A 6-year-old girl driving home with her mom after a long day of shopping and swimming in a lake. Another girl, 9, playing on a backyard trampoline with friends. A third-grade boy munching on potato chips in the back seat of his parents' car.
The shootings of three young Minneapolis children in a span of two weeks has jolted the conscience of a city already reeling from rising violent crime, the pandemic and the lingering effects of George Floyd's killing in police custody last spring.
On Tuesday morning, about 20 family members and friends gathered outside HCMC, where the most recent victim, Aniya Allen, 6, remained attached to a ventilator, clinging to life. They took turns speaking to a television camera, condemning the ongoing violence and imploring the shooters to turn themselves in, before linking their arms and praying for Aniya's recovery.
"All she knows about is rainbows and unicorns," said her mother, Antrice Sease. Mother and daughter had spent the day together Monday, which started with a trip to Marshall's so that Aniya could buy a pair of unicorn rain boots. But the store didn't have her size, so Sease said she decided to take her daughter swimming. Late Monday, they were driving through the intersection of N. 36th and Penn avenues when they drove into what police believe was a shootout between rival gangs.
Aniya's shooting late Monday, less than 48 hours after another girl was struck in the head by gunfire over the weekend, came amid the latest surge of violence in Minneapolis. So far this year, the city's 27 homicides are nearly double what they were at this point in 2020, and 187 people have been wounded or killed in shootings — a tally the city didn't reach until June 21 in 2020, according to Police Department crime statistics. More worryingly, 22 children have been struck by gunfire, half of them shot since March 28, the statistics show.
On April 30, Ladavionne Garrett Jr., 10, was riding in a car with his mother and father when a gunman or gunmen opened fire. One of the bullets pierced the trunk and struck Ladavionne in the head as he was eating from a can of Pringles, officials said. They said the boy was put into a medically induced coma at North Memorial Health Hospital, where doctors were forced to remove a portion of his skull to relieve swelling on the brain.
Then, on Saturday, 9-year-old Trinity Ottoson-Smith was at a friend's house jumping on a trampoline when a car pulled into the alley and someone inside fired several shots at a nearby house, striking her in the head. She was also taken to North Memorial; a hospital spokesman said he is prohibited from providing the latest conditions for Trinity and Ladavionne because they are minors.
Police and health officials say most of the shootings have some sort of gang tie. All three remain unsolved. The violence continued on the North Side on Tuesday afternoon when a 17-year-old boy was shot and injured.
The shootings are testing a pledge made by some City Council members last June to reimagine public safety and redirect police funding to address the social and economic ills that are thought to feed crime.
Police officials say they are taking the crime spike seriously and are moving quickly to try to solve some of the recent shootings. But the department is badly understaffed — with dozens of officers having retired, resigned or gone on medical leave in recent months. Several dozen rookie officers are going through the background check process, but it could be months before they see the streets, officials say.
Others say rising violence is due, in part, to the absence of "violence interrupters," street workers hired by the city to help defuse disagreements before they escalate into gunfire. City officials say the interrupters are in the last stages of their training, and the first ones are expected to hit the streets in several weeks.
Sasha Cotton, director of the Office of Violence Prevention, said that much of the agency's work is done out of public view, pointing to such initiatives as the NextStep hospital bedside program, which recently expanded to a third hospital, Abbott Northwestern.
"People were willing to give [police] 100-plus years to address public safety — if the Office of Violence Prevention is expected to address the violence problem in under two years then we were set up to fail from the beginning," Cotton said. "We have to build systems that are going to work in the long-term if we're going to be successful."
The Rev. Jerry McAfee said that for all the talk from city officials about changing the dynamics of public safety, they are making the same mistakes as past leaders.
"They keep continuing to wait until they get in the midst of the war until they start trying to handle the problem," he said.
Filmmaker D.A. Bullock, whose work often explores social justice issues, said he finds the recent violence worrying, but said he is also concerned that it will be used by some to justify hiring more officers without addressing the harm that police have done in communities of color historically.
"To me, what has been the results of what we tried in the past, what has been the result of increasing police staff members?" he said.
In years past, Minneapolis received national recognition for its efforts to reduce youth violence. At the heart of those efforts was a plan, known as the Blueprint for Action, which involved connecting young people with mentors, intervening in kids' lives when necessary and getting students to "unlearn the culture of violence."
Officials say the program contributed to a decrease in firearms-related assault injuries among youth, from 159 in 2005 to 94 in 2011, and was held up by then-President Barack Obama as a model for addressing youth gun violence.
But, officials say, despite the promising early results the program has fallen off course as funding dried up for recreation centers and after-school programs.
On Tuesday night, about 150 people gathered on the lawn of North Memorial to pray for the three children and sing in support of their families.
Earlier Tuesday, Aniya Allen's mother spoke briefly with reporters outside HCMC. Pointing around the sidewalk where friends and family were gathered, Antrice Sease asked why so few people were there. If her daughter had been shot by a police officer instead of a gang member, as some have speculated, the story would've been all over the news and the street outside the hospital would have been filled with outraged protesters demanding that something be done, she said.
"When is this going to stop? When is this going to end?" she repeated.
Several hours later, a group of about 100 people gathered at N. 35th and Penn, near the scene of the shooting, to express solidarity with the family.
Earlier at the hospital, the girl's grandfather, K.G. Wilson, said the shooter must know by now that they hit a child. "I'm just trying to think of a peaceful way to deal with this, but it's hard and anger is there and it won't go away," said Wilson, a peace activist who has been at many crime scenes over the years.
Listening from nearby, Tahnecia "Neci" Turner, 31, nodded in agreement. She said she decided to attend the vigil after hearing about the shooting on the news and recognizing Wilson from the countless vigils and prayer circles that he's organized over the years.
"These are real-life babies, who are … doing nothing wrong," she said. "They're with their parents where they're supposed to be safe."
Gun violence is personal for Turner, who nearly died after being shot in north Minneapolis in 2011. Waiting for an opening, she approached Sease when she was standing alone to offer consolation, saying that her own prognosis had been equally grim and yet doctors had managed to save her life.
Collecting herself, Sease told a reporter that the shooting had been a reminder of how fragile life is.
As she spoke, a man in a white hoodie wrapped her in a hug and her eyes teared up again. She said she remembers how moved she used to get watching news interviews of parents of gunshot victims, who were wracked with guilt over their inability to protect their children. Now she felt that same anguish.
"I forgive them; all they have to do is ask God for forgiveness," she said of the shooter. "I just want my baby to get better."
Staff writers Paul Walsh and Alex Chhith contributed to this report.
Libor Jany • 612-673-4064