New York (AFP) - On a regular sunny Saturday afternoon in late summer, the Raymond Bush playground in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood would be bustling. But these are not normal times, and the park is nearly empty.
Under a tree, stuffed animals, balloons and candles are clustered in tribute to Davell Gardner, a one-year-old killed on July 12 when he was hit by a stray bullet at a family cookout.
"This is just overwhelming. It's sickening -- every day, you have to see someone getting shot, someone has lost their life," says the boy's father, 25-year-old Davell Gardner Sr.
"It has to stop."
Like several other parts of New York, from Corona in Queens to Harlem and the Bronx in Manhattan, Bedford-Stuyvesant has seen a spike in violence in recent months.
Two streets over from the playground, a 62-year-old man was fatally shot in late August after being chased into the church where he was the caretaker.
The next day, a young man passing by the same spot was shot in the stomach.
A sad birthday
Gardner, who lost his job as a store salesman because of the coronavirus crisis, recently marked his son's birthday. He would have been two in August.
He brought food and a cake to another park in Bed-Stuy, a mainly black neighborhood. He invited loved ones, police, and young people in the community who work for Save Our Streets, a group dedicated to ending gun violence.
"Since the shootings, the park emptied out more and more every day, to where the kids don't want to come outside and enjoy themselves," Gardner said.
"They are scared someone might not live to see the next day."
- Perfect storm -
From May to August, there were 180 murders in New York, up 51 percent from the same period last year, and nearly 800 shootings, up 140 percent.
In most cases, the victims -- like young Davell -- have been black or Hispanic, as have been their assailants.
President Donald Trump has castigated authorities in his birthplace and other major US cities -- many of them Democrats -- for failing to stem the tide of violence, making it a theme of his reelection campaign.
But criminologists say that urban violence spikes every year in the summertime, and despite the rise in the number of shootings since May, the numbers are actually comparable to those seen a decade ago.
And they are far from the levels experienced in the Big Apple in the 1970s and 1980s, says John Pfaff, a professor of criminal law at Fordham University.
Pfaff says 2020 has seen a perfect storm of conditions fueling the violence -- months of confinement due to the virus crisis, and the reckoning about race that erupted nationwide in the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of police.
In New York, those factors were amplified by a decision by the city's Democratic mayor Bill de Blasio to reduce the police budget following pressure from protesters.
That translated into fewer overtime hours for cops on the streets and the dismantling of a 500-strong plainclothes anti-crime division, which was accused of racial bias.
Also, "few people talk about the effects of a president who embraces the rhetoric of violence," Pfaff says.
"It's hard to say with any empirical precision how big an impact this rhetoric has, but it certainly fans the flames."
For Shadoe Tarver, the 32-year-old associate director of community safety at Save Our Streets, "it's been a very difficult summer, a very difficult year."
"A lot of things already troubled our community: disinvestment, economic insecurity, failing education systems -- they were already happening but Covid made it worse," Tarver said.
"With everything that happened starting in March, this was just like a tinderbox just waiting for a light."
In Bed-Stuy, many residents are not shy about expressing their fears.
"My friend was shot in the parking lot" two weeks ago, says 62-year-old Connie Moore, a retired school safety officer.
"He died instantly. (...) I was with him minutes before."
Moore says the neighborhood is "really not safe here during daylight," adding: "It can happen at any time."
'Low' police morale
Like other New Yorkers, Moore places blame on police, accusing them of turning a blind eye to violence in retaliation for public protests and budget cuts.
"The cops are not doing anything. We are lawless right now. They stay right there and watch," she said.
For Christopher Herrmann, a former NYPD crime analyst supervisor turned college professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, police morale is "obviously at a low."
"Police morale affects police performance, like in every other job," he adds.
Despite Davell's killing, the Gardners say they still have faith in the city's 36,000 cops, and they hope police will return in force to Bed-Stuy.
"The mayor needs to put police back in the streets and the gun crime unit back in the streets," says Davell's grandmother Samantha Gardner.
"We as the African-American community, we need to stop all this violence," she said. "You can't rally for Black Lives Matter if black and black is going to keep killing each other."