Vickroy: Count your blessings if you’ve escaped gun violence
Chicago’s ongoing gun violence, coupled with the blitz of commentary surrounding the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, has left me with a recurring thought: how grateful so many of us parents should be that our daily lives are not built on protecting our young from violence.
Granted, everyone should be aware that crime can and does happen anywhere, but mothers and fathers who live in some of the city’s most violent neighborhoods must maintain a survival lifestyle. They must constantly be on guard, keeping their children off the streets, off the porch and away from the windows.
There’s a movement afoot to remind those of us who are privileged enough to live in relative safety and comfort that many of our problems are not life and death. First World problems may be annoying but they are inconsequential compared to the disease, extreme poverty and violence that plague Third World countries.
You might say the same hierarchy exists right here in the Chicago metropolitan area. There is a huge difference between being inconvenienced by your child’s failure to make the bus and having to worry that he might not make it home safely as a result.
Most of the parents I know can take for granted such childhood things as walking to school, afternoon lemonade stands and late-night games of ghosts in the graveyard.
By contrast, the parents who are raising their young in certain communities in the city, including Englewood, Roseland and even Lawndale, can’t take much of anything for granted.
It is a horrible way to live. But at least the “to live” part beats the alternative.
Kim Johnson knows the alternative. Her adult son, Ricky Brown, was shot dead in March of 2012. At the time, she was still reeling from and dealing with her youngest daughter’s gunshot injury. Her daughter, Ryann Brown, was shot in the head while sitting in a car with two other kids in 2006.
Ryann was a senior at Simeon High School at the time. The bullet, which is still lodged in her brain, caused such severe injury that she had to relearn how to talk, eat and walk.
“They never caught the person who did it,” Johnson said. “For a time, I couldn’t stop thinking about ‘Who did this? Who did this?’ Finally I had to let that go and focus on my daughter’s recovery.”
Ryann endured four surgeries, a tracheotomy, a feeding tube and months of occupational and physical therapy. She missed her prom but was taken to her graduation by ambulance. She wore a catheter under her gown.
Ryann has graduated from Daley College and is pursuing a degree in information technology. She still has difficulty raising her right arm.
Even though the shooting contributed to Johnson having to file bankruptcy — it’s hard to maintain two jobs when your child is in the hospital — she tried to keep the faith, for her daughter’s sake. But the day volunteers came to install a ramp on her Roseland home to accommodate Ryann’s wheelchair, she took a look up and down the block and realized there were many similar ramps.
“They aren’t for the elderly,” she said.
Ricky’s death last year brought her to the brink, she admits.
“But I am a warrior. I have to be,” she said. She questions just about everything these days: Why Chicago Public Schools can maintain so many administrators but laid off the truant officer at the local high school, why there are no resources or places for kids to get jobs in her neighborhood, and why her local officials are seemingly nonexistent in times of trouble.
“This started way before Ryann was ever born,” she said, citing the prevalence of drugs and the absence of strong parents, after-school activities and job opportunities for young people. “The whole family system is destroyed. People don’t have a sense of family or community anymore.”
Everybody, she said, plays a role in this, including, perhaps especially, those who have the power to make changes but choose not to.
She points a finger all the way to the top. President Barack Obama, she said, once came into her neighborhood. That was before he was famous, when he was just a community activist.
Like the aldermen, like the mayor, like most politicians, she said, he made all kinds of promises.
“But wealthy people do not understand. They do not live like we live,” she said. “They make a fuss about one girl who was killed. One girl. What about the 41 others who were killed in the same month? What about the more than 500 who were murdered last year? What about them, what about the rest of us?”
‘You only hear about the ones who died’
It has been 14 years since Eric Wilkins was shot, once in the back and once in the leg, a victim of bad timing and bravado gone awry.
“The guy they were aiming for was shot 10 times and killed,” Wilkins said.
The first bullet left Wilkins paralyzed. He was among the fortunate victims, however: His job at the steel mill left him with a pension.
After six months at Christ Medical Center, Wilkins was moved to a rehabilitation center in Chicago. Today, he can walk with the aid of leg braces.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “No one talks about the ones who survive. You only hear about the ones who died.”
So Wilkins has made it his mission to talk to the living. He runs a nonprofit called Broken Wingzz and he reaches out to kids, reminding them that the effects of violence go beyond the death or injury of a victim. Violence destroys the victim’s family and the shooter’s family, he said.
“I tell them, ‘Before you pull that trigger, imagine your mama or your grandma at the other end of that gun, because you’ll be shooting them, too,’ ” he said.
“It’s a daily struggle because we’re dealing with people who don’t have anything to do. They don’t have jobs, they don’t go to school. All they have is time. And time leads to beefing.”
Fighting, he said, is obsolete. Today, beefing leads straight to shooting. And just about everyone has the means to shoot.
With the same resolve that Wilkins used to teach himself to walk again, after doctors assured him he wouldn’t, he has vowed to not give up on kids.
“Kids are like puppies,” he said. “You can teach them anything. But you have to take the time to teach them. I tell parents, ‘Take the time. Someone took the time with you.’ ”
It is easy for us to think of gun violence as something that exists over there. Most of us have no idea what a life controlled by violence is like. We go to work, walk in the park and shop at the store without incident. Sure, the price of gas is sky-high and our jobs have become more demanding and taxes never seem to go down, but at the end of the day, our children are safe.
When we pause to think about that, we often credit the fact that we avoid those neighborhoods, the ones besieged by crime. And when a crime does occur in our towns, we are outraged and likely to say something like, “Things like that aren’t supposed to happen HERE.”
Yet, but for the grace of God go us. Were it not for some stroke of luck in our background or lineage, perhaps in the form of a job opportunity, a college scholarship, an inheritance or maybe just the family we were born into, we could be those parents who worry or grieve for their children. We could be installing a ramp on the front our house to accommodate a teen turned paraplegic. We could be the ones begging for decent people to step in and help stop the madness.
I am grateful that I can water the flowers on the front porch without being suspicious of a strange car coming down the street. I am grateful we can have the occasional backyard bonfire into the wee hours. Mostly, I am grateful that my biggest concerns while my kids were teenagers were what I’d call First World problems.