Police Capt. Shunta Boston-Smith of the Milwaukee Police was on a goodwill stroll of Milwaukee’s north side in late April when she paused to jump rope with 9-year-old Za’layia Jenkins.
Za’layia asked a question that had a particular urgency in a city where 15 children have been shot in the past two years, including a 10-year-old killed by a stray round in a playground and a 5-year-old killed by a stray round as she sat watching television on her grandmother’s lap and a 13-month-old who was killed by a stray round while playing with toys at home.
“Will you keep me safe?”
The official answer was announced to the press on Tuesday by another Milwaukee Police Department captain, Aaron Raap, commander of the metropolitan investigations division.
“On Thursday, May 5, shortly after 8 o’clock in the evening, young Za’layia Jenkins, born 5/17 of 2006, 9 years old, turns 10 today, sustained a gunshot wound while seated in a house visiting family,” Raap said.
Za’layia had also been sitting inside, watching television when she was struck by a stray round fired in the street. She had been rushed to Children’s Hospital, where she had been listed in critical condition.
“Late yesterday afternoon, the MPD was notified by the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s office that Children’s Hospital had notified them that Za’layia was in a condition of brain death,” Raap continued. “Essentially she had expired.”
Raap had made similarly grim announcements about 10-year-old Sierra Guyton and 5-year-old Laylah Petersen and 13-month-old Bill Thao and too many others. The veteran captain was now hurt into poetry.
“This little girl slipped the bonds of earth and touched the face of God,” Raap said.
He offered a pledge.
“The person or persons whose actions affected the lives of many Milwaukeeans will not go undiscovered.”
Za’layia’s family had already planned a march to mark her 10th birthday. The participants gathered in front of her family’s home, many wearing her favorite color, purple.
Her mother, Destiny Boone, was among those who wore a T-shirt stenciled with photos of the girl and the words “Happy 10th Birthday.” Boone spoke to reporters as she stood in bright sunshine that seemed to offer her neither light nor warmth.
“It’s hard for me right now,” the mother said. “I’m so numb. That’s my first baby. Today’s her birthday. She had her whole life ahead of her. I don’t understand why. I really don’t. I don’t know why somebody would do this to her.”
She gazed down and stifled a sob. She seemed near to being overcome.
She then raised her head, her brow a knotted map of pain.
“I just want whoever did this to my baby to know I don’t hate you for what you did. I just need you to turn yourself in. I just need justice for my baby. That’s my baby. She did so much for me.”
She said Za’layia had been born around the time her own mother had died. Za’layia had arrived as if she were life and love itself in a time of loss.
“She was there for me like nobody could ever understand. She got me through tough times. I need her so much. I really need her. She should be right here with us fighting for a different cause.”
The cause for which we all should be fighting is the one that family, friends, and neighbors chanted as they then marched with the grieving mother through the streets.
“We’re fighting for the right to grow up! We’re fighting for the right to grow up!”
The most powerful voices belonged to the littlest among them, children who would not be able to feel themselves safe even after they returned home with their families.
Any families who tuned the television to Fox News that night might have seen Megyn Kelly’s much trumpeted interview with Donald Trump, in which she asked such questions as his favorite movie and whether he composed his own tweeted insults.
Kelly asked Trump nothing that addressed the fears of children who cannot watch television at all without the possibility of a fatal stray bullet tearing into their house, just as a bullet did with Za’layia a week after she asked a police captain, “Will you keep me safe?”
But the rest of us in the press are no better than Kelly. We cover Trump and Clinton and Sanders as if politics were part sports, part soap opera, all entertainment.
Meanwhile, kids in Milwaukee are saying they just want to grow up without being shot.
And a cop speaks of a brain dead little girl who touched the face of God.