The first public viewing of 6-month-old Chicago murder victim Jonylah Watkins was emotionally charged and left many people with questions. I did not plan to be at the wake, and was instead getting my mind prepared for an interview with a young girl who was shot, but did not die. But as I drove pass the Route 55 exit on the dreaded Dan Ryan Expressway, a radio announcement informed me of the viewing and I was compelled to turn around and attend.
An easy detour took me to Leaks and Sons Funeral Home on 78th and Cottage Grove. It was not as easy, however, to prepare to see little Jonylah in her small casket. The last time I saw a murdered baby was in September 2005. She had been shaken to death in Buffalo, NY and I filmed her body for three hours during the funeral.
Flashbacks occurred as I braced myself to see another tiny victim; I have a young daughter myself.
At the same time, I was still mindful of my task for after the wake: an interview with Ryann Brown, a now 25-year-old African American girl who was shot when she was 18. She is still recovering from the bullet lodged in her head. Ryann was riding shotgun in a car with 20-year-old Clifton Lowe, and his 16-year-old brother, Derek. Clifton, the driver, was also shot but did not survive. Derek Lowe was not injured that night. However, about a month later, he was murdered—two bullets to the back of his head. Ryann lives with her parents, older sister, and a 15-year-old cousin who still has two bullets in his body after being shot in 2011 and 2012. Her brother Ricky Brown was shot and killed on March 21, 2012.
Ryann's mother Kimberley Johnson is seeking help with her daughter and arranged for the interview.
But first, I must see the baby.
It was 6:05 p.m. when I drove south on Cottage Grove toward the funeral home. I have driven this way many times before, but this experience is different. I am sitting in traffic three blocks away, and the mood is very somber. Cars usually blow their horns at the slow crawl of people carelessly crossing the streets. Tonight they are polite and patient.
I saw about 100 people outside—youth, elders, adults, all crossing Cottage Grove from different angles. It was a damp da, but there was no rain at the moment.
As I approached the line outside the funeral home, a man began speaking to me as if we were friends.
“Ain't that something? Ain't that something?” he asked, walking closer toward me.
“What do you mean?”
“How can somebody murder a baby like that?” he asked.
“They did not murder the baby like that, the baby got caught up in the crossfire,” his female companion explained, with expressions of sadness on her face. She shook her head side to side, and murmurred, “Mmph, mmph, mmph.”
Like many of the attendees, they are dressed in casual clothing: jeans and sweats.
I stood in line and counted 45 people ahead of me on the sidewalk, as we moved slowly near the watchful eyes of six Chicago Police officers, two news cameras, and curious bystanders. Within 10 minutes, I worked my way to the inside, signed the attendance book, and proceeded to the chapel where Jonylah was awaiting visitors.
“No pictures please, at the request of the family” an employee shouted. People are moving very quietly, speaking in very soft voices if they ever broke the noticeable silence.
“I feel like I want to cry and I don't even know the child,” a young lady said as she walked up behind me.
“Why do you feel like crying?” I asked.
“This is just so sad, so crazy, so...”
I am now in sight of Jonylah. It looked like a usual wake, but everything was much smaller; the flower arrangements, casket, table, even the guard. She lie there, seeming at rest, but no baby sleeps this way. She was on her back, her hands to the side. Her face was painted with makeup; she was dressed in a long ivory dress with a cute bonnet on her head. She did not look like her happy picture that has been shared across the Internet. She seemed taller than I imagined, older than her age.
Mourners passed the little baby and were greeted by five women between the ages of 18 and 30, who all said that they were Jonylah's aunts. They cried as they hugged strangers paying their respects and expressing words of sympathy. “God bless you,” was most common.
I worked my way to the outside of the funeral home. “What was it like in there?” a young man asked another.
“Sad, real sad."