Screaming to be told - yet to be overcome

Photographer April Saul tells why she decided to tell these stories.

I didn't choose to do this column; it chose me.

In the spring of 2005, little Nasir Hinton was caught in the cross fire in his own West Philadelphia home. The next morning, I watched the women who loved him sponge his blood off the front door, the soapy water turning a pale pink as they tried not to cry.

That fall, I followed Victoria Yancey, the Philadelphia School District's liaison to families whose children die or are seriously injured. In six days, four students were shot and killed - one in an argument over a video game.

By January, with the death toll mounting, I had vowed to document in words and photos the death of every child by gun in the eight-county Philadelphia region in 2006.

We in the media are often too overwhelmed by the numbers - and too worried about wearing out readers and viewers - to describe whom we're losing and what those losses are like for their friends and families. I began to believe that if gun violence was ever to be addressed, we had to see faces, not just numbers on charts and graphs.

I decided that my columns would not try to distinguish between the "guilty" and the "innocent" or - as my colleagues worried - make delinquents out to be saints.

These victims were all children.

They all had mothers.

They didn't deserve to die in the streets of Philadelphia.

It's hard to write about kids you will never meet. I'd never see Yagouba smile, or hear Terrell laugh, or listen to Darnell rap. I had to rely on what family and friends chose to tell me.

It wasn't until close to the end of the year, during a particularly violent week, that I realized I should have been asking this question:

How many times had each child been shot - or shot at - before finally being killed?

My life revolved around homicide. A single parent, I dragged my own teenagers to murder scenes more than once. I was afraid to leave town for fear I'd miss a fallen child. Tears came to me suddenly, in supermarkets or in rush-hour traffic.

I thought I knew something about violent crime because a close friend had been murdered. I realized I knew nothing about its daily presence after a car with tinted windows screeched up to a vigil for Kareek Adams in Frankford - and I stood there, stupidly, while everyone else ran for cover.

Because I had little space to write about each death, I often had to omit information that might have led to a better understanding of a child. After a reader wondered how Tariq Blue Jr., 14, could have afforded 60 pairs of blue jeans, I wished I had added that he made clothes money by standing in city traffic on hot days, selling bottled water.

The kids often surprised me, resisting any stereotypes I might have had. The teen who looked to be the toughest - he died in the drug house where he allegedly lived and worked - was always on time for school, made good grades, and delighted his teachers. If Vincent Thomas, 17, saw dealing as a safe way to support himself while pursuing an education, he was possibly the most naive of all.

Eventually, I began seeing the same faces at funerals. At Casha'e Rivers' service, I met Tomika Brunson, who told me the dead kindergartner had been her children's cousin. As was Raphael Glee, whose death I had covered a few weeks earlier. (Destiny Wright, infamously strangled in West Philadelphia two years earlier, was also related.)

Brunson's children, she said, were not taking this well; a son wept at her side as we spoke.

I will always be grateful for the generosity of the grieving families. Alisha Corley opened her door to me on the night her daughter Casha'e was killed, and we sat together as the little girl's picture flickered across the 10 o'clock news. Darnell DeLoatch's family allowed me to attend a private viewing of his body. Terrence Adams' mom, Debbie, invited me to pray with her.

More than once, a frustrated mourner yelled at me as I snapped pictures at a loved one's grave - then later apologized and assured me I had done the right thing.

Almost always, I was given a spot on the couch. A plate of fried chicken. And trust.

The first time I heard "We Shall Overcome" was more than 40 years ago. Three civil-rights workers had just been killed in Mississippi; my New Jersey community was hosting a group of Southern black teenagers who needed to get away until things cooled down. I was a spoiled suburban kid, but I'll never forget standing in a circle, holding hands with them, and singing that song.

The last time I heard it was at the burial of little Casha'e Rivers, just before her body was placed in the ground.

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