“I think it is not going to hit me, until I see him laying in that casket,” says Jesse Purnell Sr., who's 20-year-old son Jesse Jr. was killed on June 5th 2013, in the crime-addled Roseland neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, only two days before our interview.
“I feel the hurt, but it is not really gonna come loose until I really see him in the casket, and know that he is actually really gone,” the 58-year-old continued, as he nervously massaged the head of a cane that he uses to walk, while we sat in the office of Ceasefire, one of the city's oldest anti-violence groups.
“He was shot 4 times: twice in the back, once in the chest, and once in the leg. He made it to [Christ] hospital, his heart stopped, they brought him back, and while he was in surgery, he passed. I have never lost a child to violence on the streets before, so I am still in a daze” Jesse Sr. explained, with a blank look on his face, speaking slowly, as he tried to hold back the tears.
“He was a good kid, not in any gangs from what I know; he was a part of Ceasefire, as a volunteer,” Jesse Sr. explained as he tried to make sense of his son's murder. “No one is in custody yet, from what I know.”
Jesse Sr. continued, “He…mostly [kept] to himself, he came by to see me a lot when [his mother and I] got separate…and he stayed with [her from the age of 5 or 6].”
When asked which high school Jesse Jr. attended, he replied, “Well that I don't know…Fenger, I heard his mother say Fenger.” However, the father and son relationship had gotten closer recently, “We talked, he came by to see me when we got older…. to my knowledge; somebody was jealous, wanted him to join an organization he did not want to be part of; after that, that's what happened.”
Having grown up in Roseland and the Morgan Park area, Jesse outlined what he believes is a a major part of the problem:
“Everybody has run loose, there's not structure in the immediate families…and they are just running loose; gang members ask you to join and they say we will be your support, we will help you, and this and that, and a lot of them join out of fear….Some of them join because they get picked on and they want somebody to help them when they get into a situation. ”
Jesse Sr. believes, “If everybody grabs their own kid and talks to them, everything will be better…but I don't think it is possible because at this stage and age, the parents are being their buddy and friend instead of being their parent. ”
His advice to fathers who have not lost children to violence? “Hold them close and tell them that you love them; that they have you to talk with them if they have concerns. Help them to solve problems.”
Sixty-one year old John Wesley lives in Englewood and is partially paralyzed after being shot in the head during a robbery back in 1980. He has also lost two sons: 35-year-old John Jr. to murder and 33-year-old Casino, who died from a diabetic coma. He explains the difference.
“It hurt to see Casino die of a diabetic coma, but it did not have the sting of John's murder. He was killed, and he did not have to get killed. The murder of your child is a special kind of hurt that no one but the parent can feel, and sometimes cannot even explain.”
In 2007, John Wesley, Jr. was murdered in Las Vegas while defending a woman in a domestic dispute. “I was hurt, when I found out about it. After I got through the hurt, I wanted to do something about it, but I did not want to take the law in my own hands, so I said let the law handle that.”
John Sr. offers advice for addressing violence: “You have to give the kids something to do; give them jobs, be like a big brother because they are being steered the wrong way. They wake up in the morning and they have [almost] nothing to eat, [almost] no clothes to wear, and they see someone with something so they go after it. If these young boys had something to do, things would be better…. These kids out there need help; there's a needs get programs going, keeping them off these streets, these corners.
According to 42-year-old Samuel Muhammad, his son Devin Greer lived with him on the South Side. On October 20, 2012, the 21-year-old had gotten news that "A friend of his was shot on the West Side, so he was going to visit him in the hospital. While he was over there, he said that he will go to his mom's house to visit to give her the good news that he had just gotten a job to work at University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). His girlfriend was supposed to come pick him up that night, but maybe she was tired and did not come.”
Samuel stated that earlier that day, Devin performed a good deed by calling the parents of a young man to inform them that their son was taken to the hospital after being assaulted when his party bus was attacked by a group of others.
Then, “He stayed up late playing video games with his brother, and while they were playing, somebody shot through the window.”
Devin then performed his last good deed: “He pushed his brother out of the way, and the bullet hit him in the back and it punctured a main artery. His brother was not hit."
Samuel received the news of Devin's shooting moments later, around 3am on October 21st. “I came to the hospital and did not know the seriousness until the doctor came out and he said he had passed out, and he was able to be resuscitated. Then when they opened him up they realized how serious it was and he was not able to come back” he explained, while in tears sobbing loudly over the telephone while he took a break in Texas from truck driving.
“That's the sad part, they have a police camera right there on that corner, the police had a few witnesses who said they would testify; they had somebody in custody and let him go. They told his mom that all the evidence points to this guy, but he is back on the streets, never charged for the murder.”
There are some hints for motive: “[Devin's) mother said that his younger brother had an altercation 10 days previous, with a guy dealing drugs, and the guy pulled a gun out; and it was the same guy accused of killing Devin.”
“It's strange because that day is like yesterday, I break out in tears crying, several times. I can't believe it… that was my first son, and my son was my heart. The greatest sound in the world was to hear that boy laugh… I cannot even explain the thought or the feeling going to a funeral saying I am burring my son today. I can't explain it.” Samuel stressed, as he cried.
“We failed my son, and we failed the young man who took my son's life….They want harsher penalties; they are trying to make laws for somebody who does not respect the law in the first place, so what is that gonna do? So instead of putting money in those things, they should put money to invest in human life. They spend millions and billions to build up the lake and make it look beautiful, but they do not build up the people that live in these cities,” Samuel laments.
He continued, “When my son was born, he changed my life; when he died, he changed me. I work less so I can be more involved in the community now. It is time to be more and more involved; it is time to make a personal sacrifice because I have other children. What is going to happen to the next generation that walks the streets? How are we going to address [this senseless violence]? This is now going to get a lot of attention from me.”
Dr. Peter K. B. St. Jean is the Executive Director and Founder of Peaceful World Movement, an adjunct professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Governors State University and University at Buffalo Department of Sociology, and CEO of Quality of Life Solutions, Chicago. He is also the author of Pockets of Crime: Broken Windows, Collective Efficacy and the Criminal Point of View.