Lives cut short: the American children lost to stray bullets
John Ayala holds up a picture of his grandson, Davon McLean, 11, killed by a stray billet in South-East Washington, DC, on July 4, 2020. AFP
Carmelo Duncan was strapped into his car seat when he was hit by multiple stray bullets, becoming at just 15 months old one of the youngest shooting victims in the US this year -- and a symbol of powerlessness in the face of gun violence.
On December 2, he and his eight-year-old brother were in a car being driven by their father through southeast Washington, DC, when unknown shooters opened fire on the vehicle before fleeing in a stolen SUV.
The toddler died at the hospital. His father and brother survived the ambush, for which police say they don't know the motive.
Carmelo was the 187th victim of gunshot homicide this year in the American capital, out of 197 -- the highest total in 15 years. The city had 196 shooting deaths in 2005.
Many US cities reported "historic levels of violence" in 2020, according to a report by the organization Everytown for Gun Safety -- and young people are paying a heavy price.
This is due to a climate of violence following the police killings of Black Americans, and the Covid-19 pandemic that has closed down schools and youth programs.
"As these critical supports have been shuttered, the void has been filled with gun violence," said the Everytown report.
Just a few days before Christmas, gun violence has already caused more than 18,500 deaths in the US in 2020, according to the Gun Violence Archive, including more than 1,300 minors. Of these, 284 were 11 years old or younger.
Killed on the Fourth of July
One such child is Davon McNeal, who was shot in the head on July 4 by a stray bullet fired by young adults celebrating the national holiday.
Only 11 years old, he had left a picnic organized by his mother, Crystal McNeal, in a poor neighborhood in southeast Washington.
"They were just having fun shooting their firearms," his paternal grandfather, John Ayala, told AFP.
One of the shooters, Ayala explained, had been released from prison in May as part of an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus in detention facilities.
Ayala has been a well-known figure in Washington's Black community since 1989. He founded the local chapter of the group Guardian Angels -- easily recognized by their red berets -- that works to stop violence and crime in metro areas.
"For years I worked all over the world going out to be a role model, talking about positive things and to prevent tragedies like this from happening," said the New York-born 51-year-old. "And then it hits my own doorstep."
"What's sad is when a child is murdered here, we already know that's not the last one," he added, pointing to the general sense of powerlessness.
The day Davon died, at least four children under eight years old were killed by stray bullets in Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco and St Louis, Missouri, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
'Mentality has to change'
Ayala denounced the passivity and "culture" of silence among some in the African-American community, which is the most affected by gun violence.
"That mentality has to change," he said.
"Snitching is not when you report a crime that is happening in your community against you or somebody else."
In order to keep Davon's name alive, McNeal created a foundation that helps homeless people and disadvantaged youth, though she admits that her charitable work isn't enough to stem the violence.
"You can do all the peace walks, all the events, all the toys giveaways, anything. You can't tell somebody to stop something they already planned on doing," she told AFP.
Ayala and Kevin McGill, the coach of Davon's school football team, also denounced rival gangs that don't hesitate to settle scores around children.
"Where we're from, it ain't really unheard of," said McGill. "It's heartbreaking. At the same time, it's like you become numb to it."
Like McNeal, Maurice Burden, a custodian at a Washington public high school, wants to raise awareness.
He co-founded the group Indigenous Suns, which regularly organizes food and clothing drives. He also wants to hold monthly protests against gun violence.
"Usually we have one march, weeks pass and everybody forgets. So that people don't forget, one march will not do it, we must have many," the 39-year-old father of two told AFP.
Carmelo Duncan's death is "not normal and we will not go to the point of this to be normal," he said.