“My daughter was still at the hospital, and they came and asked, 'Where the victim mother at?' My aunt said, 'Here go one of the victim mothers.' They said they are sorry for my lost. [Then, someone] said, 'That's not her, her daughter is alive.'
And they was like, 'no, then she not a victim.”
This is how Alice Thomas remembers her encounter with a popular Chicago anti-violence group soon after her then 7-year-old daughter, Ariana Jones, was shot in the head on April, 10th 2010. Ariana, her other three siblings, and nine of their cousins, were happily playing outside under the watchful eyes of their mothers, on the 10700 block of S. Indiana Ave. in the Roseland community of Chicago. Suddenly, their life changed forever.
Alice's sister, Debra, instructed her daughter, Tanaja Stokes, who was jumping rope with Ariana and the other cousins, to go into the house to put on shoes. Tanaja did not make it to the stairs: “I just heard gunshots and we started pulling kids in the house.
"I saw my niece get shot. I ran down the stairs and laid on top of her to cover her,” Alice recalls.
Steshawn Brisco, then 18 and Marcus Cocroft, 16, rode down the block on bicycles and opened rapid gun fire, in apparent retaliation to an earlier confrontation with teenagers elsewhere on the block. Two bullets hit Ariana and Tanaja one each in the head, killing Tanaja instantly. Alice remembers believing that her daughter, too, was dead. She was reluctant to raise her head from the ground while laying over Tanaja's lifeless body, with eyes wide open.
“After they told me the ambulance was taking too long to come, I grabbed my daughter and raced to Roseland Hospital, almost killing myself because I did not stop at any sign or light,” Alice retold as we sat in the high traffic dining room of the crowded modest apartment of “Big Red,” a family member who lives around the corner where the shooting occurred.
Alice indicates that she received very little help after Ariana was shot. One of her first priorities was to move out of the neighborhood because Ariana was afraid to be outside, refusing to leave her great-grandmother's house, for months. She lamented,
“I went to the alderman's office to get help for them to move me. The woman said they pulled strings because of my sister's situation because her daughter died. So, I said in a smart kind of way, 'You mean because my daughter did not die, I cannot get help?' She said, 'I am not saying it like that, but pretty much, yeah.' It is really hard, I really want to leave, Chicago. I am really on my own.”
Alice is further motivated to move because of Ariana's experiences with school since the shooting:
"She does not like going to school because she cannot stand loud noise, and the kids are mean to her…They say things like, 'That is why you and your cousin got shot; you stupid,' and Ariana cries…She needs help to handle this bullying."
Alice is not alone in her belief that enough is not being done to assist survivors of gun violence in Chicago, mainly because of a mindset that they are not true victims if they are not killed. This has been echoed to me several times in different sections of the city.
“The killing of anyone, especially a child, is very wrong…However, I think it is a very sad message…when there is so much attention to those killed by gun violence, but almost no help and attention to those who survive it. It is as if [survivors] do not exist,” says Kimberley Johnson, mother of Ryann Brown, who was shot once in the head in 2006 while in a car with 20 and 16 year old brothers Clifton and Derek Lowe. Clifton, the driver, was shot and killed during the incident, and Derek was killed about one month later. Ryann is still hunted by the tragedy as she tries to navigate her days on a wheelchair.
Kimberley's son, Ricky, was shot to death in 2012, so she understands the strain from both angles: “My son was murdered, so I understand. The dead is dead…I had to go into bankruptcy for Ricky's death, and for Ryann's shooting. But she is still alive and needs help to adjust to her new life. Society needs to step up to help… people should not wait until it happens to them,” she stressed.
Eric Wilkins was shot twice in 1999, and the first shot to his back instantly paralyzed him. As a result of being dissatisfied with the support he and other paralyzed victims of gun violence receive, he founded Broken Wings which teaches students about the dangers of gun violence, gang involvement, and other reckless lifestyles.
“We pay lots of attention to sensational murders, but mostly ignore guys like those on the wheel chairs as a result of gun violence…Many of the wheelchair ramps you see in Chicago are for young people who got shot,” Wilkins added. He is seeking assistance for many of the surviving victims of Chicago violence in his community that he refers to as "the Magnificent Miles" of the city's infamous "Wild 'Hundreds" area.
“This is the area where most of the murders and violence [happened] that gave Chicago the most recent media hype: Robert Sandifer, better known as Yummy in 1994; Blair Holt in 2007; Darrion Albert of 2009, Tanaja Stokes and Ariana Jones of 2010,” Wilkins stressed, as he stood to stretch and prevent his legs from tensing up inside of the braces that he must wear to walk.
I estimate from available statistics that for every victim shot to death in Chicago, about 4-7 people are shot but not killed. The physical, emotional, psychological and other impacts to survivors are seldom addressed, and often set the stage for more violence.
Many of those victims such as Eric Wilkins, never make the news at time of injury. Eric hopes to soon open a center around the corner from where Ariana and Tanaja were shot. It will be to raise more awareness of the causes, impacts, and solutions to gun violence; providing children and youth with a safe and positive place to learn and play; and support victims of violence.
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 the Coordinator of Pathways to Responsible Fatherhood at Haymarket Center, Chicago. He is also the author of Pockets of Crime: Broken Windows, Collective Efficacy and the Criminal Point of View.