“You don’t know where they are going to die, or who they are going to be,” says Gary Younge, referring to the fact that an average of seven children and teenagers die in gun-related incidents every day in America.
The Guardian columnist and author spent 12 years as the newspaper’s US correspondent, but is still amazed at the ability of Americans to explain away the country’s gun problem.
“You’d just be amazed at how many Americans could frame most of these deaths as though they were dismissible,” Younge says.
His new book, Another Day In The Death Of America, takes a random day in 2013 and tells the story of the ten children killed by gun violence. All were male, seven were black, two were Latino and one was white. The youngest was just nine. Younge says writing it made him “want to scream”.
As a resident of Chicago for several years, where 20-30% of kids in public schools have witnessed a shooting, the 47-year-old’s own life has been repeatedly touched by gun violence.
“When my daughter was a few months old, my wife took her for a walk on our road to help her sleep. A gunfight broke out between her and the house. She called me and was like ‘There’s a gunfight, I don’t know how to get home, I don’t know what to do’,” he says.
Younge knows people who have had family members that killed by guns. There was even a shootout near his son’s daycare centre. Every Spring, the melting ice in Chicago would reveal discarded guns in the streets. “A gun washed up behind a school, another behind a shop… so it’s not like I didn’t have skin in the game.”
“If you live in Chicago as I did, these kids were flashing up on the news all the time,” he tells me from The Guardian office’s cafe in central London. “I want to tell people: ‘This is what these kids are like, this is what you’re switching off from’. And hopefully create a sense of empathy.
“It may be very unlikely that this will happen to you, because you’re white and wealthy, or wealthier, or black and wealthier. No rich kids got shot on this day [that I looked at], although rich kids do get shot. In a statistical sense, it couldn’t be you, but are these kids so different from your kids? Are you so different from their parents, really? Is it their fault that they got killed, or is there something broader going on that you wanna think about, before it is your kid in Newtown, or Aurora, or somewhere else.
“Otherwise, it gets to a stage in America where kids are supposed to get shot, and places where they are not.”
The circumstances of the deaths his book narrates range from deliberate murders to tragic accidents. One 11-year-old was killed by his friend at a rural sleepover and an 18-year-old was shot in a stairwell, days after being released from prison. One death was a case of mistaken identity, another was the unsolved death of 16-year-old Samuel Brightmon, who was hit by a stray bullet while walking down the street near his home in Dallas.
Cases like these defy the stereotypes of shooting victims, Younge says. Samuel’s neighbourhood, called Pleasant Grove, was notoriously rough. “You had one local saying ‘I’ve got children, I wouldn’t let them out at night in this area’.
“But then you find Samuel’s parents, and he was playing Uno, literally drinking cocoa, and watching We’re The Millers [before he stepped outside].”
Most of the children’s deaths received minimal media coverage, so it was left to Younge to travel around the country, from Newark to Dallas, knocking on doors and leaving notes to try and track down the family and friends and build a picture of each child’s life.
One boy is thought to have died because he was wearing a hoodie which was the same shade of red as one worn by a youth who had killed someone, and whose friends wanted retribution. Another lost his life because he happened to open the front door to his mother’s ex-boyfriend, who shot him in the head as he was intent on harming her and her children.
These lives and deaths, which Younge narrates with devastating effect, interwoven with the history and social pressures that shaped them, are personal to him. “Guns are the leading killer of black kids in the US under the age of 19: my kids [now aged three and nine] are black.”
Younge says his aim is to make the children’s deaths “deaths of actual people, as opposed to a statistic or something you read on the news.”
“There is this desire to try and dismiss a lot of these deaths, saying there must have been something going on [to cause them],” he says.
Younge has covered Black Lives Matter extensively in the States. He wrote this summer that the “horrific” slaying of five police officers at a Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas “should not detract from the movement, which remains peaceful in its demand for equal justice.”
But in the UK, he thinks the British version of BLM needs to be more “sophisticated” than its sister movement, and it is not “necessarily bad” if most protesters are white.
Younge feels the movement is about “more than just people getting shot in the street”. He suggests that the UK campaign adopt a more nuanced approach than its American cousin because black people are not often “literally murdered on the streets” by police in Britain.
“They seem to have a kind of guerilla style... they are kinda ninja,” Younge tells me of what he has seen of the UK Black Lives Matter campaign, which recently blockaded London’s City Airport, leading to nine arrests.
“I’m interested to see how they translate the slogan to this context,” Younge says. “Black people do get killed in custody, [in Britain] and they are more likely to be killed. There’s a range of things that you can talk about, but it’s not on the scale or proportion as in America, lethally speaking.
“So it’s interesting to see how they reshape that message, which in America really comes to the fore in moments where black people are literally being murdered on the streets. There are less of those moments in Britain, so it’s going to have to be a more sophisticated sell, and I’m waiting to see how they do that.”
Younge says that the fact that the protesters who breached security to shut down City Airport on 6 September were overwhelmingly white was significant, “but I don’t necessarily think it’s bad.”
“My feeling about anti-racism in general is that racism actually deforms all of us, and certainly racism is not black people’s idea,” he says, “so the more white people who are involved in anti-racism movements the better.”
He pointed to the ‘Freedom Summer’ campaign in 1964, when “young white idealistic kids” encourage black Americans in Mississippi to vote. “The idea was, ‘Let’s make this issue national, let’s get white people interested in this issue’. They were beaten [but] I think that was a really dynamic and important part of anti-racist American history.”
Although he says he didn’t feel he was “in the position to give advice” to Black Lives Matter in the UK, he believes British activists should be aware that the US movement “lives and dies online” and that there are drawbacks to an “ephemeral hashtag movement” that can spread rapidly but fade equally fast.
The journalist, who finally returned to the UK in 2015, tells me: “One of the things I’ve seen about Black Lives Matter in America, which is both a strength and a weakness, is the degree to which it lives and dies online,” Younge added. “If you go to a town, there’s not a Black Lives Matter office. It’s a very fast-moving, quite dynamic, but also somewhat ephemeral hashtag movement.
“The benefit of that is that you can move real quick, and the hashtag can move from St Louis to San Francisco just like that, and people can rally around their thing. The difficult thing about that is, what’s then happening in St Louis? Suddenly, your attention has moved somewhere else, and so it’s a very millennial all-that-is-solid-melts-into-air kind of thing.”
Younge suggested that in the UK, Black Lives Matter will need to amplify its voice given that black people make up only 3% of the population, as opposed to 12% in the US. It could perhaps do this by teaming up with other campaigns on wider issues like education, transport, health and the environment, he suggests. “If we understand Black Lives Matter as being more than just people getting shot in the street, about how there’s a range of ways in which black people get a bad deal, then you can imagine people who are campaigning about education, who may be white, could link up with them.
“[Or] people complaining about better transport links, or better bus services - if you’re black you’re more likely to be poor, and if you’re poor you’re less likely to get public services. On most subjects, on most issues in Britain, black people have a tougher time than white people: they tend to be poorer.”
“Therefore, anybody trying to remedy those inequalities will [find they] disproportionately affect black folk, and I think there’s room there for common cause.”
Many injustices affect people of all races, he argued: “Most people who are shot dead by cops in America are white, not black. And I have no doubt that there’s lots of miscarriages of justice involved there too.”
Two things particularly shocked him while writing his book. The first was when he asked the parents of the dead children why they thought there were so many gun deaths in the US. “I would usually invoke my Englishness, and say, ‘I’m from England, this kind of thing doesn’t happen that often there. So I’m wondering what you think this is about?’ And guns didn’t come up.
“I think for them, gun deaths are a bit like if your kid gets run over, and you think about controlling traffic. You can’t get rid of traffic.”
As the parents didn’t mention gun control, the book isn’t a polemic on the subject, he says. But his views are clear - and its evident from the tragedies he narrates - that the accessibility of guns contributes to the loss of so many young lives every day.
“I do think being a foreigner in a country helps you see things differently, probably not always accurately… but certainly differently,” he reasons.
The second thing that blindsided him was learning that every black parent he spoke to who had lost children had considered it a reasonable possibility that their child could die this way. “To a person, they all assumed that this might happen. They had factored it in as a strong possibility.”
One mother told him: “I didn’t think it would be him, I thought it would be his older brother, cos he’s more of a hard head.” A dad of another boy said that when he saw police cars outside his home he knew “either he’s killed somebody or he’s been killed”.
This is the central sadness of Younge’s book: the inevitability of young lives ending so senselessly. The resignation and fear for parents in areas with high gun crime is something we in the UK can’t imagine, he says. “There may have been a time when people in Northern Ireland were worried, but then you are talking about a war.
“That’s a long stretch just to be walking around thinking ‘One of the things I have to do with my child is keep them alive.’”
Another Day In The Death Of America by Gary Younge is out on 29 September from Guardian Faber