On the night of December 16, 2017, Allen “Duffy” Samuels and his family were celebrating his daughter’s sweet sixteen at a hotel in Wilmington, Delaware, when his sister, Arica Samuels, received a call. “She screamed and ran out to the lobby,” he said. “The next thing we knew, we were at the hospital.”
Her son, Keanan, a freshman at Benedict College in South Carolina, was home for Christmas break. That night he had gone to a vigil for a friend, 19-year-old Barry White, who had been shot and killed that September on Wilmington’s north side. After Keanan left the vigil, a still-unidentified assailant opened fire sometime around 7:45 p.m. and hit Samuels in the neck and face area, according to the police. He died at the hospital later that night. He was 20 years old, and the 32nd and final gun-homicide victim of the year in the city of just over 70,000.
Last year was the deadliest since the Wilmington News Journal began cataloging shootings in 2011, but the increase in violence goes back further. In 2008, two young men in my senior class at Mount Pleasant High School were murdered; Aaron Flowers on the west side of the city in April, and Nelson Drakeford in a community just outside of city limits, called Edgemoor, in August. No arrests have been made in those murders; since that year, according to numbers provided by the Wilmington Police Department on March 22, there have been 1,111 people shot and 254 people killed in the city alone.
Along with other small cities like Gary, Indiana and Camden, New Jersey, Wilmington has garnered a reputation for its escalation of gun violence, even as homicide rates are on a long-term decline nationwide. There are a lot of theories as to why the violence in Wilmington stands out, from the lack of resources available to longstanding and systemic issues of discrimination to, simply, the city’s size.
“You’re one, two, three, four degrees of separation [from everyone], and those circles are even smaller in these low-income black neighborhoods in Wilmington,” said Yasser Payne, a professor of sociology, criminal justice, and Black American studies at the University of Delaware. “So if someone is looking to beef with another person, it’s difficult to not run into that person or someone that they know at some point. It exacerbates increasingly retaliatory behavior.”
The violence in Wilmington has received national attention at various points over the last few years, such as a Newsweek feature that billed the city as “Murdertown, USA” and a segment on NPR’s All Things Considered, both in 2014. But things have continued to get worse; the News Journal/USA Today and the Associated Press reported last year that Wilmington was the most dangerous place for 12 to 17 year olds in the country, with a rate of 3.4 kids injured or killed per 1,000 from 2014 to mid 2017— a rate nearly twice as high as Chicago’s, which had the second-highest rate on the list, and more than double that of the similarly sized Trenton, NJ, which had the fourth-highest.
In 2013, the city, led by Councilwoman Hanifa Shabazz, asked the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to study local gun violence as a public health crisis. It is, to date, the only time that the CDC has studied gun violence in this way in an American city, due to decades-old, politically motivated restrictions on studying gun violence.
But even after the CDC report, which was released in 2015, many feel that enough isn’t being done to curb the violence in the city, especially compared to the relatively aggressive response to the opioid epidemic in Delaware, which has hit Wilmington’s whiter and wealthier suburbs hard.
“Wilmington is the most dangerous city in the country for teenagers,” New Castle County councilman Jea Street told me. “But nobody cares, because it’s black teenagers.”
To consider where Wilmington is today, it helps to take a brief look at its history.
Delaware was one of five border states during the Civil War, meaning it was part of the Union state but still had legalized slavery. After the war, Delaware rejected the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments — which abolished slavery, granted citizenship to African-Americans, and guaranteed the right to vote (at least in theory) — and the state wouldn’t ratify the Amendments until 1901. Segregation was ingrained in the state; a court case challenging school segregation in Delaware, Belton v. Gebhart, was one of five that were eventually rolled into the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.
But even after that ruling, Delaware continued to struggle with integration. The state legislature in 1968 passed law that — regardless of intent — resegregated the schools. The state and would eventually be forced to integrate by federal courts in 1978, with a state plan replacing the court plan in 1981. The desegregation order wasn’t lifted until 1995, and since then, the schools have slowly started to resegregate; the UCLA Civil Rights Project found in 2014 that “nearly 20 percent of Delaware’s black students, and about 11 percent of Delaware’s Latino students, go to intensely segregated schools with overlapping concentrations of poverty,” as opposed to 29 years ago, when “no students — of any race — attended intensely segregated schools.”
Today, the area is still largely divided by race, not by law but through decades of white flight. New Castle County, which includes Wilmington and its suburbs (many of which are unincorporated communities), is nearly two-thirds white; the city of Wilmington, on the other hand, was 58 percent black as of the 2010 census. The difference in how children in both of these populations grow up is drastic: in New Castle County, the child poverty rate as of 2016 was 15 percent; in Wilmington, it was more than double that, at 35 percent. A 2017 report by a state community advisory council said that of the city’s nearly 20,000 children, 86 percent were receiving some form of public assistance.
In 2010, Yasser Payne and a team of researchers recruited from the community studied the low-income neighborhoods of Southbridge and East Side. In these neighborhoods, Payne told me, his team found high levels of inequality, joblessness, and dropout rates; to put it simply, he says, “poverty is the center of crime.” The team also found a majority of participants reported that they had lost either a family member or a friend to gun violence.
Wilmington City Council President Hanifa Shabazz told me that these factors, among others, have contributed to the spike in gun violence in Wilmington. “We’re finally getting some attention to address some of those root causes,” Shabazz says. Those root causes are numerous, she says: “Inequitable education, a lack of opportunities and youth programming, poverty, unhealthy food environments, environmental factors.”
“When you say root causes, poverty just leads to so many issues,” said Lisa Minutola, the chief of legal services for the state public defender’s office. “It’s hard enough for a family who has the economic means to deal with [a criminal charge], but the majority of our kids, our kids from low income families, I think that’s just another layer on top of that.”
“Poverty is the center of crime.”
When Shabazz first began to study the issue as a city councillor, she said her first instinct was to push for more gun control. She quickly found, however, that Delaware law prohibited municipal and county governments from making gun policy. And even though Delaware has been run by Democrats for much of the last 25 years, the state has looser gun laws than one might expect.
For example, legislation is currently moving through the Delaware legislature that would raise the minimum age to purchase a rifle or shotgun from 18 to 21, which was one of the major parts of the Florida gun-control law passed in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland in February. (Delaware isn’t alone, however; it was only one of only 22 states plus D.C. to impose any sort of minimum age for long gun sales as of a 2014 report by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a pro-gun control legal center.)
In terms of federal agencies, the best one suited to look at the root causes that Shabazz described is the Centers for Disease Control. But in the mid-’90s, a Republican Congress rendered it nearly impossible for the CDC to study gun violence by prohibiting it from using federal money to to promote gun control. Congress also cut the agency’s budget by the exact amount that it was appropriating to study the issue. (An omnibus funding bill passed in March clarified that the CDC could conduct gun research, but didn’t provide the funding for it to do so.)
Shabazz had a different idea. In December 2013 she spearheaded a unanimously passed resolution to bring in the CDC to study the crisis in Wilmington — not as a gun issue, but as a matter of public health. “Children exposed to gun violence may experience negative psychological effects of anger, post-traumatic stress, withdrawal and desensitization to violence,” the resolution stated. “It has become obvious that the negative psychological effects are plaguing the city of Wilmington through a continued cycle of violence.”
After college at Old Dominion and a career playing pro basketball in Europe and for the Harlem Globetrotters, Duffy Samuels returned to Wilmington in the late ‘90s to find his hometown drastically different from when he left it. “You started seeing more gang activity, more of a disconnect between fathers and their sons, the community disconnected amongst each other,” he said. “A lot of kids struggling, a lot of kids without a father, and I saw the crime rate going up.”
In 1998, as his basketball career was still ongoing, Samuels began mentoring five kids for one day out of the month. He credits this decision to his mother, whom he says told him to “come back and do his part to help out.” When he retired in 2002, Samuels officially registered his organization as a 501(c)(3) called Duffy’s Hope. Today, the organization targets at-risk kids in middle and high school and provides them with programs including one-on-one mentoring and financial literacy.
One of the kids who passed through the program was his nephew, Keanan. “When he was in the room, you knew he was in the room,” Samuels laughed. “He was joyful, he was loud, he was the center of attention.”
Zora Johnson, a 17-year-old senior at Brandywine, worked a summer job alongside Keanan for the Wilmington Blue Rocks, the city’s minor-league baseball team. “[He was a] full-spirited person, very loud, that’s why we got along so well,” Johnson said. “He was funny, he was a person who lit up the room when he walked in, and he always put others before himself.”
According to his teachers and peers at Brandywine High School, from which he graduated in 2017, Keanan was well-liked and involved in several different activities at the school, from a mentor group at the local middle school to being the president of a club called Jobs for Delaware Graduates. Samuels said that his nephew had struggled to graduate from high school, but he “worked hard” and wanted to “push himself to get to college.”
“He was funny, he was a person who lit up the room when he walked in, and he always put others before himself.”
He did, and wanted to pass on what he learned to younger students. Two days before he died, Keanan visited his old high school to give a presentation to seniors about what college was like. While he was in town, he caught up with Dionie Lum, the school’s dean of students. “We were discussing his first semester of college and how he was really happy about being a college student,” Lum said. “He was a funny guy, man. He was a good kid.”
For Samuels, who has given so much to help at-risk kids in Wilmington, losing his nephew to the same violence he’s worked so hard to prevent over the past two decades has felt like a personal failure. “I haven’t been the same since [Keanan’s death],” he told me. “I’m usually on the other side giving encouraging words, and now I’m the one being given encouraging words and supported. I feel like I let my nephew down. I was supposed to be there to protect him.”
Three months after his death, Keanan’s case remains open. The same goes for the cases of my classmates, Aaron Flowers and Nelson Drakeford. Nearly 10 years after their deaths, neither murder has been solved; in 2016, the New Castle County police publicly listed Drakeford’s murder as a cold case. (The Outline requested numbers from the Wilmington Police Department on solved and unsolved murders dating back to 2008; a spokesman told us, after initially asking for an extension so the data could be researched manually, that the department does not have those records and that the city’s FOIA laws don’t require them to keep them.)
These are tragically common stories, as a majority of the shootings in Wilmington go unsolved; the News Journal reported earlier this year that only 38 percent of shootings in Wilmington were cleared, as opposed to a 60 percent clearance nationally.
Zora Johnson, the high-school senior, said that the national problem of cops shooting unarmed citizens has also made people more distrustful of the police. “If our officers were more careful [with guns], then maybe people in the city of Wilmington would be more careful with how they use guns,” she said. “We have cops sitting on the corner ready to give somebody a red-light ticket, but they need to be monitoring who has guns in their houses.”
Only 38 percent of shootings in Wilmington were cleared, as opposed to 60 percent nationally.
According to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives statistics, 388 guns were traced and recovered in Wilmington in 2016, out of more than 1,000 in the state overall. The vast majority of these guns were handguns; there were 650 pistols and 180 revolvers. A majority of the illegal guns recovered in Delaware came from in-state, but 86 came from Pennsylvania, which has more relaxed gun laws and a border 15 minutes from Wilmington.
“Individuals who are prohibited from owning firearms make efforts to illegally acquire firearms through a variety of means,” ATF spokesperson Amanda Hils told The Outline in an email. “This includes asking someone who is not prohibited from owning a firearm (and thus can pass an FBI NICS background check) to purchase the firearm on their behalf, which is a crime known as a straw purchasing; stealing firearms; and more.”
Lum estimated that in the 20 years he’s been working at schools in Wilmington, students of his have been involved in at least 10 shootings, and he rattled off the names of several friends and family members who have been shot and killed. And he said that even when the deaths don’t hit as close to home for the Brandywine community as Keanan’s has, students at his school are affected by shootings involving friends and family.
“You limit the things you can celebrate,” Lum said of the violence in Wilmington. “You put all of the positive things happening on the backseat. There are so many great things going on that kids are involved in, but it’s put on the backburner because we can’t knuckle down and take care of this situation.”
In November 2015, the CDC released its report on Wilmington. The study looked at 569 Wilmington residents who were arrested for a “violent firearm crime” — a homicide, attempted homicide, aggravated assault, robbery with a firearm, or possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony — over the course of five and a half years, and found that 55 percent of those who were arrested were 25 or younger and 86 percent were 35 or younger.
The CDC found evidence of poverty’s effect on violence in Wilmington, as 86 percent of those surveyed were unemployed in the quarter preceding their arrest. But they also found evidence of the connection between experiencing violence and committing gun crimes; 48 percent of those arrested had been to the emergency room after being injured by someone else, the police, or themselves, and 28 percent had been investigated as a victim of child maltreatment. Thirteen percent had been to the emergency room for a gunshot wound themselves.
86 percent of those arrested for “violent firearm crime” in Wilmington were 35 or younger.
“What we’re learning a lot about is trauma, and the impact that trauma has on individuals throughout their lives,” said Rita Landgraf, who served as the state’s Secretary of Department of Health and Human Services head when the CDC went to Wilmington. “When the CDC did the study, it became clear that almost all of them had been victimized or assaulted themselves… we have this phrase that we say: ‘Hurt people hurt people.’”
But despite the fact that so many people had interacted with the system prior to their arrest for gun crimes, Shabazz said that the various agencies and institutions in Delaware weren’t communicating with each other about at-risk kids. “You could see that a child was headed on the path to destruction,” Shabazz said. “But because we worked in silos, the information from housing that they were homeless or from Child Protective Services that they were being abused wasn’t being relayed down to the school system. And the response from the school would be suspension or expulsion rather than intervention and support.”
After the CDC report, a CDC Community Advisory Council led by Shabazz (and whose members included Landgraf and Payne) produced a report for implementing the CDC’s recommendations, which was released in January 2017. Some of the recommendations the council made were improving data-sharing among schools and other public services and agencies, so the city and state could be more proactive in identifying at-risk kids and providing help. “If we can start to produce wraparound services for those populations most at-risk, there’d be a better chance of reducing [violence],” said Payne.
Another idea endorsed in the report were year-round and summer employment programs that would provide kids with some cash and work experience for potential careers. “Listen, you could give me all the information in the world, but if I’m dealing with issues at home, all that information in the world can’t manage,” said Coley Harris, a member of the advisory council.
Harris spent 14 years in prison for murder before being released in 2008; after getting out, he became a community activist, working on anti-violence efforts with the group Cease Violence Wilmington and as a youth employment coordinator with an alternative discipline school in the city. “I’m not saying you’re gonna pay a kid a $40,000 salary, but you can allow for them to earn something that’s going to fend off some of that sting of poverty,” he says. “You can literally buy these kids off the block.”
Despite the CDC’s findings and the commission’s recommendations, however, progress has been slow on enacting many of the reforms. In an interview with the News Journal, DHHS Secretary Kara Odom-Walker said there were “governance and legal barriers” to some of them, such as which state agency gets “ownership” of the data.
"I talk to members of my cabinet almost daily about their actions in the city, and we are constantly looking for ways to do more,” Gov. John Carney told The Outline through a spokesperson. “Our work in Wilmington is reflected in the growing role of the Family Services Cabinet Council throughout the city and it is reflected in our recommended budget.”
Not everyone agrees, however. “The predominance of critical decision-makers don’t give a damn,” Street, the county councilman, said. “Everything in the [CDC] reports needs to be implemented. But they all cost money. So it’s not going to happen.”
In Gov. Carney’s budget presentation in January, he proposed putting $15 million into modernizing two Wilmington schools. As the News Journalreported earlier this month, however, officials in the administration have said there’s no need yet for funding in the budget for a “predictive analytics” database, recommended by the CDC, which could identify at-risk kids of gun violence.
“The predominance of critical decision-makers don’t give a damn.”
An influx of money from the University of Pennsylvania, located a 40-minute drive from Wilmington, may help implement the CDC’s recommendations. In January, the state announced an 18-month “technical assistance grant” from Penn in order to help the state develop a system to integrate data gathered from various state agencies. The grant was scheduled to begin this month.
Keanan’s friends and family continue to focused on remembering him. His former Brandywine classmates in the school’s dance program recently dedicated a performance to his memory. “The dance was created by his friends on the day that grief counselors were in the school and available for the students,” Brandywine dance teacher Erika Brown told me in an email. “The girls literally said, ‘We were tired of crying, so we started dancing.’”
“I wish I had the answer, but I might be more upset if I did,” Lum says of his former student’s death. “But for someone like that who was celebrating life and his journey and the personal things he’s had to overcome, it’s sad that something like this happened.”
“I just wish there was something we could have done differently,” he continued. “But his story still isn’t done, there’s other things that will be there to discuss the greatness of Keanan.”
What Duffy Samuels wants is closure, and for others not to have to experience the pain that his family has gone through. “For me, I want justice for my nephew and I want the person who did it to come forward,” he said. “We need to put more money into prevention and get kids the help they need, and get guns off our streets. I just think it’s more effort.”