When it comes to urban violence, the enormity of the homicide rates in cities like Chicago naturally focuses our attention on murder and death. Such a focus, however, limits our understanding of urban violence. Unacknowledged in these disheartening statistics is a more complex reality: most victims of gun violence do not die.
While gun violence is the most common method of injury in urban areas, a victim of a gunshot wound is four times more likely to end up disabled than killed.1See Alex Kotlowitz. “The Price of Public Violence,” New York Times, February 23, 2013. What’s more, in metropolitan cities, gun violence is the primary cause of disability among Blacks and Latinos2This statistic on “violence-induced injury” is from the National Spinal Cord Injury Database: http://www.spinalcord.uab.edu/.—this particular demographic makes up the majority of gang members in Chicago.“My research tries to understand the ways that nonfatal gun violence impacts the social life of people who society has neglected or shunned.”
Given these statistics, how might the person who has lived through injury help us better understand the lived experience of gun violence? It is no secret that society responds differently when those victimized by guns are Black instead of white. In Chicago’s African American communities, guns do not connote notions of cultural heritage; nor do they often spark debates about Second Amendment protections. Guns come to represent the normalization—or the taken-for-granted nature—of urban violence. Given this, my research tries to understand the ways that nonfatal gun violence impacts the social life of people who society has neglected or shunned. I am equally concerned with how living with a gun-related injury not only impacts an individual, but his entire social network: family, friends, neighbors, even the gang to which he once belonged.
I moved into a low-income Chicago neighborhood in 2007 to study and better understand the problem of gun violence. One of my closest friends was Justin, a disabled ex–gang member.
In the neighborhood where Justin grew up, gun violence follows a familiar sequence. A gang member shoots an affiliate of a rival gang, and in response, members of the rival gang retaliate. This may not be surprising. But the lesson Justin took from it certainly caught me off guard. Since he knew that gang members were taught to respect wounded affiliates—those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice—he felt that his voice could be used to disrupt a cycle of vengeance.
Justin’s idea was to approach Kemo, the leader of the neighborhood gang the Divine Knights, to see if he would be willing to help organize a forum on gun violence.
Even though I knew that Justin was organizing the forum, and that his relationship with Kemo dates back to when they were both members of the same gang, I was still taken aback. One day I asked Justin about the gang leader’s motivation.
Why would a gang leader, widely known for selling drugs, tell his crew to go to a forum on violence?
Justin answered that Kemo did not want the killings either. He reminded me that some of the victims were “kin” to people they had grown up with. Besides, Justin continued, “Kemo owes me.”
On a brisk Saturday morning Kemo held up his end of the bargain. He personally dropped off young gang members at a local church for the violence forum. Constituencies from the rival gang sets were all in attendance. Kemo’s boys, all of them teenagers, traveled in a pack. The gang leader demanded that they all see Justin, so they made their way to the church library, where he was due to discuss the experience of being permanently debilitated.
“As you can see, I’m in a wheelchair,” he started.
“I was out in the streets gang banging, selling drugs. I got shot, and ultimately I got paralyzed.”“From Justin’s perspective (in his late twenties at the time of his meeting), it was imperative that he counteract the gang’s idea of notoriety.”
From Justin’s perspective (in his late twenties at the time of his meeting), it was imperative that he counteract the gang’s idea of notoriety. For the Divine Knights, infamy is born from the idea that one must unite with fellow affiliates against an enduring threat. He argued that when the gang is no longer around, injured affiliates will have to care for themselves.
During his presentation, Justin focused on the medical implications of his disability. He explained that aside from a person’s movement, one of the first things affected is the bladder.
“When you’re in a situation like ours,” he explained, “you no longer get the sensation to urinate. That means you have to manually extract the urine.”
He held up a catheter, which was met with a collective groan from the crowd.
Justin then segued into the story of how his commitment to the gang ultimately led to the fatal night that left him disabled.
“I was raised right here,” Justin begins, referring to Chicago’s West Side. “And, just like today, there was a lot of violence. It was real bad over here.”
Despite being a small community, his neighborhood was rife with warring gang sets. Compounding the tension was the fact that there was only one high school in the area.
“I remember I would get frustrated, because I had to cross rival territories to get to school,” he said, before recounting the numerous times he was chased, beat up, and robbed. He explained that sometimes the people from his block would stick up for him. Because of that, members of the rival gangs would assume he was in the same gang.
“It got to the point where I was already marked, so I decided to join the gang.”
Justin went on to describe the devotion he found within his new fraternity. Since the Knights had a generational presence in Justin’s family (his cousins, uncles, and even his grandfather were all involved), he took to it quickly. Soon he was skipping school often, the violence around him escalating. He witnessed the deaths of family members and friends.
“I thought, if my boys, my friends, my cousins, they all died for the gang, then why not me?” Justin said. “What makes me better than them?”
At the time, Justin said, he needed that mentality, because he had started dealing drugs. His two closest friends were becoming gang leaders; they were supplying product to everyone in his neighborhood. Then, following a meeting with high-ranking gang officials, the gang captain supplying both of Justin’s friends said that the two would have to consolidate their gang sets.
Justin explained that his two friends decided to set up a meeting. That day the friend who Justin worked for picked him up and told him what they decided. They were going to meet and fight, one-on-one.
“Whoever won the fight would get the neighborhood drug market,” Justin explained. The other person would make his crew fall in line.“By the time they got back inside, the car was right beside them. Justin looked up and the person in the passenger seat had pulled out a pistol.”
It was agreed that the fight would happen in an abandoned lot. Justin and his friend arrived first and got out to wait. A few minutes later, Justin spotted a car coming down the street but couldn’t make out the driver. The car continued past them. When it reached the dead end, it circled back. It was creeping up slowly, so they decided to return to their car and flee. By the time they got back inside, the car was right beside them. Justin looked up and the person in the passenger seat had pulled out a pistol.
“I saw flashes. My boy said, ‘Pull off. Pull off,’ so I started driving.”
But Justin was already hit, making him lose control of the vehicle. Eventually, they crashed. Justin noticed that he was bleeding from his shoulder and thigh.
“I started screaming: ‘I got shot. I got shot.’”
The next thing he noticed was the car door open and shut. Just then he realized: One of his friends had left him. The other wanted him dead.
Justin got out of the car and ran. He dipped through an alleyway and stopped at the first house he saw. He knocked on the door. The porch lit up and Justin grew excited at the prospect that someone inside the house was about to come to his rescue. But it was all a mirage. What he really saw were headlights beaming on the door, the car from before was approaching fast.
Someone got out of the car and started running toward Justin with a gun. Justin hopped over the porch railing, and nearly reached the back of the house, when he heard a shot. He fell to the ground. Justin was in shock.
His head was on the grass and the attacker fleeing; Justin began screaming for help—and for all the people he “was willing to die for.”
“I was screaming my boys’ names,” Justin says. “One by one, I screamed my cousins’ names.”
While waiting for someone’s—anyone’s—help, Justin grabbed a nearby storm drain and tried to hoist himself to his feet.
“I remember looking at my legs and they were dangling. They were dead.”
When someone from a nearby home did emerge, she called an ambulance and tried her best to comfort Justin, telling him that everything was going to be all right. But as she told him this, Justin could see her eyes watering, tears streaming down her face.
“I just remember thinking…‘Man, I don’t wanna die.’”
Looking beyond the violence“None was more adept than Justin at complicating the standard emphasis among gang affiliates, about the potential for money and notoriety, about the pressures and pitfalls of gang membership.”
When people ask me what I learned while living for three years in a community that is notorious for street violence, I often think about Justin’s story. During my time in Chicago I met many well-intentioned researchers, teachers, policy analysts, preachers, and activists, all of whom were dedicated to addressing gun violence. None was more adept than Justin at complicating the standard emphasis among gang affiliates, about the potential for money and notoriety, about the pressures and pitfalls of gang membership.
It is certainly true that Justin made some personal choices that he admittedly regrets. But what if we did not look at wounded urban residents as morally suspect people who “got themselves shot.”
We could imagine someone like Justin, instead, as a resource through which we can understand the problems that disproportionately impact poor African American communities. His stories of catheters and car chases illuminate an often-overlooked aspect of gun violence: disability is a distinct, though frequently invisible, reality.
At the conclusion of Justin’s session, I observed that many of the young gang members were unable to look Justin in the face; instead they stared, stoically, at the spokes of his wheelchair. Justin’s story had elicited rare shades of empathy and sorrow from otherwise unshakable young gang members. Not only did Justin sacrifice himself, but after doing so, he forgave the debt owed to him and transformed it into a communal project to stop the killings. This sacrifice, Justin hoped, would help youngsters break free from the crippling currency of obligation upon which gang life is built.
Banner photo credit: Duncan Cumming/Flickr