It’s the North Side. What are you gonna do?”, the predators are running loose, willing to shoot anyone who gets in their way.

Including two year-olds like Kayden Johnson.

Charles Jaco

Charles Jaco is a journalist and author. He has worked for NBC News, CNN, KMOX, KTRS, and Fox 2. He is best known for his coverage of the first Gulf War, and for his "legitimate rape" interview with Senate candidate Todd Akin. He is the winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the author of four books.

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