On 12th June 2016, the world witnessed what many US media outlets were calling the “most deadly shooting in US history”, when a gunman walked into a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and killed at least 49 people, injuring a further 53.
It is in times such as this that the world takes notice, but in the US, on average, seven children are shot dead every day. In Another Day in the Death of America (Guardian Faber, September), journalist Gary Younge tells the stories of 10 youths who were killed on just one of these days: 23rd November 2013. “Whenever there is a big mass shooting, like Columbine or Sandy Hook, then America pays attention, but most kids that are shot dead are killed on a daily basis,” Younge says.
“And if they happen to be black or poor or both, then people almost discount their deaths, like that’s how those people behave, that’s what happens in that area, this couldn’t happen to me, those people aren’t like me. But what I hope comes through in the book is that these are kids like your kids, and these are parents like you, and these are people like you. So one of the hopes is that it creates a sense of empathy.”
A pattern emerges
Growing out of a magazine piece Younge wrote for the Guardian in 2007, in which he picked a day at random and explored the lives and deaths of all the youngsters who were shot dead in the US on that day, Another Day in the Death of America is an examination of a normal day in contemporary America, where guns are freely available and where children getting shot becomes “part of the furniture”. For Younge, investigating these cases was an attempt to “excavate the stories that are hidden in plain sight [and] to find out about these people who form the white noise of America”.
The book was a result of 18 months of investigation, of travelling around the US and spending time talking to the families and friends of victims. “It tested just about every single element of being a reporter that I could imagine—analysis and news gathering and getting people to tell you things that they don’t want to tell you,” Younge says. However, he maintains that “it didn’t take any special powers…anybody could’ve done this, any journalist. But there’s a sense almost that it’s not worth doing and an assumption that we know their stories already.”
Younge’s investigation into the lives of these children considers issues of power and privilege in journalism and news reporting, and how these are intricately tied up with structural inequality: “Journalists—both in the US and [the UK]—are more likely to be privileged people. So in a world that’s becoming increasingly unequal, covering the lives of people on the other side of the divide—people who are poor, forgotten, who live in areas where you don’t travel—becomes like covering a foreign country.”
He continues: “When I asked the journalists who were assigned to a lot of these stories, ‘Did you think to follow it up?’, a lot of them said, ‘Well it’s not that unusual for someone to get shot in that area, that’s how things are’. So then it feels like there are places in America—mostly where poor, black and brown people live—where people are supposed to get shot, and areas where it would be surprising, and therefore newsworthy. I wanted to turn that on its head.”
Living with guns
Younge lived in the US for 12 years before moving back to London last year with his wife and two children. He describes having children and learning to navigate life as a black parent in the US having shifted his thinking about guns “considerably”. Through the stories he tells about a shooting near to his son’s nursery and a gunfight breaking out nearby when his wife was out with their daughter, Younge alludes to the uncomfortable proximity of guns that pervades everyday life in the US. The youngest person to die on 23rd November was nine years old, the same age as Younge’s son. “When I did the first piece for the magazine, the youngest person to die was two—so the children are never too young for you to be worried about it.”
Younge started working on the book in 2013, coinciding with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which campaigned against violence toward black people in the US. Propelled by the deaths of black boys and men—including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Freddie Grey in Baltimore and Tamir Rice in Cleveland—at the hands of the police, Younge describes a “huge swelling of activism around police violence, mainly towards young black men. Not exclusively, but primarily.”
Though Younge maintains that the book does not “fit the neat narrative of police shooting innocent kids”, for him the issue is “the extent to which black and poor people’s lives matter”. Of the 10 children who were shot on the day on which the book is set, seven were black, two were Latino and one was white. They were all boys, aged nine to 19. “To a person, these people are working-class, not rich or even middle-class. And for the most part, their deaths are barely recorded because it’s not seen as being something necessary to report. Their lives don’t matter. Their deaths are recorded, but their lives aren’t.”
Younge’s quest to tell the stories of these children took him across “a range of the American landscape”, from rural Michigan, to the barrios of Houston, to “hardcore” parts of Chicago and beyond. It enabled him to delve into the lives of these children and tell the stories of their relationships, aspirations and histories. “To some extent [the book] is a portrayal of American youth and childhood, with Minecraft and Call of Duty, smuggling girls into their rooms, smoking weed, teenage drama, and the cockstrutting and braggadocio of the older kids. So [the book] is more about how they lived than how they died. In writing it, I wasn’t moved by their deaths alone, it was their lives.”
A universal theme
Younge maintains that the book is “about America, not just guns”, and through examining the 10 youngsters’ lives (and deaths), Younge is able to unpick the wider structural issues at play that result in such tragedies: “There are a range of things that are wonderful about America—and guns aren’t one of them. For me, I don’t think Americans are any worse parents and I don’t think they are any more violent than anywhere else in the world. I don’t think their kids are any more irresponsible. But on top of a large pile of tinder—inequality, which every country has; segregation, which many countries have in different forms—you have this spark which is a gun, which then changes everything because you don’t come back from a gun.
“Americans like to talk about American exceptionalism, and this is one way in which America is exceptional, because in no other [Western] country would this book be possible.”
The book has been optioned for film with actor David Oyelowo set to produce and star. Younge says: “You can imagine that for a lot of these parents, their child has been removed from the planet and no one seems to really care apart from them and their close community. So without wanting to seem pious, if it gives some sense of voice or shines a light on their experiences, or manages to take the themes in the book to people who might not read it or think about it generally, then it will be a great thing.”
First published in The Bookseller magazine in 2016.