Battle Lines

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

Curtis Royston's sixteen-year-old daughter, Jasmine, should have stepped off the bus with Robert into the hail of gunfire. "By the grace of God, she found another ride home that day," says Royston, a thin and bespectacled man who heads the community education center in Walnut Park's Walbridge Elementary School.

Royston got to know Robert from the basketball tournaments hosted at the center and the job-training course he completed shortly before his murder. On hearing of Robert's death that Friday in May, Royston and his colleague Gary Hayes began contacting neighborhood kids in an attempt to quell any retaliation. By the following Tuesday they'd organized a candlelight vigil in honor of Robert.

Among the hundred or so people in attendance that night were such dignitaries as Harold Crumpton, president of the St. Louis chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Reverend Elston McCowan, pastor of the nearby Star Grace Mission Baptist Church. But of the many speakers that night, none were as moving as the grief-stricken Arthella, who implored the community to stop the violence. Choking back tears, Arthella told the crowd: "I don't want anyone to feel the way I do right now."

But in Walnut Park, Robert's murder is just part of a larger pattern of violence. In 2005 the neighborhood led all other city districts with 18 homicides, according to police records, and reported some 280 incidents of aggravated assault. Seated inside their office at Walbridge Elementary, Royston and Hayes trace the wave of homicides back fifteen years — to 1991, when a seven-year-old boy was shot dead while playing inside his home. Police pinned the drive-by shooting on youth gangs battling over crack cocaine.

Walnut Park's close proximity to Interstate 70 makes it prime real estate for drug-dealers, says Royston, with buyers able to quickly exit the freeway, score drugs and return to the highway. For several years Royston and Hayes helped organize bi-monthly drug marches in which residents and police staged protests outside known drug houses. They came to an end, though, when dealers, anticipating the demonstrations, vacated the crack houses before the protestors arrived. Still, Royston says he and others aren't about to concede defeat.

"We're not going to give up on the neighborhood, and we're not going to be run out," he says. "Gangs are just a small group of the people here, but unfortunately they're a loud group."

In the St. Louis Post-Dispatch article reporting Robert's murder, First Ward Alderman Charles Quincy Troupe blamed Robert's death, in part, on the lack of resources for young people in Walnut Park and other neighborhoods in his ward. "The kids have nothing to do," Troupe told the paper. "The environment is killing them. They don't think they're going to live past 21 years old. They don't have a future, so they don't have anything to live for."

More recently the lawlessness directly impacted the alderman: Over the Fourth of July weekend someone shot up his garage. Walking the perimeter of the concrete-block structure a few days after the incident, Troupe points out at least two distinguishable bullet holes. His neighbor across the alley fared far worse. His garage door looks like a slice of Swiss cheese.

"They shoot up and down the alley to lay out their territory," says Troupe, whose ward encompasses parts of the Walnut Park and Mark Twain neighborhoods. "Once in a while, when a new gang comes into the neighborhood, you'll hear automatic fire. It's like an advertisement: 'Hey look, I'm here.'"

On a trip through the First Ward in Troupe's burgundy Cadillac El Dorado, the alderman takes a moment to expound on Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs." "On the bottom of the pyramid you have food, shelter and water — the basic physiological needs," recites Troupe. "Some of these kids don't have that. Then the next level is the safety of employment, family structure and physical safety. Well, many of these kids got none of that."

As evidence, Troupe points to the prostitution, drug dealing and row after row of vacant and decrepit buildings rolling past the windows of his Cadillac. In his ward alone, Troupe says, the city's Land Reutilization Authority owns more than 200 vacant lots and buildings, many of them caught in a slow-motion implosion.

At the corner of Ruskin and West Florissant avenues, Troupe pulls over to survey the former Sixth District Police Station. Troupe has plans to turn the limestone building into a family resource center that he hopes might provide kids some alternatives to gangs. But he says it will take much more than that to erase, as he puts it, "40 years of neglect" in north St. Louis.

"I used to think it was racism," adds Troupe, in reference to the blight affecting the predominately African-American neighborhoods of north St. Louis. "But I don't anymore. I just think people are oblivious. They don't give a shit." n the Monday after Robert's murder, police arrested fifteen-year-old LaShawn Jordan in connection to the killing. For the past three months he's languished in jail awaiting trial. Prosecutors have scheduled a hearing October 2 to ask the courts to certify him as an adult. If this happens and he's found guilty, LaShawn could face a life sentence on charges of murder and assault.

« Previous Page
Next Page »