Written by Sankofa
For years I’ve dreaded answering my mother’s calls because I feared that she would tell me that one of my brothers had been shot. My nightmare became reality twice in the past five months. First, my youngest brother was shot in one of his legs right around the corner from our apartment in a poverty riddled neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. As my brother limped his way to our apartment, he thought he had escaped his shooter. Little did he know, the gunman was already at our apartment complex. As my youngest brother came closer, the shooter emerged from the entrance of building, aimed his gun, and stood ready to shoot again. My mother heard the original gun shot and stuck her head out the window when she saw the shooter aiming his gun at my youngest brother. Pleading with the shooter, my mother said “Please baby, don’t do it. Don’t do it.” She never announced her relationship to my youngest brother out of fear that it might further aggravate the situation. After hearing her pleas, the shooter stepped away, and my brother lived. He’s only 17.
Three weeks after my youngest brother was shot, I received another one of those dreaded phone calls, this time I found out that my middle brother was missing. Days later, he was found in a hospital fighting for his life after being shot seven times. Shot seven times, and the newspaper’s story could barely muster a description:
In the South Chicago neighborhood, a 21-year-old man was shot in the leg or buttocks just after 10 a.m. in the 7900 block of South Marquette Avenue and critically injured, according to Chicago Police News Affairs. The man was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in serious-to-critical condition. Chicago Tribune
That was it! As I write this, my heart tightens and my eyes swell with tears just thinking about how my brother has endured a long and painful recovery while still dealing with the emotional ramifications of that traumatic event. In order to cover the bullet scars on his lips, he’s grown a wild beard and mustache. We know who shot my middle brother, and we know why, but our pleas to the police went unnoticed. The shooter is still out there. This led my youngest brother to carry around an unlawful weapon to protect him and my middle brother. As a result, he was recently sentenced to a year in prison for carrying that weapon.
I sit here in the Pacific Northwest, trying to make sense of all of this as I study for a graduate degree in social work. I remember reading a New York Times article in my policy class. It was the story of a single parent of five children living in Englewood and struggling to make ends meet. She had sons who were in and out of jail and involved in petty crimes. However, as our class discussed this woman and her struggles, I became upset because it was as if they were talking about my own family. I love my brothers and the people in my community, regardless of their lifestyles, because they are people too and they deserve to be understood. Life in these neighborhoods is real, and not just a topic for a superficial discussion about how that family should get out of poverty through changing policies or developing different programming. That’s nice and all, but it’s so much more than that!
As I hear the shallow rhetoric surrounding the Sandy Hook shooting or the death of Hadiya Pendleton, my blood boils. Whose voices are we not hearing in this discourse? Where is my mom’s voice? Where are my brothers’ voices? All parties need to be truly involved in this discussion about violence in our communities, especially those of us most likely to be affected by gun violence and gun control policy. Our pain should not be manipulated for political gain. Remedying the causes of poverty and violence requires a lot more than changing gun laws. It requires a lot more than holding vigils and marches for people who we think deserve them. To understand the complexity of these experiences, we must dig beneath the surface and begin to ask why these social ills exist. We have to see people as people, not data or headlines, and understand what effects our policies may have on marginalized individuals, families, and communities.
Chicago’s victims of violence aren’t just those who are maimed or buried because of gunfire, but the witnesses, friends, and family members who are left traumatized by it. Some may feel compelled to commit a violent act in retaliation, which then spurs another act of retaliation, continuing a deadly domino effect. The best way to combat that violence is not with more cops on the street and longer prison sentences… Instead, the Bilals of Chicago aren’t just working to stop conflicts, but also trying to change people’s norms and behaviors in the process by showing that there are alternatives to violence. Colorlines, “Dispatch from Chicago: Stop the Violence… But How?”
Do you actually think that sentencing my youngest brother to a year in prison for the illegal possession of a gun is really going to change the trajectory of his life or my community? He’s 17, he’s not going to complete high school, and now has a felony record. Once out, he’s most likely going to go live with my mother. She struggles to make ends meet with just a high school diploma, and still lives in the same neighborhood where both of her sons were shot. It’s going to be difficult for him to find employment because of his record. Can you see the cycle? Can you identify the larger systems at play? If so, we have a lot of work to do, and it starts with reconstructing the way we think, our morals, our values, and our power.
If I’m ever killed or injured by gun violence on the South side of Chicago, please don’t write a sad status about my life, say that we need to stop the violence, or offer superficial solutions. I would want to someone to get to the root of the issue and really question why the incident took place. Dig deep. Ask yourself what are the underlying reasons why violence takes place in this neighborhood? If you were born and raised in the environment that I was in Chicago, you would see that there is A LOT happening. Most kids born in these environments are not looking forward to shooting up the block; there’s something else happening here. COME ON, think about it! Once we do that, then we can tackle a lot more, and achieve a lot more, but I feel like people don’t want to go there. People don’t want to challenge themselves to think about these issues in ways that aren’t easy. I think people are afraid because a real conversation about gun violence on the South side of Chicago would require us to look in the mirror and examine this entire society. Fear is deadly, and I know about that all too well.
I listened to President Obama’s State of the Union and his ideas about gun laws. All I could do was shake my head. He kept saying this person deserves a vote and that person deserves a vote. Well, I believe that my community deserves to be heard and understood, not just voted for. I guess changing gun laws could be a start, but it’s far from what we need to do. With the President set to visit Chicago this week in order to address the violence there, I pose my thoughts and questions to him and to all people. Who is really going to be impacted by these gun laws and policies? Did you think about them, kids like my brother, in that process? What other factors could be involved in the increase of violence in this city? Is it really just gun accessibility? Could the problem be in how we deal with conflict or the lack of resources and stability in the community due to the War on Drugs and Prison Industrial Complex? Perhaps the violence happens because oppression works in a magical way that changes the consciousness of a marginalized group and has individuals do things that they would not otherwise do or even act in the ways of the oppressor?
By pushing ourselves to dig deep, we could begin the challenging process of restructuring the way that we think. In turn, this could inherently change the way ideas influence policy and laws and we could get real transformation on this issue of gun violence. Real transformation, not a quick-fix vote, is what my family, my community, and this country deserve.
Sankofa is a young woman from Chicago’s South Side who is currently attending graduate school in the Pacific Northwest.