For three individuals, exposure to gun violence has inspired them to create change in their communities. A pastor dedicated to helping families cope with the loss of a loved one, an ex-con hoping to keep young men and women off the streets by giving them work opportunities and education, and a boxer wants to right the wrongs that he contributed to when he was younger by providing a place for mental health for those who live through violence.
CHICAGO — More than 50 friends and family members have gathered, forming a prayer circle in a parking lot on the corner of 93rd and South Halsted streets, in Washington Heights. In front of a convenience store, a lone balloon blows in the wind — a memorial to a man who was shot to death inside on Aug. 18 at 2:30 p.m., when two gunmen entered the convenience store and began firing. Oyedele Olupitan was 42.
A group of drummers play traditional African music on djembes and the chatter of people greeting and catching up fills the air. Some are dressed in traditional African attire and a man waves the Ghanaian flag on the outskirts. The music quiets and Pastor Donavon Price walks into the center and begins to pray.
“We pray also today that we can remain holding on to the Oye in all of us, to the Oye in the community, the Oye in our neighborhood, the Oye at the dinner table, the Oye taking their children from the laundromat safely. The Oye that knows that all the glitters ain’t gold out there. So we better dig for some gold on our own.”
Price has presided over such grief before. In service with Operation Wake Up, which brings together local police departments, various activists and community leaders to rally against violence in the streets of Chicago, Price began to lead prayers on behalf of victims like Olupitan. Through this work, he was exposed to stories of gun violence and became dedicated to help families cope with their loss.
“Some of the parents that I’ve worked with still talk about the fact that I was there before they were, you know; in some cases, I was there and they never were, you know, they’d never got to the scene,” said Price. “One mom found out the next morning that her daughter had been killed but I was there and saw her daughter dead in the car, you know, prayed for her daughter at that level and then of course there’s a feeling of comfort to know that. Yeah, my daughter died and I wasn’t there to take care of my baby but there’s this guy. He prayed for her.”
Chicago experienced a surge in violence this past summer. As of Nov. 23, there have been 700 homicides in the city, compared to the 503 homicides in 2019 — a confluence of various factors such as COVID-19 and its impact on communities, and the raised tensions between police and residents in response to George Floyd’s May death in Minneapolis.
City and state initiatives are attempting to approach the problem from different directions. Newly appointed Police Superintendent David Brown announced the creation of two new units to combat violence and build community relationships. The office of the mayor allocated 7.5 millions dollars in funding to various anti-violence organizations in April 2020. But residents are dissatisfied with the lack of progress, spurring various community activists to pursue creative ways to help curb gun violence in Chicago.
Still, perceived inaction on the part of local leaders created a gap in what residents are expecting and what is actually happening on the ground. Well-known organizations such as My Block My Hood My City, GoodKids MadCity and a multitude of others are taking action against the violence by lobbying for better opportunities, especially educational opportunities.
The ripple effect of gun violence is perhaps its most pervasive quality. Price was never a stranger to the violence in his communities, but visiting a family at their home in Englewood, in 2016, challenged him to ask how he could better serve his neighbors.
In July of 2016, 6-year-old Tacarra Morgan survived a shot to the stomach. She was sitting on her porch when her house was riddled with bullets. Eye witness reports indicate that two passing vehicles unleashed gunfire at one another. A bullet hit Tacarra and several more rounds hit her house and the neighboring homes. Price met with the family to offer his support but the remnants of the violence nagged at him.
“I was able to go and pray with their family at her house while she was in the hospital, and notice the holes in the windows and walls of their house,” said Price. “Afterwards I felt God saying to me, ‘You know what, the event was really kind of cute but that’s not gonna help.’”
Price now dedicates many sleepless nights to the streets after receiving phone calls or text messages notifying him that someone has been shot. He goes to the scene of the crime and prays, sometimes finding the victim’s family there, sometimes alone. He helps the family in any capacity he can, whether it be with funeral arrangements or burial rites, anything that comforts the family. The work takes a toll; engaging with grief and violence regularly takes a mental and physical toll on Price.
“My life is this and so 24 hours a day it is constantly affecting me,” explains Price. “You’re on your way finally home and you think, ‘Okay now I’m home,’ and you start thinking about how bad off the pillow is going to be. But for me that stops at a certain level, even in coming home because it’s like, ‘Well I hope I can stay in bed all night.’”
Olumide Olupitan, Oyedele’s older brother, grew up in a household that strongly believed in its Nigerian roots. Their father Pa David Olupitan was the founder of The Africa International House in Chicago and served on the African Chamber of Commerce. Though they didn’t always see eye to eye as brothers they shared a bond.
“I was the first one to show him a lot of things. I was the first one to inspire him, you know, the first one to protect him in the streets, the first one to kick his ass if he f—ed up, if you understand what I’m saying. I was a real big brother,” said Olupitan.
His brother Oyedele wasn’t the intended target; he represents the innocent. The tragedy of living in these communities, Olupitan said, is that such violence is ever-present.
“That is not supposed to happen man, not there in a place that in the community you grew up with, with people you are familiar with, a place that you’re familiar with, you know, that’s the last place that you will feel that you might lose your life. Yeah. And the chances are, just like that, anywhere that any shooter decides to shoot.”
In Englewood, Tyrone Muhammed stands vigil with the family of Vernado Jones, a 14-year-old boy shot and killed on the Fourth of July. Family and friends gathered to remember Jones’ short life and to speak out against another life lost to gun violence.
But Muhammed would not have always been able to speak out for others. In 1997, he was staring down two decades and a year in prison at 27 years old, sentenced for killing 21-year-old gang member Robert Jones in retaliation for an earlier attack at a housing complex. He served his full 21 years and was released in 2017.
“Once arriving to prison, my first two years was about ‘woe is me’ self pity type stuff, trying to figure out, suicidal in nature,” explains Muhammed. “I’m not doing 20 years. I can’t even see that, I can’t fathom the depths of 20 years and in a 9×12 cell. I think I want to run or jump over the gate and make them shoot me.”
He turned to education after seeing a constant flow of young men entering the prison system.
“I got tired and grew tired of watching 18- to 24-year-old young men coming in and out of prison, 20, 30, 40, 60, 80 years and never knowing or never thinking that they will have an opportunity towards life,” he said.
Muhammed walked out of prison into a different world. The city had changed drastically. The projects were gone, trips to downtown kept coming up with surprises as he discovered new buildings and developments with each visit. Englewood’s demographics had shifted and he was slowly grasping the intricacies of the smartphone. At the same time he was grappling with trying to understand why the only thing that remained the same was the neglect of the communities where he grew up.
“The whole city seemed to have changed [except for] our communities, ours. So it’s more demoralized, it’s more blight, it’s more abandoned buildings with the exception of the gentrified areas…So, I’m seeing those dynamics and I’m looking like, ‘Wow it’s worse than when I left.’”
Muhammed wanted to mentor young men but he realized that first he would have to take to the streets to diffuse the heated tensions between gang members by talking them out of retaliation. Then he grew to find a way to provide young men with an alternative to selling drugs. Providing them with alternative education, work experience and volunteering in hopes of guiding them onto a path of nonviolence.
“I got tired of young men as I say coming in and out, and the recidivism rate like a revolving door,” explains Muhammed. “You know what, we got to change this, because these people, it’s not that they don’t want to know or don’t want to listen. It’s just that we haven’t presented them an opportunity to be served.”
Taking what he learned during his time in prison and his own understanding of how to give direction to young men in his communities, Muhammed founded Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change (ECCSC).
“ECCSC was formed on the basis of not waiting for outsiders to do for us what we are more than capable of doing for us. And it starts with us, we perpetrated as I said the violence, it’s on us to clean it up.”
At the age of 10, Derrick Durr witnessed his neighbor get shot in the stomach as Durr dribbled a basketball in West Englewood.
The threat of violence was ever present as he grew up, normalized. Schoolyard cliques translated to rival gangs, and Durr felt his upbringing primed him for committing violence. For him, it was never a choice.
“Just growing up poor, my idol was the dope dealer because I can’t touch Michael Jordan even though how great and a beautiful athlete and a well-spoken person he was. I can’t touch him,” explained Durr, “But the guy making 4-5 thousand dollars a day? He going to talk to me. That’s who I idolized, that’s who I can touch, that’s who can talk to me back.”
He refers to his childhood as growing up in a warzone where there was little choice but to become a soldier. And just like a warzone the toll on his mental health was significant. By the age of 16, Durr had lost several friends to gang violence. He became emotionally distant and the trauma of loss, violence and poverty buried him deep in a dark hole he could see no way out of.
“I was in the shower one day, and I had a cat,” explained Durr, “The cat knocked over a chair and it made a pop. When it made that pop I broke down in the tub and I cried for two hours. Because you’re always on the defense out there on the streets.”
Durr began to look for an outlet to help him handle his anxiety, which brought him to a more controlled form of violence: boxing. Durr started boxing in his early twenties, well past the usual starting age for boxers looking to become professionals, but he was dedicated and motivated. He won two Golden Gloves belts and competed at the Olympic trials qualifier.
Boxing wasn’t an immediate way out, and Durr still found himself pulled into violent behavior on the streets, but boxing is what ultimately gave him the tools to move on from that life. Now he is looking for ways to spread that message and to confront his past and the trauma affecting his mental health.
Having lived through it himself he understands the need to help children and young adults cope with what they witness and experience. Durr wants to motivate children to seek alternative forms of inspiration and goals in life but he also wants to ensure that there is safe space for victims of trauma in Englewood.
“We need a crisis counselor on hand for our children, there is no other way to go,” said Durr. “Just to reboot the brain while we still got them, because when I turned 24, I had nothing to do with my life, I didn’t expect to see 21. So when I was 24 I’m on the street corner hanging out, you know, doing whatever because I didn’t expect to get this far. We need to reboot the kids’ brain, motivate them, inspire and get them some crisis counseling. These kids have seen a lot and it’s overlooked. Their trauma and healing is overlooked as well.”
Durr is currently on probation relating to a weapons charge. There is also a restraining order issued against him by Kane County Circuit Court, based on sworn testimony of physical abuse and harassment. When asked, Durr denied any claims of physical abuse.
At the visitation and funeral, Oyedele’s body and the casket are surrounded by flowers. His brother Olumide requests a piece of Nigerian clothing that belonged to their father be placed in the casket with Oyedele.
“We have so much PTSD right now, unconsciously. People don’t even know what it is. So the plan is to let them know that lives can be lost forever, including yours. Or maybe your loved one like I’ve just suffered, right? But know that for you to send somebody to the morgue you should visit the morgue yourself as a shooter, right?” said Olumide. “See some of the damage that you do right? Then maybe listen to a little Bible scripture right? And then go talk to somebody for real for real. That is somebody that’s your neighbor or family member that just took a serious loss that might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Feel the emotion but harness the energy and understand that we [are] pretty much killing ourselves.”
Oyedeles’ daughter, Jasmine, looks over her dead father with her three-year-old son, Tacari, in her arms. As the family gathers to mourn, Olumide reaches out to his great-nephew, innocent of what brings them here today.
Throughout the day, Tacari glances at Olumide and then looks back at the casket. “That’s you,” he said, confusing his great-uncle with his dead grandfather in the casket. Olumide smiles and takes him everywhere he goes; they play outside, they try to do push-ups and take photos. Olumide looks at Tacari and vows to make sure his nephew doesn’t follow the wrong path in life.
“You can follow this path and be a part of crime in the streets. Or you can be a person who witnesses crimes, and those that witness are not always therefore a part of. But they are in the same place at the same time so I want him to have the right perspective about who he is, in the streets of Chicago. Because they are going to change by the time he gets to be of age. But true history and knowledge always stays the same. And if he knows the knowledge of his grandfather, being killed by being in the wrong place at the wrong time then maybe that might have an effect on how he moves.”
Anthony Vazquez covers the city’s south and west sides for the Chicago Sun-Times. This dispatch is part of a series called “On the Ground” with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.
Editor’s note: The story was updated on Dec. 4 to include recent allegations of violence against Derrick Durr.
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