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Mr. President? Don’t Use My Name

When Sankofa listened to President Obama talk about gun laws in his State of the Union address, all she could do was shake her head. Here, she explains why her community deserves to be heard and understood, and argues for structural change over quick-fix solutions.

For years I’ve dreaded answering my mother’s calls. I fear that she will tell me that one of my brothers has 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 in Chicago’s South Side. My brother limped towards home thinking he had escaped his shooter. Little did he know the gunman was already at our apartment complex. As my brother approached, he emerged from the entrance of building, aimed his gun and stood ready to shoot again. My mother had heard the first gun shot and stuck her head out the window. She saw the shooter aiming his gun at my youngest brother. Pleading with the shooter, she said: “Please baby, don’t do it. Don’t do it.” She did not announce her relationship to my brother out of fear that it might further aggravate the situation. After hearing her pleas, the shooter stepped away, and my brother lived. He is 17 years old.

Three weeks after my youngest brother was shot, I received another of those dreaded phone calls. This time, I found out that my middle brother was missing. He was found, days later, in hospital, fighting for his life after being shot seven times. 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.”

- The Chicago Tribune

Chi Times

A typical Chicago Tribune online news report. Here, four separate incidents are covered in just two paragraphs. Only one of the four incidents is described.

That was it! As I write this, my heart tightens and my eyes swell with tears. My brother has endured a long and painful recovery. He is still dealing with the emotional ramifications of that traumatic event. He has grown a wild beard and moustache to cover the bullet scars on his lips.

We know who shot my middle brother, and we know why. Yet our pleas to the police went unnoticed, the information ignored. The shooter walked free. So, my youngest brother started to carry an unlawful weapon, to protect himself and our middle brother. He was recently sentenced to a year in prison for carrying that weapon. The shooter is still out there.

I am trying to make sense of all of this while studying for a graduate degree in Social Work. I remember reading a New York Times article in my policy class, 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. As the class discussed this woman and her struggles, I became upset. 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. They are human beings and they deserve to be understood. Life in these neighborhoods is real. It is not simply a topic for a superficial discussion about how that family should get out of poverty, or new policies, or different programs. That’s useful, but these issues demand so much more thought than that. There are some lessons on oppression that college courses do not teach.

As I hear 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 mother’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 so much more than new gun laws. It requires more than vigils and marches for those deemed deserving of them, at least. 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 statistics, or headlines. We need to understand what effects a whole range of social policies have on marginalized individuals, families, and communities.

A recent article published on the website Colorlines“Dispatch from Chicago: Stop the Violence… But How?”, attempted to discuss the wider issues:

Picture 1“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.”

Do people actually think that sentencing my youngest brother to a year in prison for the illegal possession of a firearm is really going to change the trajectory of his life or my community? He is 17. He is not going to complete high school, and now has a felony record. Once released, he’s most likely going live with my mother. She struggles to make ends meet with just a high school diploma. She still lives in the same neighborhood where both of her sons were shot. He will struggle to find employment because of his record.

Can you see the cycle? Can you identify the larger systems at play? They are plain to see. We have a lot of work to do. It starts with reconstructing the way we think, our morals, our values, and our power.

President Obama, it seems, does not see it that way.

As I listened to President Obama’s State of the Union address, 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. I believe that my community deserves to be heard and understood, not just voted for. Changing gun laws could be a start, but it’s far from enough. 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 kids like my brothers in deciding what laws to enact? What other factors could be involved in the increase of violence in this city, and others like it? 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. Oppression changes the consciousness of a marginalized group so that individuals do things they would not otherwise do, and even act in the ways of the oppressor.

By pushing ourselves to dig deep, we can begin the challenging process of restructuring the way that we think. In turn, we could inherently change the way ideas influence policy and laws, and achieve real transformation on the issue of gun violence. Real transformation, not a quick-fix vote, is what my family, my community, and this country deserves.

So, if I’m 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. Instead, try 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? I was born and raised in Chicago, and there is A LOT happening there. Most kids born in similar environments are not looking forward to shooting up the block. Something else is happening here. COME ON, think about it!

By thinking about broader issues, we can achieve so much more. But it seems 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 or straightforward. 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. It is something we must do. Fear is deadly, and I know about that all too well.

Sankofa grew up in Chicago’s South Side and is currently attending graduate school in the Pacific Northwest. This article was originally posted under the title “Mr. President, If I’m Shot on the South Side of Chicago, Don’t Use My Name” on the blog Orchestrated Pulse.

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