Champe Barton et al., The Trace, September 3, 2020
This summer’s Rye Day celebration in Syracuse, New York, almost ended — as it had the past 14 years — without a hitch. The event, a public birthday party hosted by a local business owner and philanthropist, drew hundreds of residents to an outdoor performance space on June 20 on the city’s Near West Side, where they ate and drank, registered to vote, and escaped the various pressures of the pandemic.
But then a scuffle broke out. A Facebook Live stream shows a girl dancing, then noticing the commotion. “It’s a fight,” someone remarks, off camera. “Time to go.” The girl in the video agrees, playfully, but her concern escalates. The music stops. People scream. The crowd scatters, and the video turns into a whir of bodies and grass. Seconds later, more than a dozen gunshots ring out.
“It was chaos,” said Nitch Jones, a local youth pastor who was at the center of the crowd. “You had wounded individuals, wounded friends, family members, associates on the ground, all crying out for help. People experiencing someone who looks like they’re dead. People experiencing trauma for the first time.”
At the scene, Jones rushed to help the wounded. He spotted a body lying motionless on the asphalt. It was a boy who had been shot in the head. Jones helped calm the boy’s family until paramedics arrived, and wheeled his body to an ambulance. Photos from the aftermath show a woman standing in a haze of red light from the vehicle’s sirens. She’s barefoot, wearing a shirt with the words “Proud Mom” emblazoned on its back.
Her son, Chariel Osorio, had graduated from high school earlier that day. He was 17 years old. Less than a week later, he died of his injuries in a hospital bed.
Osario and the eight victims wounded in the Rye Day shooting are among more than 320 people killed and over 1,600 injured in mass shootings so far in 2020, according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive. What constitutes a “mass shooting” varies between government agencies and groups like Gun Violence Archive, which defines the incidents as any with four or more people wounded. Our analysis of Gun Violence Archive data found a total of 395 mass shootings as of August 24, an almost 45 percent increase over the same period last year. If the pace holds, this year’s total will be the highest tally since the organization began tracking shootings seven years ago.
The mass shootings have disproportionately occurred in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Nearly 50 percent of the shootings analyzed by The Trace took place in majority-Black census tracts, though less than 10 percent of census tracts nationally have majority Black populations. The pattern held in almost every city that has had more than five mass shootings in 2020. In Chicago, for example, 31 out of 36 shootings with four or more victims happened in majority-Black census tracts. In Detroit and Milwaukee, each of which saw five mass shootings, all of them occurred in majority-Black neighborhoods.
Every act of violence shocks the conscience, but the public setting of many mass shootings renders them acutely horrifying. People pursuing an activity presumed safe – going to church or school or the store, putting in a workday, enjoying a night out – suddenly confront a barrage of bullets. The ensuing media coverage stirs public mourning and donations. Activists and Democratic politicians cry for reform. But when a gunman in a dispute kills or injures multiple bystanders in a predominantly Black or Latinx community, the bloodshed is written off by some journalists, politicians, and onlookers as predictable, endemic to the neighborhood and therefore not worthy of the same sympathy.
For Black gun violence prevention advocates, the responses to mass shootings in Black and Brown neighborhoods are dispiritingly familiar. “When these mass shootings happen in white communities, everybody has a response: they have policies, investments, thoughts and prayers,” said Amber Goodwin, the founding director of the Community Justice Action Fund. “When Black people are shot and killed, it’s a lack of response. Or if there is a response, it’s a divestment. It’s carceral.”
Like other large cities during the pandemic, Washington has struggled to contain a troubling rise in homicides, even as other crime has declined. So far, the city has recorded 133 homicides, and if the current pace holds, that number may pass 200 for the first time in more than a decade. Encompassed within the surge is an uptick in mass shootings. More than seven shootings have left four or more injured in the district in the past five months alone.
Jason Silva, a professor of criminal justice at William Paterson University who studies media coverage of mass shootings, has noted a distinction between “mass public shootings” — the incidents that have come to define mass shootings in the American consciousness, where the shooter targets a specific public space for a rampage — and mass shootings that grow out of violence between individuals or groups, but wind up claiming bystanders among those shot. “The mass public shootings are what get more coverage, traditionally,” he said, irrespective of the race of perpetrators or victims.
“Mass shootings in Black and Brown communities may be new to you all — not new to us,” said DeVone Boggan, the executive director of the Bay Area-based violence prevention group Advance Peace. “And it’s never been considered a mass shooting. Not until white folks started dying did we start hearing about this phenomena called mass shootings. But drive-by shootings — i.e., ‘mass shootings’ — have been happening forever, COVID or not.”
The pandemic has exacerbated violence in underserved areas by introducing unemployment, hampering access to mental health care and other social services, and keeping everyone home, fueling conflict within families and communities — and making rivals easier to track down, Boggan said.
“Being in a dysfunctional environment with multiple people who are all going through the same thing and respond in volatile ways creates a combustion that can produce some of the things that we are seeing in some of these neighborhoods,” he said.
To Boggan and his fellow violence interrupters, it’s important to call out what underlies the formula for which mass shootings generate public attention and which are overlooked. “It’s part of systemic racism,” said Fernando Rejón, executive director of Urban Peace Institute, an initiative in Los Angeles that provides training for violence intervention workers. “The automatic assumption is, ‘it’s probably gang-related,’ ‘they’re all involved in something illegal.’ If it happened at a bar or a nightclub, where it’s not ‘supposed’ to happen, then it makes national news.
“Systemic racism,” Rejón added, “is really about power: the power to determine who’s valued and who is not.”
Statewide, California has had 20 mass shootings during the COVID-19 crisis. In June, two women, 37 and 63, were killed and three others were wounded in a drive-by shooting at a child’s birthday party in the Northern California city of Vallejo. The next day, a local musician was killed and four others were wounded in a targeted shooting in Sacramento on June 10. Two weeks later, Two girls, 11 and 12, were killed and three adults were injured in a drive-by shooting at a birthday party in Delano.
In Syracuse, the weeks following the Rye Day party saw a rash of shootings, some retaliatory, some unrelated, according to local activists. Through August, the city saw 22 homicides, more than it did in all of 2019 and on track for an all-time record.
The gun violence has been so unrelenting that the Rye Day shooting hardly felt like an anomaly to some who live nearby. “People who were shocked were people who were not from Syracuse,” said Dr. Najah Salaam, chief operating officer of the Street Addiction Institute, a local violence prevention nonprofit.
Reverend YL Wright, Sr., a minister at Tucker Missionary Baptist Church on Syracuse’s South Side, agreed, adding that after living in the city for nearly five decades, he’s now wary of deviating from his usual routine, lest he wind up in a barrage of gunfire. “I don’t go anywhere where there’s crowds at.”