I recently had a tall privacy fence installed around my house in Chicago. My 14-year-old son has autism. Maybe the barrier will prevent him from wandering away from home and being chased down and shot by police, as Ricardo Hayes was, I thought. Maybe it will protect him from being struck by a stray bullet as Hadiya Pendleton was.
I’m far from the only Black mother here who is worried that a gun could end her child’s life. Chicago, along with several big cities across the country, has seen a rise in gun violence — perpetrated by both civilians and police officers — since January of last year. In one especially alarming spree last summer, Chicago police officers shot five people in just two months. And shootings and murders in the city were up more than 50 percent overall in 2020 compared with 2019; 875 people died from gun violence — a record high. A majority of the city’s victims (78 percent) were Black.
Throughout the United States., Black Americans are most affected by gun violence — whether the shooter is a civilian or a police officer. Black people are two times more likely to die in a firearm incident and three times as likely to be killed in a police encounter than white Americans. When moms like me worry about our children, we have to ask ourselves, “What should I fear most?”
When George Floyd was murdered last summer, the Wall of Moms, a group of mostly white suburban mothers, received significant media attention for the statement they made in Portland, Ore., when they protested his murder. I couldn’t help thinking of the relatively little recognition of the work of Black mothers, who have long organized against police violence as well as the violence happening in our communities.
In Chicago, groups like Mothers Against Senseless Killings have led the fight against violence in their neighborhoods, addressing their communities’ needs by doing everything from patrolling corners to cooking meals. On a national level, Mothers of the Movement — a group of Black women whose children have been killed by guns, including at the hands of police officers — works to raise awareness and push for legislative changes on a national level.
The priorities of some people concerned about racist violence at the hands of the police — those who want to reduce the presence of officers — are often framed as being in tension with those of Black people who want their communities to be safer. That’s simply not true. It’s a misconception that exists in part because we don’t hear enough from those who are touched by both components of the crisis and lead the fight against it. So over the past eight months, I asked Black mothers across the country — who are the true experts on the issue — to tell me about the gun violence that has shaped their lives. As killings by the police and mass shootings continue to make headlines, it’s time we listen to them.
The interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Ledelle Mitchell, Memphis
Mitchell has three daughters who are 33, 38 and 39. She is a partner at Mitchell Technology Group.
I grew up in one of the most historic communities in the nation, not only in Memphis. Orange Mound is considered one of the largest Black home-owning communities … in the country. It was a very beloved community.
Gun violence in our community has been detrimental. At our church, the Saturday program — it’s a youth mentoring program — started out being just young people in high school, but it really turned into young men all the way up to ages 25, 26, 27. And we have lost from that group at least four or five young men to gun violence.
That has been very heartbreaking because when people think of people who have been killed by guns, they don’t see the person. Most times, they view the people who get killed and the people who perpetrate as less than human or thugs, and that doesn’t have to be the case at all. And once you get to know these young people and see their struggles and what they’ve gone through, you kind of understand where they are. As a matter of fact, not only men — we had a young lady who was a part of the program, and she got shot about six or seven times.
There needs to be more resources poured back into the communities. When I was growing up, we had viable schools in the community, we had after-school programs. There were resources that allowed young people to do the things that young people do. And now, none of those things exist any longer. All of the programs that benefited kids in school — other than maybe basketball or football — are no longer there.
Shea Kuykendoll, Memphis
Kuykendoll is the mother of a 19-year-old daughter. She is a student advocate at the University of Memphis.
I was robbed at gunpoint on Christmas Eve. It happened so fast that you really don’t have time to process everything until after it’s over. And it’s like, you know, did that just happen?
I had always been pro-gun, pro-Second Amendment, and then after I was robbed, I was a little afraid of guns for a period of time. But I quickly got out of that. I’ve been going to the range, and I think Black people need to arm themselves. I’m going back to Black Panther days: We need to arm ourselves, we need to be able to protect ourselves.
Tennessee just passed a law that will not require you to have a permit anymore. Before, you had to take a class, take the test, apply for the permit, all of that. The governor’s argument was that this was prohibitive for people who maybe didn’t have the money to take the class, to apply for the permit and pay for the license.
I will be interested to see what happens when more Black people start purchasing guns now that this barrier is removed, what’s going to happen when more Black people start going in and purchasing firearms and there is no permit that’s required.
Lorrain Taylor, Centreville, Mississippi
Taylor’s twin sons were shot and killed in 2000, when they were 22 years old. She is the founder of 1,000 Mothers to Prevent Violence, which supports families who have lost loved ones to homicide.
My twin sons, Albade and Obadiah, were 22 years young, working their way through college in Oakland, when I got a call that they had been murdered the day before while working on a car. This guy took their lives away.
Never ever did I think that violence would knock at my door on that level.
After being profiled in The San Francisco Chronicle in 2006, I started getting calls from mothers asking me: “How did you do it? How did you get through it? Please come see about me.” That’s when I started a support group.
Like a lot of people, I didn’t like the police. But I had an idea: If you can’t beat them, join them. So I invited them to our support group and asked them if they would work with us. I said, “I’ve gotten lots of complaints from our mothers that you all are not answering their phone calls.” We would go into the police department and have our meetings. I would bring a mother or two with me. We had questions and we wanted some action. And that was helpful because some of the parents got to know some of the police officers, and they got to get some of their questions answered. They got to feel heard for once.
I get very angry when I feel like we’re being played as taxpayers. You’re taking our money. You’re looking good on the outside. But our children are falling like flies on the street, and they continue to fall because you won’t solve a case.
Shanice Steenholdt, Houston
Steenholdt is a teacher and the mother of a 2-year-old son.
I pray over my son each night because every day isn’t promised, and with the world that we live in, I feel like people are becoming more and more bold and less caring in this world, and that’s just a huge thing. Safety is a big thing for me, and we try to keep our kids as safe as we can when they’re with us, but when they’re not with us, that’s when we worry the most.
I think that there definitely needs to be more education provided to people on guns and how to properly use them. I think they’re too easily accessible to everyone. It’s not hard to get one. So I think that there needs to be more requirements to be able to access one. And if you think about places like Australia — and I say Australia because I lived there — they’re not able to carry around freely, and it’s much more difficult to get one.
I was in a small town called Traralgon, and everyone there was just wonderful, and I didn’t feel like I had to worry when I left my house, even being a foreigner there. I didn’t feel like I had to worry about gun violence. I mean, it’s just not something that you turn the news on and hear about, and so you feel safe, you feel comfortable.
Diane Latiker, Chicago
Latiker is the mother of four sons, ages 48, 47, 44 and 40, and four daughters, ages 46, 43, 42 and 30. She is the founder of Kids Off the Block, a nonprofit organization that provides recreational activities and educational support for young people in Chicago.
Police violence has always been there. We who live in these communities, we already know all this. We know that there’s nothing done if one of our own is killed in our community. We know that there’s very little justice. And we’ve always been saying it’s wrong. And “when are we going to get a break?” And “when are they going to stop killing us?” You know? But nobody was listening.
They send new recruits who don’t have any sense about the community or who we are. So they have nothing invested here. Several years ago, I partnered with the police department for three years to do a program called Bridging the Divide. There were 15 officers who would come to my home every Thursday and they would meet with the young people that I serve, mostly male. And none of the kids wanted to talk to the police. It was tense at first, but it gradually grew to 32 young men who just built relationships with those officers. It changed the dynamic. And so, I wish they would invest more into that, but they don’t seem to; they want to keep the Police Department separate from the community. I think they’re missing a great opportunity.
Trish Lowry, Philadelphia
Lowry is the mother of a 20-year-old daughter and a 30-year-old son who was injured in a shooting when he was 22. She is a board member of the ECO Foundation, an nonprofit organization focused on providing food, employment and education.
What’s going on in our city right now is just, it’s just mayhem. Just pure mayhem. A lot of shootings. And young children are being caught in the crossfire now.
My son Kyle was shot at a New Year’s Eve party seven years ago. He was just hanging out. Someone came in and got in an argument with somebody. My son’s friend was killed. Another friend was shot. Kyle was shot six times because he was standing up; he was in shock. My son was telling the police officer, “Just tell my mother I love her.”
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in January. So my son actually moved in to take care of me and has been doing a phenomenal job. But I still pray every time he goes out, every time he leaves the house, I pray. That feeling of anxiety. I do give it over to God, but the feeling is still there, and I think that’s part of a PTSD thing because of when he got shot.
I saw a little bit of this video that’s been circulating about this white man: He threatened to kill police officers and they didn’t do anything. They’re so violent with us, they’re so aggressive with us. The way they take in their white suspects with guns. They don’t shoot them, they de-escalate the situation, you know? They pretty much were begging him to get out of the car and appeasing him. We don’t want the police to shoot them, we just don’t want them to kill us.
Natalie Manning, Chicago
Manning has three children, a 14-year-old daughter, a 19-year-old son and a 23-year-old son. She is a co-founder and the executive director of This Is Life, a nonprofit organization that provides opportunities for young people to participate in the arts, with the goal of deterring them from violence.
I worked for a charter school for a number of years. We lost a few children to gun violence. There was one young lady I knew during her freshman year. We had a relationship because I knew her sister. Sometimes, when you’re at the school, you develop like a sisterhood with the children. We used to joke around in the classroom. She used to give me a hard time. Then one day, we came back to school to find out that she was killed. That tore me apart. I cried and cried and cried for days. To hear about a kid not coming back to school the next day — you end up taking that stuff home.
And then I have my own children. So you sit here and you’re concerned about their safety. As a parent, nobody wants to get that call that your child is not coming back home or your child has been shot. Just that feeling of uneasiness. Even though my oldest son is 23, I still call him and text him all the time to make sure that he’s OK. Even though he’s a grown man.
We have a problem in our community with communicating. My solution to gun violence would be that I would want to create monthly town hall meetings with city officials and local civilians, in which we’re able to discuss the various solutions to try to stop gun violence, and also have each month a local celebrity influencer to help bring the crowds out to support this initiative.
Chez Smith, Chicago
Smith’s stepson survived a gunshot wound in 2008, when he was 15. She is also the mother of a 9-year-old son, 16-year-old daughter and 29-year-old stepdaughter. Smith is the founder of the Gyrls in the H.O.O.D Foundation, which provides reproductive and sexual health education to girls.
I have a stepson who was shot a few years ago in the head. Although he survived, his life will never be the same. It’s a life-changing experience. I just feel like there should be programs in place for the relatives who have to help, whether it’s physically helping them recover; mentally, it should be some therapy programs for the siblings of the victim. My stepdaughter, his sister, did a lot to make sure that he recovered. It’s unfair that she had to be in that position.
We kind of get lumped into one category since we are on the South Side — you know, like there’s something that we’re not doing right. But it’s a lot of hard-working families who go to work every day and take care of their kids and try to do the best that they can. And they want relief, too. They want peace and want their kids to play outside and stuff, too.
I also think that money needs to be put into restorative justice programs that are offering conflict resolution techniques. Black boys are more likely to take redirection from somebody who looks like them. We need to get back to the grassroots way of thinking, and we need money to do that.
I feel like girls are overlooked in this crisis, because really, this is a public health crisis. Girls are just as much victims as the boys are, but you just don’t see the same outrage. We need more intervention programs targeted to girls specifically.
Marcia McQueen, Flint, Michigan
McQueen’s husband died of a gunshot wound in 2007. She has three children, ages 13, 19 and 22.
My husband was murdered. Gun violence in 2007. I don’t remember talking to the police. Police need to get out here to this community. You need to make yourself visible, need to go door to door, meet these neighbors. Come talk to us, patrol our neighborhood and get to know everybody.
I want to see more gyms, more activities open up for these youth so they can be safe. The kids can live again and enjoy life. What I would want to do, once we get this virus together, is go into the schools — all grade levels — and just talk to the young people about guns and what they’re supposed to be used for. Let them know that we can solve problems in a different kind of way — we don’t have to run to guns to solve the problem. I just wish the young people would grab onto that: You don’t have to kill somebody because of a disagreement. Because when you kill him, you kill the whole family.
Sharmaine Brown, Atlanta
Brown’s son died of a gunshot wound in 2015. She is the founder of Jared’s Heart of Success, a mentoring organization for children and teenagers. Her son died of a gunshot wound in 2015.
In 2015, my husband and I were on a weekend trip. We came back from out of town and there was a note left on our front door. It was from the Atlanta Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office. They told my husband that our son was brought in over the weekend. And that’s how we learned.
The young man who killed my son was 23 at the time. My son was 23 at the time. The young man ended up getting life plus an additional 20 years in prison. So here you have two families affected.
When you’re talking about shifting money from law enforcement to other programs, it would be good for that money to go directly into our communities to help our youth. Re-allocate those funds into education, public health, housing and youth services. I really do honestly believe that it’s going to take us to continuously put the pressure on our legislators to do what’s right because our children’s lives matter.
Cora Miller, Atlanta
Miller is the mother of a 4-year-old son. She is a co-founder of Young King Hair Care.
My husband was born and raised in Atlanta, in College Park, and so, even in his world, his mother did her best to kind of shield him and protect him from the kind of path that he could have easily gone down as a young boy. And he definitely has had interactions with authorities that haven’t always been the best experience. So, based on his experience and even some that I’ve witnessed with him and that happened to us, it definitely has shaped my view and just how protective I am of my son.
There are several different occasions, but the one that still kind of shakes me to my core happened in Minnesota. One night, we were all trying to go into a bar, and my husband wanted to know the wait time. For some reason or another, the security guard and police officer were all just dismissive of him, giving him a “get in your place” type of attitude. My husband asked him not to be disrespectful because he didn’t do anything wrong. The security guy just shoved him, and then the police officer comes up and starts holding up his Taser to my husband. And I’m looking around — me, my friends — of course, everyone’s like, get out your cameras. Why did it escalate that quickly for no reason? I’m asking the officer, “Why do you have a Taser out right now?” He was telling my husband to get on the ground. My husband’s like, “What did I do?” Because he wouldn’t get on the ground, the officer tased him.
I just reflect on the experiences that we go through all the time. It’s never all captured, but it happens all the time.
Why are our Black men, our Black boys, treated this way, as if their lives just don’t matter? It definitely has shaped my view and just how protective I am of my 4-year-old son. Like, he’s cute now. Everybody always says how cute he is. But when does that change?
WyKisha Thomas-McKinney, Houston
Thomas-McKinney is the mother of a 15-year-old daughter and a 20-year-old son. She is the board chair of the Southeast Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the loss division chair of the American Association of Suicidology.
In high school, I lost a friend to gun violence. He was a senior in high school, played football and all of that stuff, but someone shot into his car and killed him and severely injured two other guys who were also friends of mine. Just really seeing the impact of his death on my friends, who are still friends of mine today — they still talk about and think about that loss.
The hardest conversation I ever had with my son was telling him how to be safe when he left for college. And the dos and don’ts if you get pulled over. He went to a small school in a rural area of Texas, so we had to be honest with him: “Listen, you’re about to go in the country and they’re not going to see this nice, courteous, polite young man — they’re going to see an N-word walking around, so you have to be safe.” That was the hard talk to have.
I would be remiss not to mention the correlation between gun violence and suicide. Suicides account for most gun deaths. And suicide rates are increasing among Black children. As an advocate for mental health, I think that our children need to know that they are loved and supported through all of their exposure to this negativity. These kids see it on social media, hear their parents talking about it and see it on television. There is a heightened sense of hopelessness and it is easy to look over. Be mindful and pay attention to how your child is feeling emotionally.
Aishah George, Philadelphia
George’s son was shot and killed in 2017, when he was 16. She is a member of Mothers In Charge, a nonprofit organization dedicated in part to violence prevention.
My oldest, who was 16 years old, was murdered in 2017 along with another 16-year-old boy. And another 16-year-old committed the crime. It’s just horrible. My kid’s 16, a good kid, you know? Honor roll student. He really had a future. So now I’m just left with going to a cemetery to look at a headstone with my poor kid underneath it. For what? For what?
It feels like torture every single day. Every day. You just wake up and it’s like, ‘Well, let me see what violence happened last night when I was asleep.’
I think it’s too easy for people to get guns. It’s hard to get a job, but it’s easy to get a gun. Where are they coming from? Where are these guns coming from?
These kids are getting younger and younger and they’re carrying guns more and more because they are really fearful for their lives.
Alexis Hamilton, Tallahassee, Florida
Hamilton is a graduate student and the mother of a 7-year-old daughter.
Last year, there were over 70 shootings in Tallahassee — just in 2020 alone. So I don’t know if that was due to the pandemic. I don’t know what to attribute the increase in gun violence to, but it’s definitely noticeable.
When you go to a specific city — for example, like Miami or St. Petersburg — it just seems more gang-related, but here, sometimes it’s just so random. Some people are just upset or angry. When I dig deeper into it, it’s so much more complicated.
It just seems like in Tallahassee, the only time you see people coming out and protesting and doing community work is when it is a race-involved situation, so I think just taking further steps beyond what we’re doing now would help.
Oddly enough, I don’t feel safe. If I don’t feel safe in my own community, and I don’t feel like the police here or the sheriffs here are necessarily helping with the safety here, then I don’t necessarily feel safe all around.
As a Black person, as a Black woman, we face different sides of what you would call danger. When you come into a part of a town where it’s mostly a white demographic, you kind of feel that sense of danger, in the sense of underlying racism. You know, if there was a crime to happen, I wholeheartedly believe that I would be treated differently than if it was someone else, if there was a white counterpart involved.
Janelle Scott, Oakland, California
Scott has a 12-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter.
The idea that we can’t keep our children safe just makes me really feel a deep connection with my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, and an overall connection with other Black parents. The idea that we can’t keep our children safe, the futility of feeling like you have it under control but there are these things that might happen, despite your best efforts, despite doing everything you can.
I think about Michael Brown’s mom, who said how hard she’d worked to get him to get through school, and this notion that you can do everything “right” — both in terms of schooling experiences, social experiences, friendship networks — and still, unlike other parents, you can’t ever be sure they’re going to be safe. And that’s terrifying, and heartbreaking, and feels like an intergenerational burden.
We don’t own guns. I don’t want them, and I worry about whether my kids are in homes where there are guns.
Arionne Nettles is a lecturer at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and the mother of a 14-year-old son.