Khalilah Corey was a worrier, but she didn’t think much of it when her 19-year-old son told her he was going to the park to play basketball.
Hours later, she got a Facebook message telling her to call a Minneapolis police detective, and she felt a familiar knot in her stomach.
Her worst fears were realized when she learned her son, Wanya, was killed in a drive-by shooting on Oct. 11, adding to the toll of gun violence in a city already reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and a summer of unrest.
Wanya, a bright and popular teen who loved to tell jokes, became one of the more than 500 people killed or wounded by gunfire in the city since the start of 2020 — by far the highest tally in at least 15 years, according to crime data from the Minneapolis Police Department. Homicides have also surged to levels not seen since the 1990s.
Corey said she did what she could to protect her five children from harm. Six years ago, the family moved to Minneapolis from Chicago’s West Side after the near-nightly shootings in their old neighborhood became too much to handle. This, after losing two of her relatives to gun violence in the span of a few years. The move was supposed to provide a fresh start, but she still told Wanya to be careful every time he left the house, forever worrying about the perils facing young Black men in a society that often sees them as a threat.
“I tried to shelter him from the harsh reality that your skin color puts a target on your back, but don’t let that constrict your life,” she said in an interview. “I wasn’t worried about him as how he was conducting himself, but being a young Black male who looked like everybody else around here, I was mortified, terrified.”
His killing remains unsolved.
Police officials say that more adults are being shot, but young people are still most likely to be the victims of gun violence. In recent months, two 14-year-olds were shot in separate incidents, one of whom was struck and wounded by gunfire during an altercation in downtown Minneapolis. In June, 17-year-old Diontae Wallace was fatally gunned down in north Minneapolis, and four months later his brother, Da’Vontae Wallace, also 17, was shot to death. And another 17-year-old was shot three times in the span of a month and a half.
The violence has added a sense of urgency to the debate over policing that was rekindled by the killing of George Floyd on May 25. At the same time, the shootings are testing a pledge made by some council members to dismantle the city’s police force and replace it with a new public safety system that “prioritizes everyone in the community.” Despite some setbacks, lawmakers and activists say the work continues and that they hope to put the issue to voters next year.
During a heated meeting last week, city leaders debated using outside law enforcement to help fight crime. Chief Medaria Arradondo said the extra manpower is needed to stop the bloodshed. But some council members argued that the department continues to rely on traditional crime-fighting methods that time and again have failed to keep residents safe.
“There is absolutely no doubt we are in the midst of a public safety crisis in our city. As Northsiders living in the middle of a hot spot, my family and I are in the thick of this crisis ourselves,” tweeted Council Member Phillipe Cunningham, one of those who opposed the proposal. “Mpls won’t be safer by relying on a broken criminal justice system that got us in this crisis in the 1st place by breaking up families & destroying futures.”
Mayor Jacob Frey’s 2021 budget plan calls for $2.5 million to the fledgling MinneapolUS program, whose “violence interrupters” try to defuse conflicts before they turn deadly in the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. At the same time, others continue to push to divert even more funding from the $185 million police budget to jobs programs, health initiatives and other services supporting communities of color.
Still, looking at the numbers of shootings, it’s easy to forget that Minneapolis remains safer than Midwest neighbors like Chicago and Milwaukee. And experts say homicide numbers are volatile and caution against reading too much into large year-over-year swings.
Lillie Macias, an assistant professor at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, said that with the pandemic-related closure of community recreation centers, parks and schools, many young people found themselves without a safety net at a particularly vulnerable crossroads of their lives.
“We have that identity development process really disrupted by COVID because they’re not able to do the same activities that they previously would’ve been able to do,” said Macias, who conducts research with Casa de Esperanza, a domestic violence group.
After years of enjoying steadily falling crime rates, Minneapolis has seen shootings and homicides rise 64% compared with the average of the previous four years. The 74 homicides this year are the third-highest total in the city’s history, according to crime figures from the MPD.
The streak of violence since the summer stretched across the city, but as ever, Black and Latino neighborhoods have borne the brunt of the suffering.
The increase this year is mainly driven by an increase in the number of adult victims — especially Black men, who account for roughly 40% of all gunshot victims. But it’s young people who continue to make up a disproportionate share of the victims, and some of the suspects. Through Oct. 13, the last date for which reliable data are available, the number of young gunshot victims was up about 44% compared with the four-year average. The city has also recorded 22 fatal shootings of victims under age 25, twice as many as all of last year.
Once again, Blacks suffer more than other groups, with young males about six times more likely to be shot than the general population.
Another of those killed was Elijah Whitner, 20, who was pursuing his childhood passion for drawing while juggling jobs at a gas station and at his mother’s day-care service. He died in a July 10 shooting near Farview Park that also left his pregnant girlfriend wounded.
Weeks after Whitner’s death, his mother, Samantha Eubanks, told the Star Tribune that she planned to start a support group in hopes of helping other parents of homicide victims get through the grief of losing a child.
“I know I can’t bring Elijah back, but hopefully we can save somebody else’s son. And it’s not just sons these days, they’re shooting women and men, and kids,” she said.
Whitner’s slaying also remains unsolved.
The causes of the increase in violence in Minneapolis this year still weigh heavily on city officials and crime-weary residents. For some, the reasons are the same as they ever were — inadequate housing, systemic racism, poverty and other forms of neglect — made all the worse by the worldwide pandemic, which has added significant stress on the communities that already suffer the most violence.
And while the pandemic has led to widespread job losses, it has hit Black workers the hardest, with nearly 1 in 2 Black workers having applied for unemployment benefits since mid-March.
Officials say the department has focused on 911 response as budget cuts and officer attrition have shrunk the force. The MPD is also redoubling its efforts to get guns off the streets, officials say, while targeting gangs they say used the post-Floyd unrest as cover to settle long-standing beefs.
But others blame the violence on the continued distrust of law enforcement by many minority residents, which came into sharper focus earlier this year when Floyd’s death touched off days of rioting and tense standoffs between protesters and police. The lack of trust means that witnesses may be less willing to come forward with vital information, meaning that police solve fewer crimes and killers walk free.
At a town hall panel last month, several speakers called out city leaders for failing to engage the community on how best to address the violence.
Farji Shaheer, who runs the hospital bedside intervention program NextStep, said that with the pandemic keeping people indoors, more shootings are occurring in homes or at family gatherings. And programs like his that are devised to reduce gun violence have been upended, making it harder to reach gang members before they can retaliate, Shaheer said. If the community doesn’t “get a grip on what’s happening now,” he said, the city’s homicide rate will continue to soar.
Quantrell Urman, a community organizer recruited into the city’s fledgling violence interrupter program, said he’s concerned about the lack of opportunities for the kids he meets hanging out outside into the late night hours, who tell him they have nowhere to go.
“We don’t have nothing but conversation to give them. They need resources, man, they need help. They need to open up the schools,” said Urman, who previously founded a street outreach group called Turf Politics. “Give them some incentive. ... I go out here and ask them, ‘What are you doing out here all night?’ and they tell me, ‘What’s there for me to do?’ ”
Many young people in high-crime areas are dealing with “unaddressed psychological trauma,” says Bradley Stolbach, a University of Chicago psychologist.
“And none of that even includes the adversity that comes with structural racism, racial and economic segregation, poverty, all these things that place additional burdens on many of the young people,” he said. “If they were in another part of the world, they wouldn’t be viewed as criminals, they would be viewed as child soldiers.”
Staff writers MaryJo Webster and Liz Navratil contributed to this report.