When the shots rang out, five or six in quick succession — POP POP POP POP POP POP — people assumed they were fireworks. It was shortly after midnight on Monday at 24th and Capp, and the Mission does love its July fireworks.
It wasn’t fireworks.
A neighbor glanced out his window. He saw men scurrying off and, prone on the sidewalk, the tiny figure of Day’von “Day Day” Hann in a puddle of blood. The neighbor called an ambulance and ran down the stairs. He held Hann’s hand and told him help was on the way. And, for what it’s worth, that was true.
Hann was alive, but not responsive. If he heard anything, if he took any comfort in these moments — his last — he didn’t register it. He died right there on the pavement, not so far from his home in the Mission-Bernal area. By the time paramedics arrived, all they could do was apply CPR in a pro forma manner and cover Hann’s body.
He was 15 years old.
Fifteen years old is an outrageous age to die. Fifteen years old is an outrageous age to have your life taken away from you — while walking through your own ostensible neighborhood. Mission Local published this story by By Annie Berman and Aleka Kroitzsh, headlined “Shooting at 24th and Capp leaves child dead; police come up empty in vehicular pursuit,” hours after Hann’s death. And readers were, in fact, outraged.
But not for the reasons you might think.
“Fifteen is the age of consent in a lot of places. Using the word child is unprofessional … ”
“Why does this headline say ‘child’ instead of ‘teen’ or something? No ‘child’ is hanging out at the 24th street BART station after midnight.”
“If the purpose is to convey information to readers, using the term child is simply sensationalistic. Stating that a child was killed connotes an innocent bystander, while that stating a 15 year old was shot in a barrage of gun fire connotes an event that was likely more targeted. Please, you’re not helping the youth of the Mission with this kind of reporting.”
I wrote that headline. Now, this ain’t about me, but let’s take a second here to note that I have been a professional journalist for 25 years and have three kids of my own. So do consider that background when offering me journalistic advice regarding how to cover children and children’s untimely deaths.
I can’t imagine the pain of burying your own child. Seeing him cold and dead on a slab, wearing the same clothes he wore out of the house that morning. I don’t like to dwell on it. But, God forbid, if this did come to pass, I would not have to deal with the input of anonymous pedants laying down semantic minefields regarding whether or not my child was a child — and stating, overtly or not, that he surely had a hand in his own death simply by virtue of the fact that he died violently.
That’s because my children are white. If a white kid with a name befitting a 1950s TV character was shot down in the Mission, I don’t think people would be hunting down multiple dictionary definitions of what constitutes a “child” or an “adolescent” or a “minor” — which is, no joke, something Jeffrey Epstein did to redefine his drive to have sex with children into something other than child sex.
It is not “sensationalistic” nor “unprofessional” to describe a child as a child. Terms like “teen” or “juvenile” reframe the story and add connotations that can easily be molded into the preordained narrative applied to every instance of a minority child being shot to death.
“If he’s 15, now he’s a ‘juvenile’ and not a ‘child.’ ‘Juvenile’ implies what it implies,” explains James Taylor, a USF political science professor with a focus on religious, racial, and ethnic history. “‘Juvenile justice. Juvenile delinquency.’ Rarely is ‘juvenile’ used positively anywhere.”
Taylor is a professor. His wife is a law-enforcement officer. Their children, ages 13, 11 and 9, live in the Oakland hills. They’re doing well. But he knows that, should the unthinkable occur, even these kids growing up in this environment will be shoehorned into the tried-and-true narrative of cyclical violence in the black community, in which everybody is guilty by association.
“How you use terms and how they are applied to victims matters,” Taylor continues. “And this is a child who is a victim. He is only a victim. I am a black father and this could be my own son. And if he were my own son, he would be an innocent child. So I am giving this child the benefit of the doubt.”
But that’s not what happens when black children die.
“Given that he was at 24th and Mission after midnight, questions about gangs and crime seem entirely appropriate. If he was coming home from the late shift at his summer job at Mitchell’s someone would have mentioned it, no? Can we be honest?”
Yes. Let’s be honest. Despite connotations that any “teen” or “juvenile” out in the Mission in the wee hours was up to no good and obviously had it coming, violent crime rates in this and nearly every city are a fraction of what they were a generation ago. “Helicopter parenting” is a thing now, but it wasn’t then. And, back then, the nation’s violent crime rates were more than double what they are now. You wouldn’t know about it based on how news stories are written and framed, but San Francisco doesn’t even crack the nation’s Top-100 most dangerous cities, as measured by violent crime per capita.
A lot of Mayberry-type towns do, though. Chicago, which Donald Trump claimed “there are those who say” is worse than Afghanistan, cracks the list at No. 91. Muskogee, Okla. — a place where even squares can have a ball; we still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse; and white lightnin’s still the biggest thrill of all — is nearly 30 slots higher, at No. 62.
So, that’s a fact. But Day’von Hann had an apostrophe in his name. And that’s a fact, too.
“There is no black innocence,” Taylor says. “When you are a victim, it’s almost like a sort of twist on double jeopardy. You become involved in the community’s violence; the act of being shot makes you connected to ‘urban violence.’ The particulars of your innocence are trivial. You were there where the violence was and these communities were long ago dismissed as ‘bad neighborhoods.’”
The presumption of culpability and guilt attached to young people of color like Hann does not tend to apply to white youths. Studies have shown that law-enforcement officials perceive black children to be both older than and more likely guilty than white contemporaries.
This is pervasive and systemic and transcends mere first impressions. How else to interpret why the black girl caught licking cartons of ice cream in a Texas Wal-Mart was initially threatened with a 20-year incarceration while a New Jersey judge argued that a white boy accused of rape deserved leniency because he hailed from “a good family?”
Crime rates aren’t lower than they’ve ever been, but they’re far, far lower than they were even during the so-called “good times.” And yet people seem to be more scared than they’ve ever been. This month in Arizona, a white man stabbed a 17-year-old black boy in the neck at a Circle-K, killing him. The rationale? The boy was playing rap music, and the man said rap music makes him feel unsafe.
I don’t know about you, but getting stabbed in the neck makes me feel unsafe.
Taylor sees all of this — the victim-blaming, the denial of innocence and youth, the pervasive fear in the face of quantitatively better crime numbers — as part of a continuum.
“The way in which our political narratives function tend to give peace of mind to the portion of society that feels like it cannot wrestle with larger issues like urban violence or gun violence or youth violence,” he says. The people parsing the term “child” in a story about a brutal homicide “can sleep better at night living in a society where an innocent black boy is shot down like a dog in the street and the takeaway is ‘he’s older than you’re saying he is.’”
In photos, Day’von “Day Day” Hann is quick to smile. He’s short and scrawny in a way only kids are and, seen through older eyes, appears to be in that transitional phase. He’s 15, at the cusp of moving from what he was to what he’d be.
The man who held Day Day’s hand and tried to ease his pain didn’t ask his age. He learned from our story that Hann was just 15. “I sat with this young man as he died, in the dark, on the sidewalk,” wrote the neighbor. “I didn’t know his age, but my impression was, he was just a kid.”
And he was.