One night in 2013, I sat in my living room, gaze fixed on the television. A teenage girl the same age as my own daughter had been murdered. In our neighborhood (and the neighborhood of the then-president, too). So many questions ran through my head: “How, what, why?” Yes — lots and lots of “why?”
Her mother sobbed and moaned uncontrollably on the TV. Her family crowded around to bring strength to her, but at that moment, nothing could. I knew this scene. I knew the sound of it. I knew what it meant and I was terrified of it.
I looked at the girl’s mother on that screen and she looked familiar to me. I searched my memory, combing through the thousands, millions of faces that swam through my life. It finally came to me, though: I’d never met her, but I saw her every day. She was in my mirror when I combed my hair. My rearview mirror when I drove my car. She was me and I was her. She was the mother of Black children the same age as my own. She lived in the same neighborhood. Shopped at the same stores. She probably would’ve called herself a good mom. Just like me. If this good mom couldn’t save her daughter, how in the world was I supposed to save mine?
At that moment my sole mission in life became saving my children. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but there just had to be a way. The answer came to me — or should I say, called me — one night in June two years later, when a mother was murdered in a drive-by shooting on the corner of 74th and Stewart Ave. I knew no one there. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had a theory, though: If enough adults, mainly moms, sat outside in lawn chairs and eye-catching shirts, violence would cease. I knew how much my own teenagers hated to be watched and how different their behavior was when they were, so I figured all teenagers would pretty much react the same way to supervision.
So, I started my project: Mothers Against Senseless Killings. Every evening, we set up our lawn chairs and a barbecue grill on the block where that shooting took place — a block that had also seen high levels of gun violence in the past. We fed not only the bodies of the people in the community, but also their souls.
First, I had to see the teenagers in this new neighborhood as children, just as I saw my own — not thugs, gangbangers or anything else of the sort. That wasn’t part of the formula. They had to be treated with love, the same way my children were, or else it may not work.
Yes, some of the teenagers in the neighborhood had guns. They also had hearts and minds. The guns didn’t make the humans. Their hearts did. So that’s the part of them I communicated with. Had I only cared about the guns, we would’ve both been robbed of our humanity. The gun would’ve taken away my power to parent and their ability to be parented. They all knew guns were bad, wrong and sometimes even shameful, but they couldn’t give them up, because with limited resources, limited education, limited opportunities and an overabundant, disproportionate felony record, how else do you protect yourself while you’re on the streets, surviving anyway you can?
I never asked for their guns. I never took them. I hardly ever even mentioned them, yet I was always certain they were present. The police were also always present, as were other prying eyes, who waited — nay, hoped — that someone would get shot, so that this newfound peace that this corner of Englewood had found would prove to be as farcical as they’d thought it was.
I started [Mothers Against Senseless Killings] MASK three summers ago. Three years — and 15,000 meals, thousands of backpack giveaways, hundreds of pep talks, millions of hugs, a few bee stings, some sunburns and countless new relationships — later, we have not had a shooting on the block. Not one. The neighborhood school has moved up a tier after much improvement. Violent crime and shootings in the area continue to decline at one of the most accelerated rates in the city.
Yet, no one, not a soul, has turned in one of those guns that I am always sure are present. The lesson I learned was in order to save my own children, I had to try to save them all. Even the ones who have guns. They are all still just children, and on any day in poor and forgotten neighborhoods, the shooter can very well be the victim and the victim the shooter. It really just depends on which way the wind blows.
The answer wasn’t to take the guns — although there are way too many and they do make parenting exponentially harder. It was to change the minds.
Unfortunately, the horrific episode we saw in Las Vegas this past weekend is nothing new to us in MASK. We were just as horrified by the shootings in Columbine, Sandy Hook and Aurora. Our thoughts and prayers no longer suffice. Action and involvement must take its place. Anger is the mother of activism, and it’s time for us to get active. Just as Congress or the Chicago Police Department didn’t make the changes that we’ve seen over the past three years in this neighborhood, it is up to the people to make these changes everywhere. All of them — even the ones who own guns.
We can’t rely on gun manufacturers to stop making guns, pro-gun lobbies to stop advocating for more relaxed gun laws, gun dealers to stop their trade, or Congress to enact gun laws that prevent these horrible events without disproportionately penalizing people of color in the process. The ultimate answer to gun violence is not more penalties and policing.
We must get our lawn chairs out, each of us, and take to our corners, our front porches and anywhere where the presence of community can save lives. We must dedicate ourselves to seeing things, knowing things, watching each other, watching out for each other and spotting minor issues before they turn into major tragedies.