“Do you ever hear gunfire?”
Shea Jones seemed startled by such a question, her face a portrait of incredulity, wondering how this dumb-ass white guy could come traipsing into Miami’s most dangerous community and utter something so naive.
Might as well have asked if life is hard in Liberty Square.
But I wanted to find out how the considerable gun violence reported around a decrepit public housing project in Northwest Miami called Liberty Square affected the lives of mothers like Shea.
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Were the drive-by shootings and murders an abstraction? Or were their daily lives warped by an ever-present sense of danger for themselves and their children?
I had stopped Shea Jones, 25, who sports a startling bright red streak through her black hair, outside a daycare center in the project, known thereabouts as Pork N’ Beans. And I asked my dumb-ass question.
Yeah. She heard gunfire.
About 9 p.m. Tuesday, she and her three children, ages 7, 3 and 2, were watching television in their cramped little apartment off Northwest 62nd Lane.
Then, a harrowing burst of gunshots. After living these last three years in Liberty Square, Shea could tell that these were reports from a military-style assault weapon. The volley of bullets tore into the stucco the outdoor walls of her apartment building. One penetrated her front window, leaving a hole in the aluminum frame.
Her reaction: “We hit the floor.”
Mother after mother described a variation of the exercise that has become a nightly ritual for residents of Liberty Square.
“My kids and I get down on the floor. That's how we stay alive,” said Denise Reese, 32, with five kids at home.
“I'm tired of putting my face down in the dirt every night,” a mother of six told me angrily, pausing as she picked up trash from her little patch of yard along Northwest 64th Street. Scrap paper blows like tumbleweed through the sparsely landscaped project, 753 units arranged in squat, one- and two-story block structures painted in dismal shades of gray, beige, yellow and blue.
“You want my name?” She answered my query with a snort. “You gonna come and put flowers on my grave when these gangbangers read it in the newspaper and retaliate?”
After the gunfire quieted, Shea Jones found 23-year-old Cassiaus Cadet-Stuckey lying not far from her front door, dying from two gunshot wounds. Two young women had been grazed by bullet fragments and were bleeding from minor cuts.
Neighbors were certain that none of the three were the intended targets in the gang attack.
“Wrong place, wrong time,” said Letora Smith, 23, a mother of four who grew up in this housing project. She described how it has become difficult to pay rent since her roommate, another young mother, had been wounded while sitting on a porch, another unintended victim in a drive-by shooting last year. “When she got out of the hospital, she moved to Georgia to get away from this place.”
Last summer, my Miami Herald colleagues Charles Rabin and David Smiley pored through police reports and found that 43 people had been shot in the 13-block area encompassing Liberty Square during the first seven months of 2014. Seven of those shooting victims died.
Since their report, the violence plaguing the community has not abated.
The killing outside Shea Jones’ apartment Tuesday was the first in a spate of three shootings in the area. Just 14 hours later, another young man was shot dead on a nearby street. Moments later, a few blocks south, another was wounded. “Morning time. Eleven o’clock in the morning this happened,” Letora Smith said, shaking her head at the shooters’ audacity.
The effect, she said, is that a kind of perpetual fear looms over her life, night and day, worrying that one of her tiny children might become collateral damage in the unending gang wars that have ruined life in this community. “I grew up here. Lived here for 23 years. But it's getting worse and worse.”
In Liberty Square, the usual concerns of parenting are trumped by worries about just keeping their children alive. “My kids don’t play outside, not in the evening,” said Letora Smith. “Bullets go all over the place.”
“Nobody here lets their kids go out and play at night,” said Denise Reese. “You'd be crazy.”
The mothers kept going back to the perverse reality of Liberty Square, that innocence, that youth, that having no gang affiliation, none of that keeps the bullets away. In Liberty Square, the prevailing epitaph has become “wrong place, wrong time.”
“Anyone can get shot here,” said the woman who was afraid to give her name. “You can get killed when these guys go to shooting at somebody else. It’s not like they can practice on the shooting range with those big old guns of theirs. They’re liable to hit anything.”
Proof of that contention can be found in the pattern of bullet pockmarks left by Tuesday evening’s fatal barrage, a 30-foot wide spray across the front of two apartments. Afterward, police investigators had dutifully marked and numbered each bullet hole. The faded yellow wall with tags numbered 52, 53, 54, 55 formed a backdrop for the impromptu memorial created on Shea Jones’ front porch: a dozen stuffed animals, six candles, a red vase with a small artificial white rose.
“It’s wrong, what’s going on here. It’s backwards,” said Denise Reese. “When I was growing up, you went to funerals for old people. Now kids go to their friends’ funeral. It’s young people doing the dying.”
“We’d all get out of here if we could,” she said. “Nobody wants to bring their kids up here. It’s like there's no respect for life.”
But mothers in Liberty Square are stuck in the only place they can afford. Trying to raise kids, in the wrong bloody place at the wrong bloody time.