'They're not forgotten': America's other epidemic killed 41,000 people this year
CHICAGO – In a downtown plaza typically filled with the smell of bratwurst and shoppers bustling among Christmas stalls, a different kind of tree illuminates the solemn square this holiday season: a black cloth tree bearing the names of 672 Chicagoans who were fatally shot in 2020.
"That person lived and mattered to our world. So the Tree of Remembrance is letting those families know that their loved one did matter and their pain matters," said Maxwell Emcays, an artist who organized the project in the city's Daley Plaza. "We have to stop and pause and acknowledge. And we have to find ways to help the community heal."
As the nation mourns the more than 300,000 people killed by COVID-19, Americans are also remembering the more than 41,000 people who died in gun violence this year. Many of the same Black and Latino neighborhoods in cities across the nation have been disproportionately affected by both epidemics.
Mercedes Jones, 27, put up a purple Christmas tree this week in honor of her little sister, Amaria, 13, who showing her mom a TikTok dance in her living room this summer when a stray bullet came through the front window. Her favorite color was purple.
"The star on top has her picture. The purple ornaments have her pictures," Jones said of the tree. "My family, we’re going to the cemetery this year to give her presents. We’re bringing her little gifts and opening them to show what we have in honor of her – what reminds us of her this holiday season. I’m making a purple banner that says 'TikTok Queen.'"
On Friday, Mercedes planned to bury her 18-year-old brother, Roderick, five plots from Amaria's grave. A rapper who dreamed of rocking a trench coat, Roderick was shot earlier this month. His family planned to buy trench coats and embroider his lyrics on the backs in green, his favorite color.
"You don’t get a break here. You don’t get a break," Jones said. "My son, he's 7, he's just seen too many tragedies. I know he’s traumatized. I’m not in the holiday mood anymore, but I have to be because I have a 7-year-old son who is looking forward to Santa."
More than 41,500 people died by gun violence this year nationwide, which is a record, according to the independent data collection and research group Gun Violence Archive. That included more than 23,000 people who died by suicide.
Annual firearm deaths have never exceeded 40,000 since at least 1981, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency has not yet reported numbers in 2019 or 2020, but provisional 2019 data suggests firearm deaths may have approached but did not exceed 40,000.
With regard to gun homicides, specifically, the U.S. has historically reported a rate about 25 times higher than other wealthy nations.
Cities across the nation – including Milwaukee; Indianapolis; Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio; Greensboro, North Carolina; Kansas City, Missouri; Louisville, Kentucky; and Trenton, New Jersey – have already surpassed their all-time records for homicides this year. Others, such as Philadelphia and Fort Worth, Texas, are seeing their highest numbers in decades.
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A rise in shootings accounts for the surge in many of the cities. Shootings are up 95% from the same time last year in New York, up 67% in Philadelphia and up 34% in Atlanta, according to local police departments. In Chicago, where homicides are up 56%, shootings also increased by 54%, resembling numbers not seen since 2016.
Nationwide, gun violence has particularly affected young people this year and claimed the lives of infants, toddlers, children and teens. Nearly 300 children ages 11 and younger were killed, and more than 660 were injured, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Among teens ages 12 to 17, more than 1,000 were killed, and nearly 3,000 were injured.
By September, two children's hospitals in St. Louis had treated more young patients for gunshot wounds than any other year on record. In Memphis, where more than 300 people were killed, 27 were under the age of 18. In Chicago, at least 11 children 11 years or younger were fatally shot and 49 were injured, according to the archive.
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Emcays said he was surprised to see two 17-year-old girls visit the Tree of Remembrance last week to look for the ornaments of people they knew.
"Those two girls pointed out six people that were on the tree," he said. "They were like, 'oh, that’s so-and-so.' That's not normal."
Eleven-year-old Davon McNeal was among the children shot in the nation's capital this year. Davon's mother, who works as violence interrupter in Washington, D.C., was hosting a community peace cookout July 4 in Southeast D.C. Davon had just stepped out of his mother's car when two groups fired at one another.
His family has been keeping his name alive through acts of service, such as feeding the homeless and handing out coats, said Davon's grandfather, John Ayala. For the holidays, the family planned to give out toys in the same area where Davon was shot.
Davon had been a star football player and first started playing when he was 6, taking after his older brother, Ayala said. After his death, Davon's family and neighbors raised enough money to purchase two vans in his name to give to the community. The local football team and other groups have used the van to travel and coordinate service trips.
"We just try to keep his name out by doing positive things in the community. That’s how we keep his name alive, and that’s how we remember him," Ayala said. "That’s the best we can do."
Many stakeholders have offered various explanations for the surge in gun violence this year. Michael-Sean Spence of the nonprofit Everytown, which advocates for gun control, said the factors driving gun violence this year are "much of the same," just on the fast track due to the pandemic.
Those factors include surging gun sales, increasing tension between police departments and the communities they police, an extended summer violence spike, and the disruption of school, social services and outreach and intervention programs, Everytown recently reported.
"Lack of access to income, suitable housing, and other critical life needs are key drivers of gun violence," the report says. "And decades of policy decisions and underinvestment in Black and Latino communities have created areas of concentrated disadvantage, where public health crises – including both COVID and gun violence – thrive."
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Although gun violence "happens in a split second, there's a ripple effect," said Spence, director of the nonprofit's Community Safety Initiatives. "This moment will continue into 2021, and it’s necessary that we not only address it at this point but that we sustain it into the following year."
Emcays, who organized the Tree of Remembrance, said it was a "slap in the face" to see how the nation was willing to mobilize resources to tackle the coronavirus pandemic when the gun violence epidemic has not received the same attention.
"There's never been the amount of attention placed (on gun violence) – not in the marketing dollars, not in the health dollars, not in the stimulus relief, the amount of care, and the way the conversation was had – nothing close to what was put toward the pandemic," he said.
Milwaukee resident Kamekia Patterson, 37, has found herself at the intersection of both epidemics this year. On Thanksgiving, her boyfriend of four years, Jonathan Bradley, 34, was fatally shot, and on Saturday, Patterson buried her brother's father, who was like a dad to her, after he died of COVID-19 at 71. Jonathan's funeral was the next day.
"He had five bouts of cancer, but COVID is what finally took him out," Patterson said of her brother's father. "We were prepared for that one. I wasn’t prepared for Jonathan."
Patterson said she has been remembering Jonathan by scrolling through old photos, rewatching videos and reminiscing with his mother. Jonathan was a man who could "do everything," Patterson said. He cooked. He danced. He had a passion for barbering. He was funny and loved kids – his own three daughters, as well as Patterson's three.
"He built the bunk beds in my daughter's room. Anything I asked him to do he did for me," Patterson said.
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Chicagoan LaTanya Moore, 49, has also lost several friends and family members to gun violence and COVID-19 this year.
"The death toll has taken it’s toll on me this year. It’s been too much," Moore said.
Moore's grand-nephew, 20-month-old Sincere Gaston, was shot and killed in June while riding in a car with his mother on the way home from the laundromat. He the "happiest little baby you’d ever see," Moore said. "He always was smiling. Always, always."
Months later, 18 family members contracted COVID-19 after attending a family funeral, and Moore's brother-in-law died after being put on oxygen. The day that the Tree of Remembrance was illuminated downtown in a ceremonial lighting, Moore's cousin died from a gunshot wound. She wasn't able to attend the ceremony but said she plans to visit the tree Saturday.
"Those kids did matter," Moore said. "They’re not forgotten. Someone is thinking of them, honoring them."
Moore said that her hope for the family's future generations is what's keeping her going.
"My grandbabies and my kids give me hope," Moore said. "I just say, we’re going to have a better 2021. By the grace of God, I’ll be 50."
If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night, or chat online. Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.
Peer support resources are listed at warmline.org. The Trevor Project offers a peer support network called TrevorSpace for LGBTQ youth, and the Trans Lifeline is a peer support service run by trans people.