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St Louis vigil ends in Gunfight
by Dermot Tatlow

“Two years ago a young black man, VonDerrit Myers, 18, was shot in the back and killed on this street corner by a white police officer. His family said he had a sandwich in his hand, the police report says it was a gun.

VonDerrit’s family had called for a 7pm vigil to commemorate the death of their only child at the spot outside the Shaw Market on the corner of Shaw and Klemm where he was shot.

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Shaw is a quiet mixed neighbourhood of single family houses. The northern part is more white, the southern part more black. Most homes have well kept lawns. All in all, it‘s considered pretty safe. There are a few nice restaurants and a local store, the Shaw Market, sells sandwiches, drinks and everyday items.

I arrived 15 minutes early, parked the car and walked up to the spot where several dozen people were gathering. They were mostly black, young, male and female, the friends and classmates of VonDerrit. It was a community turnout with children, grandparents, white neighbours, community activists and a lady in a wheelchair.

I introduced myself and met the parents of VonDerrit Jr, his mother Syreeta and father VonDerrit Snr. I took a portrait of them in the fast fading evening light.

The mood was solemn, and more people were arriving, there was the black pastor, a white female clergy member. In a neighbourhood with little violent crime, the killing of VonDerrit on the streets of Shaw shocked the community.

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As we gathered at the small memorial at the intersection next to the Shaw Market, some sort of argument broke out amongst a group of some two dozen young black men who stood milling around eight yards away.

I could not make out what it was about, and had no reason to get involved, so I stayed with the family at the vigil. Given the respectful nature of the gathering I did not expect anything to get out of hand.

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More angry words were exchanged, but not too loudly, I could see some of the men pulling away one or two of their friends, trying to diffuse whatever was simmering.

Then suddenly handguns were drawn and immediately multiple shots were fired. There were at least four shooters spraying crossfire across the intersection. The shooting was indisciplined, one youth ran after another shooting wildly.

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There was screaming, I saw a young woman running, dragging her young boy away. People scattered from the intersection and dived onto the ground as the loud percussive firing continued and continued.

I lay in the street with a car between me and where the shooting had started. I knew this was not safe, a car is a tin can, and bullets ricochet down street and under cars, but it felt a hell of a lot safer than standing up.

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A man walked up the street from behind me as the shooting continued, he stopped right next to me. He was using the same car as cover, I looked up and saw him pull a 9mm handgun from the waistband of his baggy jeans. We made eye contact as he looked down to pull out his gun. Then he looked ahead and started firing methodically at an adversary across the intersection. The metallic pinging sound of shell casings hitting the ground as they landed a foot from my head was out of sync with the loud booms of the gunshots. He fired four to six rounds and quickly moved off.

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After that there was a lull in the shooting. I looked around and could see people ducking and laying down, cars caught in the intersection raced by. A mother in a mini van screamed at friends to get in. Another woman cried out for her husband. I got up and quickly ran to take better cover across the street behind the trunk of the nearest largest tree. The shooting started again, rapid, angry, indiscriminate and very violent.

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This is how nine-year-old kids get killed sitting on their porch.

There was another brief lull, then more shooting started down the road, but further away, the shooters were moving away. The intersection was now clear, more cars raced past in a squealing panic of tires, people were on their phones calling 911. Looking at the time stamp on my pictures. There was shooting at 6:59.39 and by about 7:00.03 it had finished. In about 30 long seconds it was all over. Well over 58 shots were fired.

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Everyone was shaken. A middle-aged lady was telling me “There is no respect, we came here to pray. I don’t want to live in this kind of a world”.

It took a while for the police to arrive. They were trying to secure the crime scene, but it was so large. Blood splattered the street, clearly several people had been shot, but fortunately, no bystanders seemed hit. Dozens of bullet casings lay on the floor, cars had their tires shot out, windshields shattered. One car had at least 13 bullet holes in its bonnet, it’s windshield and drivers side window shot out.

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The pastor in his crisp white shirt, who seconds ago had been lying face down on the ground, held VonDerrit’s sobbing mother in his arms. He was a voice of authority and said with resigned irritation “Come on, let’s finish what we came here to do” Everyone who was still there held hands and formed a circle around the small memorial for VonDerrit. The pastor prayed aloud.

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A policeman who was marking the site of blood and bullet casings muttered to me “They’re all praying in the middle of a crime scene”. He looked up as if to move them on, but then though better of it, waited for the prayer to finish and asked everyone to move back behind the yellow police tape they were setting up to cordon off the crime scene around the intersection.

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Police were all over the place now. A young man who had been shot staggered from a side street up to the intersection and sat down next to the police. He was shot in the leg, the paramedics ripped open his pants, to stabilize his wound and an ambulance took him away.

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With all the world’s press in St Louis for the second presidential debate between Clinton and Trump, other than a possible blogger I was the only journalist there. After it was all over one local reporter and photographer arrived. I asked who they worked for, they said a St Louis weekly paper. One local TV camera guy showed up, but no reporter.

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Later it was reported that a bullet grazed someones arm and an unidentified man was dropped off at a nearby hospital with gunshot injuries. Given that there was so much gunfire it was extraordinary luck that no bystander was grievously injured.

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No one would or could tell me why the vigil was interrupted before it even started, or who was shooting at whom.

A young black man was killed by a white cop, and two years later a fusillade of gang violence ruins his memory at a vigil in his honor. To the disgust of his friends and family, the second anniversary of VonDerrit Meyer’s death descended into another chaotic night of gun violence in America.

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Dermot Tatlow

External links


 

Mark Henley wins Swiss Press Photo portraits prize.

Panos photographers win multiple POYi prizes.

Photo mentorship with Lianne Milton

Tim Smith at Union 105 in Leeds, UK

Björn Steinz at The Moravian Gallery in Brno, Czech Republic

Hossein Fatemi at Susan Eley Fine Art in New York

Sven Torfinn on NOS.nl

Seamus Murphy in The Irish Times

Stefan Boness in Benetton Clothes for Humans

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