Some statistics you just cannot get out of your head. The fact that eight American kids every day are shot dead is one of them. When I was first told that, back in 2007, I’d lived in the US for four years. I’d just had a kid. I thought I was pretty much across most of the counter-narrative to the country’s official apple-pie story. But this is one of those facts that, once known, can’t be forgotten. It colours everything.
So when I was asked to pick a day and then follow the stories of the children killed in those 24 hours, I pursued it with some zeal. But as I researched the day in question – 26 November 2006 – finding families and police records, knocking on neighbours’ doors, excavating the lives of the recently dead, one story remained elusive.
A 16-year-old boy had been shot outside a Wholesale Liquidators on Eight Mile in Detroit. He was not named in the local papers, where the incident got just a paragraph’s attention. I kept digging, and discovered that the boy’s name was Brandon Moore and he’d been shot in the back by an off-duty policeman. I went on to find out that the policeman in question had been sacked from the force before, for being involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident while drunk-driving, but was reinstated a few years later on appeal. The same policeman went on to shoot dead an armed man during a neighbourhood dispute, and later shot and injured his wife in a domestic fracas. After shooting Brandon in the back, he was reassigned to a traffic unit until he was cleared, following an “investigation”.
Right then, I decided the project should be a book, not articles; should, because by failing to see the significance of these deaths, journalism clearly wasn’t doing its job properly. On any measure, Brandon’s death was a story for a big-town paper. But it seemed that, if you were poor and black, the death of a child was not worthy of press attention. And so they kept falling.
But I needed time, resources and opportunity, and those three elements didn’t come together for another seven years. By that time, the statistic was down to seven kids a day (that didn’t make it any less horrific). This time I chose a new day – 23 November 2013 – and I spent the next two years finding anyone who would talk to me about the kids who had died: parents, preachers, teachers, siblings and carers. I also combed their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, sometimes gaining a glimpse into their short lives just hours before they died.
Ten children were shot dead on 23 November 2013. They fell across the country, in slums and suburbs, in rural hamlets and huge cities; they were black, Latino and white; shot by accident and on purpose, at a sleepover, after an altercation, by bullets that met their target and others that went astray. The youngest was nine; the oldest was 19.
There is a clear authorial vulnerability in picking a day at random and seeing what tragedy the universe presents. The book could become an unrelenting tale of woe in which all of the stories ended up being the same. There is not necessarily a Brandon Moore story every day. And there was a chance that none of the victims’ families would talk to me. But that didn’t happen: of the 10 who were killed, eight had family who spoke to me. But I didn’t know how it was going to turn out when I started.
Since Another Day in the Death of America came out last October, America has been quite distracted. Trump’s victory has not exactly left people in the kind of mindframe to take on this kind of nonfiction. So while it has been well received – it won the Anthony J Lukas prize from Columbia University and has been a finalist in two other US awards – it hasn’t sold well there. In Britain, it has done far better.
But then, nowhere else in the western world would this book be possible. So in Britain, readers of all political hues will ask: “How can this happen?”
Some Americans keep looking for explanations beyond the obvious. A significant proportion of the country don’t want to talk about guns and so shift the conversation to the second amendment of the constitution, or focus on parenting. When I did phone-in shows on US radio, conservatives would often jam the switchboard. I had just three questions for them:
“Do you think American kids are worse kids than anywhere else in the west?”
“Do you think American parents are worse parents than parents anywhere else in the west?”
And finally: “Do you love your interpretation of the second amendment more than you love your kids?”
Then the phone lines really lit up.
Across town, Nicole was told that Jaiden wouldn’t make it. The neurologist told her that Jaiden’s CT scan was one of the worst she’d ever seen. The bullet had taken a path straight to the back of his brain, where it had ricocheted, causing irreparable damage. They put Jaiden on a ventilator while a decision was made about organ donation. “I don’t remember feeling anything,” Nicole says. “All I remember is having this image of him in his shoes. He’d just put his shoes on, and his T-shirt was on the floor. And now he’s in a hospital gown with a thing down his throat. All in about an hour or so.”
Jaiden was pronounced dead at 3.47pm the next day. Until they wheeled him away to the operating room, Nicole kept it together, but witnessing that was too much to bear. “I couldn’t see the doors close,” she says. “It was almost like they were taking him to have his tonsils out.” She had been up for 45 hours. “I just remember breaking down and crying, and then somebody put me in a wheelchair and took me out. I didn’t go back to the hospital at all.”
It’s easy to mourn lives cut down prematurely but what makes this book stand out is the strength of its analysis. Younge counters our understandable reaction to feel more deeply for “innocents” or “angels” by examining the structural roots of a crisis that has resulted in such everyday killings. He nails a succession of myths (or as he calls it, “frisks the straw men”): that, for example, America is a meritocracy, or that the current crisis resides in the failure of African American families (of the 10 deaths, seven were black, two Hispanic and one white) to discipline their children, or that talking about crime (which he forensically examines) is a taboo subject among African Americans. – Gillian Slovo in the Guardian
Another Day in the Death of America is published by Guardian Faber at £8.99 and is available for £7.64 from the Guardian bookshop. The book has been shortlisted for the Orwell prize for political writing. The winner will be announced 15 June.