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Murdered children and the selfishness of St. Louis

Say their names.

Dmyah Fleming, 7
Dmyah Fleming was 7. She liked to help her grandmother make cookies, especially with pink frosting.

Kevin Barrett III was 5, with a gap-toothed smile.

Ezell Johnson III was 15, a ninth-grader at Soldan High School.

Victor Williams Jr. was 16. He liked cookie cakes.

Deosha Purnell was 15. She liked to make social media dance videos and was nicknamed Princess.

Michael Goodwin III was 4. He died on the Fourth of July.

These are only a few of the children murdered in St. Louis in the past few months. Since 1990, almost 600 children have been gunned down in the city, a growing stack of tiny corpses that has helped give St. Louis the 13th highest murder rate of any city on earth with more than 50,000 people, ranking just behind Culican, Mexico, headquarters of the infamous Sinaloa Cartel.

Two hundred sixty-two people were murdered in the Gateway City last year, in a city with barely 300,000 people. If New York City had the same murder rate as The Lou, 7,209 New Yorkers would have been murdered last year, over 16 times the actual Big Apple murder toll of 447. If Chicagoans killed each other at the same rate, 2,620 would have been murdered there, three-and-a-half times the Windy City’s 769 actual homicides.

Like residents of Kabul or Mogadishu or Baghdad, St. Louisans have become numb to the carnage. In those active war zones, the bloodbath has continued for years, even decades, just as in St. Louis. For the past half-century, St. Louis has been among the top 20 deadliest cities per capita every single year. 

The war here was predicted 2,370 years ago, when Aristotle wrote in his “Politics” that “Poverty is the father of revolution and crime.”

Poverty in St. Louis shows up in statistics, such as the three city ZIP codes that have infant mortality rates higher than Malaysia’s; and on the streets, buried like dreams somewhere under the rubble of buildings that have collapsed into broken piles of 19th-century brick and 20th-century policies, creating a 21st-century dystopia in which guns are easier to get than jobs, medical care or bags of fresh vegetables.

But Aristotle’s dictum about poverty has been given a shot of steroids by decades of urban policies based in selfishness, self-regard, racism, tribalism and greed. It’s impossible to overstate the corrosive effects of more than a century of smug, third-rate leadership on a city that flirted with being a metropolis of national consequence for a few decades before slowly sinking, like a horse trapped in quicksand, into suffocating irrelevance, bigotry and violence.

From the 1870s, when steamboat magnates stopped the construction of railroad bridges over the Mississippi and handed future growth to Chicago, to the 1970s, when Atlanta declared itself “The city too busy to hate” and St. Louis responded with “Hold my beer” while doubling down on racist urban renewal and highway-building, St. Louis civic leadership has constantly put parochial political and corporate interests above the well-being of the majority of city residents.

Fast forward to the age of pandemic, growing fascism, white rage, Black uprising, a GOP super-majority Missouri government bent on jihad against urban areas, and a flailing, impotent city ruling class desperately seeking solutions with no money and even less vision, and it’s not surprising that we can respond to murdered children with only thoughts and prayers.

A Missouri legislature dog-whistling to rural white fear has resulted in gun laws that barely exist, allowing everyone except felons to carry, openly, enough firepower to stage a small-country coup. So city cops can stop a car filled with guns and felons, and the one kid in the backseat who doesn’t have a felony conviction claims the hardware is all his, so no one in the rolling arsenal can be held for anything.

But police aren’t the answer to surging gun deaths, and more than an umbrella is the answer to a Mississippi River flood. A city that’s over a hundred cops short has a major problem with law enforcement, of course. But the bigger problem comes from the lack of legitimacy and trust in a police infrastructure with a reputation for violence and racism.

In some cases, police hardly bother. Only 45 percent of homicides in the city result in arrests, and in some hard-hit neighborhoods such as Jeff-Vander-Lou and The Ville, two-thirds of murderers are never arrested. 

The result has been a drop of almost 14 percent in the city’s Black population since 2011, as African-American families who can leave flee to North County, Illinois, or out of the area completely to get away from soaring crime and collapsing infrastructure.

Meanwhile, early intervention programs such as the Cure Violence initiative remain scattershot and underfunded. But the city’s political leaders seem consumed with protecting political turf as the city prepares to shrink the Board of Aldermen to 14 members from 28.

What remains of the big business community has been largely silent except for Centene Corporation CEO Michael Neidorff, who has threatened to move corporate headquarters from St. Louis to Charlotte because of crime while secretly funding efforts to consolidate local police departments, while not spending one cent to fund early intervention crime prevention programs.

So while parochial posturing among the elite classes continues, a St. Louisan is gunned down every 33 hours. Once every 18 days, the victim’s a child.

And now, every time you see a plate of cookies, imagine 7-year-old Dmyah Fleming and her grandma laughing and baking together less than 24 hours before Dmyah was gunned down while sitting in a car beside her father.

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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