Black Mothers in Chicago Are the Village Against Gun Violence
Last month, we published a special series on what it’s like to be Black in the Midwest and invited you to share your own experiences. The following is one of several submissions by Medium writers that we are excited to share with you.
“We are not activists,” said Tamar Manasseh, founder of Mothers Against Senseless Killings, in a Facebook post.
In the days before Manasseh wrote these words, her friends, Andrea Stoudemire and Chantell Grant, were murdered on a Chicago corner.
Grant was a young mother, 26, who Manasseh says would bring her kids out every day to play. Grant and Stoudemire, 36, each had four children. “Two activists killed,” read the headlines from national news publications, framing them as women who set out to battle for a cause and their deaths as some sort of casualty of war. Even one of the city’s many nicknames, Chi-raq, coined by Chicago rapper King Louie, lends to the idea that the city is a war zone. In war, the only solutions are death and imprisonment. Black mothers, however, are bringing different solutions to Chicago through their presence.
Gun violence in the Windy City has become a political talking point for conservatives who feign interest. This year alone, from January through September, there have been 1,633 shootings and 382 murders in Chicago, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. That’s 382 lives too many that have been taken, but these numbers represent the lowest number of shootings in the city since 2015.
“When Black children are not safe to play on their block, walk to the store, or go to school, Black women in Chicago step up. When the sons and daughters of Chicago are killed, Black mothers step in.”
Progress is being made, despite President Donald Trump’s obsession with painting Chicago as an embarrassment to the nation where crime has reached “epidemic proportions.” Chicago has seen an 11% decrease in murder while Washington D.C. is grappling with a 38% increase in homicide. But it doesn’t serve the political agenda to highlight Chicago’s decrease in homicides.
It also doesn’t serve the myth of Black-on-Black crime for national media outlets to talk about the flood of Black women in concern, all the while ignoring the effects the state and federal government’s long history of racist policies and persisting segregation has had on the current situation. The fact that gun violence is on the decrease doesn’t bode well for conservative media outlets that wield the news of any shooting in the city as an example of why tight gun control policies, like the laws in Illinois, don’t work. The idea of an epidemic is a narrative largely created by the media.
As members of MASK, Mothers Against Senseless Killings, Chicago’s mothers take turns hanging out on the corner of 75th and Stewart — one of the South Side of Chicago’s many violence-plagued corners — interrupting crime, offering food, and showing the neighborhood children what community means. “We sit on blocks. We do walking patrols. We build real actual relationships with the people no one else wants to — the people they’re afraid of, but still somehow feel superior to, every single day,” Manasseh said. “We commit every day to not just talking about peace but to actively leaving our homes and computers to go out and search for it. ”
When Black children are not safe to play on their block, walk to the store, or go to school, Black women in Chicago step up. When the sons and daughters of Chicago are killed, Black mothers step in.
Valerie Burgest’s son, Craig Williams, was shot in Chicago a few days after Christmas of 2013—the same day his own son turned 11 months. “His murder didn’t really leave me any choice in the matter,” said Valerie.“It was either I find a way to elevate and be a part of the solution or I would cease to exist.” She volunteers with the Illinois chapter of Moms Demand Action as a co-lead, marching, meeting with legislators, and organizing in the name of gun violence prevention. Her main focus, however, is to reach out to Black mothers like herself who are most affected by gun violence in the city — for them to see the face of a Black mother who does the work not in the name of social justice but out of love and protection.
“The loss of a child so devastating, but it doesn’t stop you from being a mother. It doesn’t cause you to lose those mother instincts,” she says. “So becoming involved in a movement that is designed to protect children is mothering. You’re really trying to do work so that another mother doesn’t have to experience that level of devastation.”
Burgest remembers her son as a passionate person. We talk at length about how the word passionate is usually reserved for adventurous people who aren’t Black men. He was her only child. He surrounded himself with friends and he lived life with a passion, she says. His death left behind a daughter, who is now seven years old, a son, who is six, and a mother, who speaks of him as if she’s recalling a vivid dream.
“That’s a broken heart that’s going to be broken for the rest of my life, but I do this work because I want him to know, and I want people to know, that his life meant something,” she notes.
When Black women’s lives are taken on the same corners they keep warm for their children, their memory must be preserved as the mothers, sisters, and friends that they were. When our sons’ and daughters’ lives are taken, we don’t remember them as just another number shot and killed on a given day in Chicago.
Hadiya Pendleton was a 15-year-old dancer who performed for then-President Barack Obama just a few days before she was shot and killed in a Chicago park in 2013. Denise Weekly was a 26-year-old mother of two. She was shot in the chest in a South Side neighborhood one weekend this summer and killed. Sharemaine Pinnick was known for her smile and caring nature. She was killed by gun violence this summer, too. Her son and daughter are left to mourn. Seventeen-year-old Michael Reese was a quiet kid but known at school for how he coordinated his outfits. He died five days after being shot in a west side neighborhood earlier this month.
The names are many. Chicago, however, isn’t the most gun violence-plagued city in the United States, not even in the Midwest (that title belongs to St. Louis). In the city that’s become the poster child for cold-blooded gun violence live mothers who sit, march, organize, love, feed, engage, and show up for an entire community through acts of service and being a presence. They are not martyrs, and they are not activists.
“There are many different kinds of activists,” Manasseh said. “Activist is cool, but I am a mother. That’s why I do it.”