Shortly after ringing in 2016 at a New Year’s Eve house party, 20-year-old James Bills noticed something outside he didn’t like.
“There was a young lady that was getting beat up…” said James’s uncle, Will Finley. “James came out and interrupted it.”
For doing so, the guy attacking the woman pulled out his gun and shot James in the head.
Americans have their stereotypes of the young black men killed by urban gun violence, but James Bills was not causing trouble nor looking for it—this night nor throughout his life.
“[James] got along with everybody, got good grades,” said Finley, whose career in finance helped afford James and his brothers a private school education.
James’s uncle Kirk Bills described the smart, good-natured young man as a “diamond in the rough.”
After he shot James outside the New Year’s house party, Finley explained that “the guy ran away, pointed the gun to those giving chase.”
A year-and-a-half later, the killer still hasn’t been caught.
Unsolved cases—despite the number of witnesses—are common when looking down the list of Minneapolis’s 38 homicides in 2016. Also common is a specific demographic: young people of color—particularly blacks.
In a time in our country where racial awareness and advocacy for the disadvantaged are at an all-time high, one might think that non-whites dominating this list (as well as making up the accruing 2017 list) would trigger alarms. Yet the 2016 deaths of James Bills, Andre Riley Jr., Victoria Day, Crystal Collins, and dozens more didn’t cause much of a social response despite all pointing to the same problem. Apathy, normalization, and ideological forces all contribute to this epidemic being largely ignored. Yet when you add up the bodies and the suffering, there is no greater concern in cities across the country.
So starting late last year, I set out to identify the victims of Minneapolis inner-city violence in 2016. Ahead are the stories of several of the victims: who they were, how they died, how their loved ones and community suffer, and how we can prevent other lives from being lost to a similar, premature end.
“She was a tiny-tot dancer,” said Regina Day, mother of Victoria Day.
From four to 12 years old, Victoria competed in powwows all over the region.
“I’d travel around with her to Canada,” recalled Regina, and then added in her rich, aging voice. “I’d make her beadwork and moccasins. She was into her culture.”
By the springtime of 2016, Minneapolis had suffered five homicides for the year. On April 16, the city lost its sixth victim.
Victoria Day was a service-oriented person.
“She used to love going to the food shelf and volunteering and helping out with the community and bagging people’s groceries and taking them outside,” said Regina, who herself is a volunteer at the Red Lake Nation Embassy in Minneapolis.
Yet Victoria was also tempted by the calls to an alternative lifestyle.
“Adults [Victoria’s] age are taunted into being in a gang,” said Regina, who grew up in the same neighborhood in south Minneapolis where she raised her family. “When I was growing up, we never even knew what a gang was.”
Regina believes Victoria’s murder had to do with selling marijuana in that neighborhood. At around 1:30 in the morning of Victoria’s last, abbreviated day of her shortened life, somebody shot and robbed her.
“We’re going through the grieving process daily,” Regina stated somberly nine months after her daughter’s death. She added that it would help if they caught the killer.
“We do have some ideas of what happened,” Minneapolis Police Sergeant Chris Thomsen told me.
But ideas aren’t enough.
“It takes people coming forward,” he said.
Victoria’s case, like James Bills’, remains open.
“She didn’t get a chance to live life,” Regina pleaded. “She was my baby.”
Some will be inclined to point out Victoria’s choices leading to her death. But the fact that this deadliness exists at all speaks to larger problems at hand—and taking the lives of innocent bystanders.
Birdell Beeks, 58, was driving her minivan in north Minneapolis on the late afternoon of Friday, May 26. Stopped at an intersection, Beeks’s 16-year-old granddaughter in the passenger’s seat spotted a gunman across the intersection. The 21-year-old man, it was later revealed, had been alerted to a rival gang member approaching by car.
Beeks’s granddaughter told her grandma to back up, but there was traffic behind them. Then the gunman opened fire at the rival’s car crossing in front of Beeks’s van. Bullets entered the van. Birdell’s next words were her last.
“Baby, they got me,” she said to her granddaughter.
Birdell passed out and died.
Minneapolis’s 10th homicide in 2016 would be its most publicized. Unlike in most of these cases, the shooting suspect would be apprehended January 24 of this year after a lengthy investigation.
But at the time of her death—and given the social movements of the day recognizing the harms committed against the African American community—I went to see how Beeks’s tragic, unjust death (as well as her life) would be acknowledged.
Under clear skies in the early evening of Tuesday, May 31, about 150 community members gathered along the intersection where Beeks took her final breaths. Following minutes of hugs and solemn socializing, VJ Smith, President of the anti-gang, anti-violence organization Minneapolis MAD DADS, led the vigil before a ring of residents.
“We got some brothers that are fighting real hard in the community,” declared Smith into the microphone. “They’ve been fighting for a long time to stop this craziness.”
Some of these brothers took the mic.
“The police cannot stop this problem, but we can solve this problem,” preached Wilson, “In fact, we’re the only ones who can stop this problem. These are our kids.”
For one man present, Wilson’s words were poignantly true.
“I had to bury my 25-year-old son,” said Jimmy Stanback Sr. to the attendees.
Jimmy Sr. had just buried his Jr. three weeks earlier.
At around 2:30am May 7, police were alerted to a shooting in north Minneapolis. Upon arrival, officers found Jimmy Stanback Jr. laying in an alley with a gunshot to the torso. He died an hour later at the hospital.
Standing before the crowd at the Beeks vigil, this was just Jimmy Sr.’s latest—albeit most difficult—outreach effort. For years, he had been an anti-violence, anti-gang advocate, motivated by his own youth of living the inner-city street life—the life he tried so hard to keep his son from living.
“I’m tired,” Stanback Sr. continued at the vigil. “I thought, like, after a while it was going to get a little easier on me. But on Memorial Day [when Beeks died], man, it had a totally different meaning to me.”
Two-and-a-half weeks later, on June 17, Jimmy Stanback Sr, drinking and depressed at his home, shot himself.
This wasn’t a homicide, but suicides and other symptoms of suffering are prevalent side effects of the larger problems plaguing these communities generation after generation.
Indeed, it seemed the community this day came out not just for Beeks, but to recognize the regularity of these tragedies striking their lives.
“Mother, uncle, two aunts, and a cousin,” Birdell’s nephew Anthijuan (pronounced “an-twon”) later told me, listing off family members murdered in his lifetime.
Born in 1969, the community advocate and former Minneapolis police officer remembers a different time of more involved parenting and a more unified black community in Minneapolis.
“Let me tell you what a rent party is,” he began in describing an occasion from his youth, where someone short on rent would have a gathering thrown on his/her behalf with the funds raised to help this person make ends meet.
“We had neighborhoods,” recalled Anthijuan. “Now we just have ‘hoods.”
Anthijuan wants to help the black community reconnect with those like his aunt.
“We have a lot of Birdell Beekses in our community,” said Anthijuan. “But we don’t know them.”
As a cop, Anthijuan stressed community work. This work became such a passion, that in summer of 2015 he left the MPD to devote full time to his nonprofit Face 2 Face. Today, Anthijuan speaks to adults and youth, sharing his knowledge of the law and motivating his audiences to make better choices.
“The community has to change,” he said. “The African American community has to realize it’s okay to accept help.”
Face to Face isn’t the only organization reaching out.
EMERGE Minneapolis educates and helps find jobs for juveniles and young adults who have a criminal record. Urban Ventures offers free adult classes on parenting, relationships, and job searching. Minneapolis MAD DADS dives right into the heart of the beast by patrolling inner-city neighborhoods at night, approaching youth who look to be in need of guidance, and then mentors such youth—as well as those recommended to them by family or the legal system. [Please see my story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune for a first-hand look at the work these organizations do as well as interviews with their leaders and the people they serve.]
No one can force residents to take the help offered. On top of that, as KG Wilson stated above, this is a problem in the community that ultimately needs to be corrected by the community. Most Minnesotans—like myself—are outsiders.
But this doesn’t mean we stop caring and helping. It may not be us or our neighbors out there on that playing field, but from the sidelines we can support the organizations mentioned above to further extend their reach into these neighborhoods. (To do so, see links at the bottom of this article.)
As it stands, Anthijuan said he received “very little” outside support following his aunt’s death. Indeed, I realized at Beeks’s vigil the degree to which ideology shapes advocacy—and how circumstances trigger ideologies. Had the person who shot Beeks been wearing a uniform or perhaps had even just been white, it would have set off the alarms of those eager to respond to the threat of systemic wrongs.
But just because a tragedy doesn’t trigger today’s social justice movements, it doesn’t make it any less heart-wrenching for the victims’ loved ones. Just yesterday, in fact, the mother of one of the victims updated me:
“…since we last spoke I have moved to Texas to rebuild my life. It was just too hard for me. I was slowly losing myself as if I was dead. It’s been a little over a year…but it still feels as if it just happened. The pain hasn’t stop hurting. I’ve just learned to deal with it a little better. There is not a moment I don’t think about him. I miss him dearly. He has two young children, a son and a daughter. They are the ones suffering the most.” -Takisha Randle, mother of Jimmy Stanback Jr.
Nor does our overall social apathy toward this problem change the fact that there isn’t a more urgent and deadly concern facing our cities.
“Over 400 shooting victims on top of the 30-some killed,” said Anthijuan, reflecting on the violent 2016 in Minneapolis. The murders continued throughout the summer.
Two were first cousins, innocents shot dead one week apart.
Coshay’e Brown, 19, died the night of June 28 after being struck by a stray bullet to the chest while seated in a car.
Andre Riley Jr., 24, died July 3 while at a late-night block party. A gunman approached Riley from behind and shot him in the head. While fleeing, witnesses heard the gunman and accomplice say they got the wrong guy.
Both Andre and Coshay’e left behind infants. Both of their cases are unsolved.
Video Extra: For more about Andre’s life, death, and thoughts on inner-city life in America, watch my interview with Andre’s mother and former fiancé on YouTube here or by clicking on the play button below:
Responding to reports of gunfire the early morning hours of July 7, officers arrived to find James Salter in the street, dead of a shotgun blast to the chest and neck.
Surveillance video showed the suspect driving up to Salter. This suspect, 50, was arrested and admitted he and two accomplices, ages 18 and 21, had agreed to rob another individual who had “crossed” them in the past. But when they couldn’t find that person, they spotted Salter and decided to rob him instead.
The same suspect said the 18-year-old got out of the car with a shotgun and told Salter to hand over all his money. He then shot Salter because he was “moving too slowly,” according to the police complaint. One of them then searched Salter’s pockets for money. This case is closed.
On July 8 one of the year’s youngest victims was taken. Around 11:30 that morning, a father drove his minivan in north Minneapolis with his two toddlers in the backseat. Stopping at an intersection, he pulled up alongside an idling black Chevy Impala to his left. A person in that car opened fire on the van. A bullet struck two year old Le’Vonte Jones in the chest. He died at the hospital.
The driver of the Impala is still at large, despite Le’Vonte’s mother claiming knowledge of who the killer is. But the police released this man after questioning, citing not enough evidence to charge.
A mother of teenagers was taken July 16. At around 8:00pm Crystal Marie Collins, 36, and about a dozen others were gathered outside her home just a few blocks away from where Le’Vonte Jones had been shot. Someone drove up and started shooting. Collins and two others were hit.
Officers found Collins in the street. Arriving paramedics pronounced her dead. Collins left behind three teenagers, two of whom were present as their mother died. Police say the shooting was gang related. The case is still open.
Over an especially bloody weekend in August, 13 people in the city were shot. One died. Minneapolis police responded to several shots fired just before midnight a block away from where a memorial for Crystal Collins remained. Officers and paramedics found Jaquan Oatis, 28, dead on the sidewalk. Two people were seen running from the scene. The case remains open.
At around 11pm October 28, Dana Logan, 46, was shot while driving home in what’s believed to have been crossfire. Hit in the chest, Logan drove her SUV another block or two in the fall darkness before pulling over and dying on the streets of north Minneapolis. The case remains open.
“Just please, please, please put down the guns,” said Logan’s sister Verna Patterson at a community vigil. “Not just my sister. The little children that are being taken away… the elders, everybody. Just put them down. Put down the guns.”
These are the stories of eleven of last year’s victims.
Just as violence plagued inner-city Minneapolis neighborhoods in 2016, it continues to this year at a similar rate. Anticipating the rise in violence that accompanies the warm months, police and city officials have been preparing. Some ideas mentioned: more police, better street lighting.
When I read about these measures, I recall the words of KG Wilson: “The police cannot stop this problem, but we can solve this problem. In fact, we’re the only ones who can stop this problem.”
The solutions come from within—yet all can help. We just need to remove the veils of apathy and ideology, look at the faces this problem is taking, and support the people and groups working to improve their communities.
On July 8, a group of schoolchildren playing at a nearby park took cover during the shooting of two year old Le’Vonte Jones.
“Unfortunately, tragedy is not new to us,” school Principal Mauri Melander told WCCO news. She then added, “But one thing I’ve learned is that you can’t ignore it, and you can’t start to act like it’s normal.”
To anonymously report any tips about these open cases, please call 612-692-8477. To assist and learn more about the organizations working to stop the violence and suffering, click the links below: