A generation of kids on the North Side is growing up surrounded by violence.
Two-year-old Shaun Johnson played at the pool by his house on Friday, June 29, 2012 in Minneapolis, Minn., a few blocks from where a 5-year-old boy was shot asleep on the couch in his house. Johnson's mom said the shooting was close to home having a young son.
Some of the adults around them saw a neighborhood heavy with crime and deterioration, but not 10-year-old Brian Humphrey Jr. and his friends in north Minneapolis. The kids shot basketball. They played video games. They swam in the pool across the train tracks.
Brian, a broad-shouldered boy with a gap-toothed smile, never thought of the North Side as a scary place.
Until Tuesday morning, when somebody shot up the house a few doors down at 45th and Bryant Avenues N. A bullet struck and killed his 5-year-old buddy, Nizzel George, who was fast asleep on his grandmother's couch.
Brian cried when he heard the news. His mother whisked him from his father's house on the block to her home in Brooklyn Center. He stared at the TV reports showing dots clustered around north Minneapolis, one for each recent killing.
"That scared me," he said at his mother's kitchen table last week. "Dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot. That's all the shootings."
The ages of Nizzel and his suspected killers -- two unnamed juveniles were arrested Thursday -- has turned a spotlight on what it means to be young in the toughest section of Minneapolis, where some parents view other children as the biggest threat to their own.
Nizzel is the latest in a string of young people to be shot on the North Side over the last year. Three teens -- ages 13, 14, and 16 -- were gunned down in one month last summer. In December, 3-year-old Terrell Mayes was killed by a stray bullet shot into his home.
Even before the arrests in Nizzel's slaying, North Siders speculated that other young people had to be responsible. They had seen enough kids with guns stumbling into trouble.
"It's kids killing babies," said Seprena Smythe, as she watched her children play in the public pool at Webber Park, where Nizzel regularly swam.
The latest death has not stopped the streets nearby from filling up with children riding their bikes, whizzing by on skateboards and playing ball.
Dominique Williams, 17, lives down the block and insists that it is not such a bad neighborhood. It's just that guys from other neighborhoods come over and cause problems. And there are always a lot of people his age talking about guns, he said: buying them, selling them, looking for them.
He tries to watch out for his five younger siblings as best he can when their mother is away. His 11-year-old brother is too afraid to hang out by Nizzel's house anymore, where he used to go regularly.
Another little brother is also fearful: "I hope it's not my family that gets killed," said Lavontay Reeves, 8.
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Children streamed onto the lawn of Nizzel's home last week, their parents offering condolences as the family passed around T-shirts commemorating their boy. Jennifer Hasbrouck and her 5-year-old son, Tommy, visited to drop off a floatie at the memorial, a reference to their meeting at the pool.
"He has no idea," she said of her son. "It's over his head."
Another 5-year-old, Cedric Banks, stared at his cousin's memorial as relatives and friends crowded together in the yard. His mom asked how he felt.
Cedric hung his head. He was silent for a few moments. "Sad," he whispered.
"They were supposed to grow up together," said his mother, Jennie Johnson. "He probably doesn't really understand."
Like Hasbrouck, Johnson wonders if they should move.
"I don't want my son getting involved with these little boys, getting these guns," said Johnson, also the mother of a 3-year-old.
But many people will stay anyway. They have family. They like the friendly people.
"Get a gun, get a knife, get a security system, put a gate up, what do you do?" said Jim Battle, who refuses to leave the North Side.
The father of four boys between 2 and 6, he is bracing for the time when they will grow older and may find themselves caught in violence.
So he educates his children about guns, and doesn't let them run around outside too far from home. What, he asks, is he supposed to do about older kids who walk around not caring and killing each other?
Smythe and her children moved to Minneapolis from Chicago's rough South Side to escape the violence. But the shootings continue. She won't let the younger ones spend the night with friends. She is reluctant to let them play out front. She guards them at the pool.
And she has had to sit down with her 5-year-old son, who loves toy guns, and remind him, "If you see a real gun, don't touch it."
Standing in Webber Park on Thursday, as the heat settled into the 90s, she noted that fewer people had been out to the pool since Nizzel's death.
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Brian's father, also named Brian Humphrey, was not too fazed.
"Being black and living over North, you get used to shootings and killings," he said, sitting in front of his house on Bryant Avenue N.
Still, he doesn't want his son to be around for the aftermath of this latest tragedy.
Brian's mother, Danielle Burns, is liking her suburban life away from north Minneapolis. She considers her old neighborhood trouble. Relatives have died in gunfire.
But their son never saw things the way they did, even though Brian occasionally heard older boys talk about weapons.
About to enter fifth grade, he is a mostly happy kid, though this past week he was feeling angry and unsettled about his friend's death.
"Sometimes the environment is bad, but he didn't get a whiff of it until now," said Burns.
Brian was the older one, so he often looked after Nizzel like an older brother. He had spent the night at Nizzel's house last Sunday night and they'd played video games. The younger boy had shaped his arms like a hoop so that Brian and one of Nizzel's uncles could shoot basketballs through it.
And Nizzel had talked excitedly about how he was going to start first grade.
As they parted ways for the last time, Nizzel said, "Goodbye, Humphrey!" and waved at him with both hands.
Now, said Brian, "I'm not trying to go back."
Maya Rao • 612-673-4210