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The anatomy of a midday shooting in Austin

In the middle of a 'Street Beat' interview, gunshots rang out

April 12th, 2017 12:25 PM

While an Austin Weekly News reporter is interviewing a West Side resident inside of Corcoran Grocery, on the corner of Central Avenue and West Corcoran Place, a drive-by shooting breaks out. | William Camargo/Staff

By Michael Romain

Editor

At around 1:25 p.m. on April 7, inside of Corcoran Grocery, on the corner of Central Avenue and West Corcoran Place, a native West Sider was asked about his experience growing up in Austin.

 "I've been here all of my life," he said. "I grew up here."

Was he proud of being from the West Side?

"Yeah. I've made it here all my life," he said. "This is all I know. I moved away and wound up coming back. Back to my roots."

As this conversation was happening, a young, African American man who appeared to be in his 20s came inside of the store, shopped for a few minutes and left out, music from portable speakers blaring in his wake.

How has the neighborhood changed over time?

"It's changed a lot," the older man said. "Different things done changed. I was here before cell phones and computers and cameras and all that stuff. Social media changed the whole area."

The man didn't appear entirely comfortable with this random moment of introspection. He had been thrown off by the request for an interview, which started with President Trump, about whom, the man said, he didn't have an opinion.

So he was asked to talk about life on the West Side. Although uncomfortable, he labored for a language to articulate his home and what it means to be born and to live in Austin.

To live through it.

He wanted to have the words and seemed to be fighting to lift his thoughts above the gravity of the mundane — an elderly black woman sitting by a window, near an ice cream freezer, waiting on someone to ask her to scoop out a serving; the infectious bump of the rapper and producer Future decibels away, just outside of Corcoran's concrete walls.

What made him return home after having left so many years ago?

Before the Austin native could answer, a barrage of bullets assaulted the senses. At least a dozen rounds were fired in quick, random succession, like kernels popping.

Within microseconds, bodies inside of the store were crouched, shaking, prostrate, standing paralytic. Several seconds later, the piercing sound stopped and, after a moment of silence, someone near the store's entrance asked, "Am I shot?"

"If you was shot, you wouldn't be walking!?" said someone else, before a voice further in the distance, just a few feet south of Corcoran, yelled, "B.J. shot!

"Who?!"

"B.J.!"

"S—t! No! No! No!"

"He dead."

A crowd of at least a dozen people gathered around the 20-something-year old who had not long ago walked out of Corcoran's, taking the sound of his music with him.

Apparently, the shooting started as soon as he stepped out of the store, with the shooter — assuming there was only one —  aiming at B.J. as he ran south on Central Avenue. Not long into his attempt to escape, the young man dropped on the sidewalk, his body limp near a CTA bus stop, where shards of glass met blood.

He was not yet dead. He was gasping for air, fighting as he lay still. On the ground, he may have heard sounds, textured with dread, coming from a shrill chorus crowded around his body — shouts to stay awake, to pray.

"Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!" one woman shouted.

"You see what the f—k we go through? Every f—ing day!" said another woman to no one in particular, and to everyone, as she walked away from the malaise.

"Talk to him! Talk to him!" instructed a man who, along with several other bystanders, hovered over the victim. B.J. may have heard the blare of traffic, police sirens, car horns, the admonition of cops clearing the scene — the gravity of the mundane. 

The police arrived shouting and mad, bulldozing their way through the crowd, yelling commands, taping off the perimeter, turning people who claimed to have known the young man, and to have seen the shooting, into mumbling spectators.

The first-responding officers seemed less focused on shoving potential witnesses away than asking about details of the shooting. What was seen and heard and experienced came out piecemeal and almost by happenstance.

There was more passion in the confrontations between the civilians and the cops, who did not still the chaos as much as shift its focus. So the scene of a daytime shooting and, as later news reports would have it, a murder (of one young black man by, it is likely, another), became an arena pregnant with the possibility of another conflagration of violence.

An African American man, a few dozen feet away from B.J., had apparently hauled off and punched another African American man before being restrained by an officer. Two bodies now lay in the street. Another officer, yelling and pointing, rushed over to where B.J. lay. A few people were still administering CPR.

Ruby Humphrey, 56, said that she was standing next to B.J., near the entrance to Corcoran, when the shots rang out. Witnesses say the gunfire came from a gray or white van. Humphrey confirmed that the shots were coming from a vehicle, but said that she couldn't identify it.

Humphrey may have been the last person to speak with the victim, who she said was nicknamed "B.J." by those in the neighborhood. No one could give his real name.

"I said, 'Where you living at now? You used to live over here.' Soon as I walked away, they was shooting," she said. "They shot all in that doorway [of Corcoran]. They shot in the store. I haven't been in nothing like this before."

Humphrey, who said that she's homeless, added that she didn't know B.J. to have been involved with gangs, "but you know how these people are around here. They try to force you into that stuff."

According to a report published hours after the shooting by the Chicago Tribune, "four other men and a teenage boy" were shot along with B.J. They were taken to West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park, where they're in good condition.

B.J. was rushed to Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, where he was pronounced dead. A relative told Chicago Tribune reporters that the victim was 23 and that "Facebook killed him."

"[T]hat's what did it," the man said. "They boxing over Facebook. It's so stupid."

The cousin told the reporters that B.J. was seen by people inside of a "gray vehicle traveling east" as the young man walked out of Corcoran. The cousin said that the other people who were wounded were bystanders. They ranged in age from 17 to 46 and were all shot in the lower extremities.

Police found at least 27 shell casings at the scene. They were marked by "little yellow police cards," Chicago Tribune reporters wrote.

Before those markers were placed, police had urged bystanders not to accidentally kick any of the casings as they were backing away from B.J.'s body.

"Papa you ain't got no pennies do you?" Humphrey asked a reporter as she was walking across the street in order to get outside of the taped-off crime scene. When she got to the "L" station entrance, she was asked whether or not she would be willing to be photographed.

"What's this for?" she said, while striking a pose.

Someone asked her about the vehicle.

"I didn't see it," Humphrey said. "Baby, I was so busy running I hit the ground. God take care of us fools."

The morning after

The next day, on April 8, the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office released its daily ledger. The third case listed is that of Byron McKinney, Jr., a 24-year-old black male of the 500 block of North Pine Ave.

At 10 a.m., Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st) convened a press conference in front of Corcoran Grocery "to demand immediate action following mass shooting in Austin."

At the scene, which was taped off for several hours after the incident, the shards of glass and blood from the afternoon before had been swept away. Commuters waited for the 85 Central at the bus stop, inches from the spot where McKinney dropped dead. Shoppers streamed in and out of Corcoran. People gathered in front of storefronts, basking in the summertime weather.

Except for the bus stop's missing glass and the lower left portion of Corcoran's glass doorway that had been shattered by a bullet, it was hard to tell that a fatal shooting had happened less than 24 hours earlier.

"It's a great morning, but it's also a sad morning," said Ald. Emma Mitts (37th). "Every day or every other day someone is being shot down. All I know is funeral after funeral."

Mitts said that while on her way to work that morning, she had mistaken the head of an angel that she has in her home for a bullet hole.

"That little angel has white wings with a black head," she said. "I look and says, 'There's a bullet hole in my window. Lo and behold, it was in my mind. There was an angel there looking at me, but in my mind [I saw a bullet hole]."

Boykin, along with Mitts, Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), Congressman Danny K. Davis (7th) and Rev. Ira Acree, demanded that local, state and federal leaders release a comprehensive plan to address the violence on the city's West and South Sides.

"This violence is in three [police] districts primarily," said Boykin. "District 15, District 11 and District 7. I know we have the collective will and political courage to reduce this violence. We must do it because we must save our children. We must save our young people. Senior citizens who live in this community deserve to walk down the street without fear of being shot and killed."

"People who control budgets can send resources to get some of these young men some jobs, give them viable options for life," said Acree, the pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church in Austin who, over his 27 years of pastoring, has buried a small congregation of people slain by gun violence.

"We're calling upon the governor, the mayor and the president of the county board to help us," Acree said. "And we'll pledge that we'll continue to do our part."

Taliaferro said that he'd heard from residents who lauded efforts by the police to clear the scene. He also praised one officer's efforts to revive McKinney shortly after he was shot. But he criticized the department's leadership for not calling him in the shooting's aftermath.

"It has been almost 24 hours and as alderman of this ward, I have not received a phone call from the police superintendent assuring me they have a plan in place to help reduce violence in this community and stop the bloodshed," Taliaferro said.

Taliaferro added that he plans on meeting with 15th District Commander [Betts] about some officer's treatment of bystanders while trying to clear the scene. The alderman also emphasized what he said was the city's unfocused efforts at stopping the violence on the West and South Sides, particularly when compared to the focus given to dealing with North Side traffic.

"I have not heard from the superintendent's command staff, but I look at the news and see how much they're preparing for the traffic at Wrigley Field," said Taliaferro, who is a former Chicago police sergeant. "I'm worried because I don't see that same concern about the gun violence on the West and South Sides of Chicago."

Acree, who said that members of his church were passing out pieces of religious literature in the area of the shooting while it was taped off, described a "tale of two cities in Chicago."

"I was just teaching up at North Park University a few weeks ago," he said. "On the North Side, you can be safe, but when you come to North Lawndale, you got to duck and dodge. In Austin, wives can't even go to their cars at night. It's obvious that you can't even walk out in the daytime."

While talking about the lack of federal funding focused on poor, minority areas across the country, Congressman Davis subtly referenced President Donald Trump. The day before McKinney was killed, the president ordered the launching of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase, which U.S. government officials believe was used to launch a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians earlier in the week.

"You cannot go into a state in this country and not find poverty, deprivation, people who have almost given up and lost hope," said Davis, whose own grandson was murdered on the South Side last year. "They don't know what else to do."

"We all know that money is scarce, but it's not too scarce to bomb and shoot missiles," Davis said. "It's not too scarce to kill people without knowing whether or not they were the targets that you ought to be looking at."

West Side resident Anthony Ruffin, 46, posited himself as the embodiment of the poverty and depravity that Davis referenced.

"They done took everything we had here," Ruffin said. "The after school programs, the summer jobs. They done closed the schools. You got guys who will do whatever is necessary to take care of their families. I'm an ex-offender, I been out for over 10 years. I done did everything they asked me to do and it ain't no jobs here in the city. All the jobs they are giving us are out in suburbs where we can't get to."

"We can't do it alone," Davis said, responding to Ruffin's comments. "If I could appropriate $5 million to do something on this block, I'd say, 'Well let's do it.' But I can't do it alone. You've got to help convince others to have the same thoughts and ideas we have. Nobody in the country does more for ex-offenders than I do."

James Cole, 73, owns Shine King, a venerable shoe-shining store that's a few doors down from Corcoran. Cole also owns the building where Corcoran is located, as well as several parcels across the street. He was inside of Shine King when the shooting happened.

"This is really kids fighting each other," Cole said. "They fight little personal fights and they want to display it on the streets … I've been working every day for the last 53 years. I hope things go right. I'm scared to stay in bed sometimes."

On Facebook, a compilation of old photos of McKinney, including one that shows him in a cap and gown, were posted to the timeline of his mother, Charlene Redmond. The post had generated over 700 like, sad and cry emojis, and over 280 comments, most expressing condolences, within a span of fewer than 48 hours.

As the politicians and news cameras dispersed, Beverly Hughes was sitting inside of the glassless bus shelter, waiting for the 85 Central. She said that she's aware of what happened on Friday afternoon but that it wasn't going keep her from getting to work.

Was she at least a little more afraid considering what happened yesterday in broad daylight?

"Baby, it's fearful out here, period," Hughes said. "I done lost a son to this crap. They shot my baby five times for his car."

So how does she cope with the fear? How does she handle the cloud of sudden death hovering over this sunlit Saturday afternoon?

"Grace of God," Hughes said. "That's how I deal with it. If it's my time, it's my time. But it's sad out here. Very sad."

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