Battle Lines

Gangs keep their murderous hold on the streets of St. Louis. And kids like Lil' Robert Walker pay the price.

It wasn't until well into the second hour of the service that the funeral hit a dour note. As mourners shuffled single-file past Robert's waxy corpse, shrill screams bounced from the rafters of the Depression-era church. One of the boys, who moments ago was horseplaying outside, collapsed in a convulsion of tears and cries. As pallbearers carried Robert's casket to the waiting hearse, the boy's friends struggled to console him.

"Don't tell me he's sleeping!" he yelled. "He ain't coming back."

Arthella has yet to come to grips with her son's murder. She sees him in the faces of the kids in the neighborhood and imagines the day he shows up at her front door, awakening her from a protracted nightmare. Seated on her neighbor's front porch on a July afternoon, Arthella is clad in a pair of the medical scrubs she wears as a caregiver at a Kirkwood retirement home — a nearly two-hour bus journey from Walnut Park. She shares with Robert the same high cheek bones and soft, round face.

Next to Arthella sits 94-year-old Katie Jordan. As the neighbors discuss how Arthella is coping with the murder, their conversation turns to the neighborhood. Arthella recalls how, in 1975, her family was the fourth black family to move onto Beacon Street. Now the street and surrounding area are almost entirely black — and notoriously dangerous.

Jordan points to a house directly across from the two-story frame home where Arthella lives with her mother and four remaining children. Last April a car crashed through the fence of the home after the driver was shot to death during an alleged drug deal. Three days earlier, a 21-year-old University of Missouri-St. Louis student was fatally shot in his car one block away. Police say drugs were also involved in that murder.

"Drug dealing is all you see in this neighborhood," says Jordan. "If the police did their job, maybe none of this would happen. Something's got to be done."

But Robert, insists Jordan, was different from the other kids in the neighborhood — respectful and quiet. A devout Christian like his mother, Robert attended weekly services at the Walnut Park Bible Church, a clapboard sanctuary located just behind his home. He sang in the choir and played a Wise Man in the Christmas pageant. The day before his murder, he made sure to complete his weekly chore of mowing the grass at the church.

That side of the story, Arthella says, was never told by the television crews who scurried to the scene to report on the brazen daytime attack and its perceived connection to gangs.

"What do they mean by 'gang murder'?" asks a bemused Arthella. "He was not a gang member. I don't believe it." Equally perplexing, she adds, is the way Robert's friends and acquaintances have moved on. "They don't seem to talk much about Robert. They've hardly said a word to me."

Indeed, just down the street on this blazingly hot July afternoon, it's almost as if Robert never existed — at least to the assembly of kids hanging out on the corner near Robert's home. "Man, you still talking about Robert?" asks an incredulous 22-year-old who calls himself "B." "That's over. Everyone wants to say it's about gangs, but Robert wasn't in no gang. It was about territory and respect."

B wears a white T-shirt, long khaki shorts, high-top sneakers and a scruffy goatee. Down the length of his left jaw spills a long scar where he was scalded as a baby. With him on the corner of Alcott and Lillian avenues are two young men in their late teens. Like B, neither is willing to divulge his name. The smaller of the two has a pair of stars tattooed on each cheek. Jutting up from his low-hanging shorts are a pair of bright-red boxer briefs. The other kid wears a bright-red Cardinals cap with a Phillie blunt tucked under the brim. Fastened to his teeth is a fang-toothed grill so ridiculously full of gems that his smile radiates like a strobe light.

The three of them pass around a marijuana joint as they wait for other kids to gather on the sidewalk outside of Walbridge Elementary School. One block away is the corner where Robert was gunned down. A few of the tattered teddy bears surrounding the crime scene still remain.

"It wasn't meant for Robert," continues B. "It could have been any of those motherfuckers getting off the bus that day. God called Lil' Robert home. Yeah, it's too bad, but we got babies getting shot up here, and you know they innocent."

Soon a few girls come up to the playground fence. It doesn't take them long to rattle off a handful of boys they've known from the neighborhood who've been shot and killed in the past five years.

B predicts that the body count is just beginning. "Them dudes on the other side of Union, they all jealous cause we got the 'cake,'" he says as he brandishes a fat roll of dollars. "But I tell you this: They got one of us, but we gonna get ten of them. We like family. There's gonna be retaliation."

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