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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A Baltimore party, a hail of gunfire and a neighborhood shattered

Food, water and other resources are provided to residents after a mass shooting in the southern neighborhood of Brooklyn, in Baltimore, July 3, 2023.

By Kayla Guo and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs

In videos from a block party Saturday night, hundreds of teenagers and young adults are seen dancing in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Baltimore and singing along to the lyrics of local rappers. As they shout and move their hands through the air, many hold up phones to record the revelry on a hot summer night.

But the videos that emerged from shortly after midnight tell a story of terror and tragedy: teenagers running from gunfire, people falling to the ground, and a mother wailing as she met police officers at the vast crime scene where her daughter had been fatally shot.

A barrage of gunfire had torn through the Brooklyn Day party in South Baltimore, leaving two young people dead and 28 more people wounded. Half of those shot were younger than 18, police said.

Even for a city plagued by gun violence in recent years, the number of victims was staggering, representing more people than would sit in an average high school classroom. Over the past decade, only 10 other shootings in the United States have resulted in so many gunshot victims, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a research group, although many mass shootings have taken more lives.

On Monday, many people in the Brooklyn neighborhood remained shaken, and many of the city’s leaders were urging people to come forward with information, even as police faced pointed questions about why there were no officers at the event. Although it does not have a set date, the event has been held every summer for 27 years, Mayor Brandon Scott said, and officers were on hand last year.

Baltimore’s acting police commissioner, Richard Worley, said the department had learned of the party’s existence only “several hours” before the shooting, which unfolded just after 12:30 a.m. Sunday. He said that multiple guns had been used and that police had not yet arrested anyone.

He and Scott deflected questions about the absence of officers and sought to focus attention on the perpetrators of the violence.

“We won’t stop until we find those responsible and hold them accountable — we won’t,” Scott said. “With that said, we need the help of our residents and anyone that knows anything to come forward and say something, so that we can bring those who are recklessly carrying out acts of violence like this to justice.”

Scott referred to a video circulating on social media that shows a teenage boy showing off a gun at the party and said that adults in attendance had shirked their responsibility to keep younger people in check.

“There were grown adults filming young people with guns who said nothing, did nothing, who didn’t say to the police, ‘Hey, I know this teenager is out here at this event with a gun,’” Scott said. “There was a time when even those who were the toughest of the tough in the street, if they saw some young kid with something like that, they would step in there, do something.”

Still, city leaders shed little light on why police had not known about the event earlier. In the days leading up to the party, several people had mentioned it on social media platforms. On Twitter alone, a handful of people discussed the event in public posts two days before it took place. One user wrote Thursday that the “whole Baltimore” was “talking about going to Brooklyn Day.”

Worley said that, in past years, the department had found advertisements or social media mentions of the party and had sent officers to monitor it. But this year, he said, analysts and one of the department’s top intelligence officers had not found any of the posts. He also noted that no one had applied for a permit for the event, although he acknowledged that the same was true of previous Brooklyn Day parties.

“We knew it was coming up at some point, but we had no indication that it was happening that day because we had never seen any advertisements for it,” he said.

The shooting comes as the number of homicides in Baltimore has dropped slightly from recent years, according to The Baltimore Banner. But it has brought fears that such a large, public shooting could set off a wave of retaliatory violence. The city saw an average of about 333 killings each year from 2015-2022, according to The Baltimore Sun.

Krystal Gonzalez, whose 18-year-old daughter, Aaliyah, was one of the two people killed, said Monday that she was feeling more pain than she had ever felt in her life. She said through tears that she had recently thrown a party for Aaliyah to celebrate her graduation from high school.

Aaliyah had been working at Starbucks, taking extra shifts and saving up money for a car, her mother said. For much of high school, Aaliyah had yearned to go to college out of state, but she changed her mind shortly before graduation, planning instead to enroll at Anne Arundel Community College near her home in the Baltimore suburb of Glen Burnie.

“All of a sudden, in senior year as it’s coming to a close, she said, ‘Mom, I don’t want to leave; I want to stay here,’” Gonzalez recalled. “She wanted to stay with us.”

Gonzalez said that she did not think Aaliyah had ever been to the Brooklyn neighborhood before and that Aaliyah had been spending the night with a friend in a Baltimore suburb who decided to go to the party.

“She was such a good girl,” Gonzalez said. “She would analyze people — ‘Why are they feeling this way? What can I do to help?’ — that’s who Aaliyah was. She was so, so bright and sensitive, and I swear this world did not deserve her. She was too good to be here.”

On Sunday morning, Gonzalez said, she woke up to her husband’s shout of “No!” after someone used Aaliyah’s phone to call and tell him that she had been shot. Gonzalez said she could not believe that the victim was her daughter and raced to the scene, only to be held back by officers who told her that she would not want to see her daughter’s body.

“We need to find who did this,” Gonzalez said. “It hurts so bad.”

Police identified the other victim as 20-year-old Kylis Fagbemi. Worley said officers were still reviewing videos and interviewing victims.

On Monday afternoon, remnants left around the Brooklyn Homes, the public housing complex that was the center of the event, made for a haunting reminder of what had taken place a day earlier. A snow-cone truck was still parked in the complex’s parking lot. A few lawn chairs and a purple fluffy stool were set up outside rows of identical, squat, red brick apartments.

People who live nearby said the party had started out as expected, though perhaps with more young children than usual. There was a DJ in the parking lot, people dancing and vendors serving food.

Anthony Wicks, who lives in the neighborhood, said he had been watching over his 6-year-old daughter while she played in their front yard near the party Saturday night.

When he heard gunshots, Wicks grabbed his daughter and ran. As he ran, he was struck in the side of his torso by a bullet that had ricocheted off something else.

“It almost was me; it almost was my daughter,” he said Monday. “The kids can’t even come outside. It’s too much.”

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