Umar Lee

A year ago this week my mother was asleep in her apartment in the Meacham Park neighborhood of Kirkwood when someone broke into her unit and executed her in a brutal gun slaying. 

This happened a little more than a year after my teenage nephew was shot and killed on the West Side of St. Louis, and that occurred just a year after his father was gunned down after leaving a bar on the South Side. Within that same time period I had another nephew shot in St. Louis, two former coworkers at Laclede Cab robbed and murdered, and a Muslim brother bludgeoned to death in an abandoned building on the North Side. 

When I was younger I would check the newspapers daily, as dozens of friends and acquaintances were killed in St. Louis. They were young men who never got to see their thirtieth birthday. Some of them didn't make it to 20. They had names like Larry Banks, Demetrius Banks, Corrian Hardy, and Bobby Coates and will forever be remembered as young men. 

This is the reality of life in St. Louis. 

St. Louis is a quintessential Dickensian city. The middle and upper classes send their kids to private schools and well-funded public schools, have secure healthcare and housing, have steak dinners in West County and goat milk kale smoothies on Cherokee or in The Grove, and share photos of fabulous vacations on Instagram. 

Meanwhile, much of the region sends their kids to cash-strapped and often dangerous schools, has limited or no access to routine healthcare, and survives on noodles, half orders of fried rice with Vess sodas, and the Rally's discount menu. 

Group A is eager to check out new bars, while Group B sleeps behind bars in their own homes in fear for their own safety. 

If I lived in a normal and healthy country it would be shocking to tell someone of all of the tragedy in my family. However, we don't live in a normal country and I happen to be from St. Louis, which is one of the most violent and dysfunctional cities in a nation full of death and inequality. 

In St. Louis it's common to meet families in which multiple members have been murdered. Every year hundreds are killed in the St. Louis metro area. This is happening in the shrinking urban core and in the stagnant metro area. Meanwhile there are many, intoxicated by the idea of selling more condos and rehabs to potential MLS fans, who look at the suffering and their biggest concern is image and how they count the homicide numbers.

The violence and inequality in America highlight the fact that America is not the best place to live unless you're wealthy. The current circus in Washington, D.C. lets us know we're on a sinking ship and people in St. Louis are like the poor folks on the Titanic who couldn't get to the lifeboats. Yet, we try. 

My mother had seen a lot of St. Louis. She knew the streets, seemed to know almost everyone, and would pick up the Evening Whirl and tell you the family history of both the shooter and victim. 

Decades ago my mother left North County to live on the South Side, settling in the Shaw neighborhood where she became a neighborhood mom of sorts. As a white woman she felt the city would be a better environment to raise biracial children. Ironically, the area in North County she came from has schools that are now nearly 100 percent African-American, and Shaw is being gentrified. 

The move to Kirkwood was about getting my nephew onto the highly ranked high school football team. While Kirkwood is overwhelmingly white, Meacham Park is a historic black community and a disproportionate amount of football players come from that neighborhood (my nephew was African-American). 

The other aspect of the Kirkwood move is that it promised to provide a safer environment for the kids and adults. It didn't turn out that way for my mother or nephew. In St. Louis, where you can zip across the metro area and a 20-minute drive is considered long, there is no escape from anyone or anything. 

My mother had escaped violence before. Years ago an ex of my mother was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting as she was by his side. Over the years she went on to befriend everyone from teenage moms, to lawyers, to gang members. It was in Kirkwood that her luck ran out. 

There is no one in jail for the murders of my mother, nephew, or brother-in-law. Yet, this shouldn't come as a surprise, as the majority of murders in the St. Louis area are unsolved, and people are taking matters into their own hands. With hundreds killed and thousands more injured every year, we are all surrounded by both the killers and the wounded every day. Learning to navigate and survive St. Louis is an art, and even the best of artists can't always paint a masterpiece. 

At my mother's funeral we saw the beauty of St. Louis. Christians, Jews, a row of Muslims, and a packed crowd that was over 90 percent African-American mourned a white woman of the Baby Boomer generation. All exchanged stories and memories of her unique personality which served as a reminder that, more than anything else, St. Louis is a city full of characters and she was one of the most unique of them. 

Umar Lee is a writer and activist from St. Louis. If you have any information on the murders of Karen Arnold in Kirkwood, Shelbyon Polk AKA/ Lil' Chubb, or Shelby Polk AKA/ Chubb, please contact Crimestoppers

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