Chicago has had more than 3,100 shootings and 700 murders already in 2021. A group of bereaved mothers from the South Side of the city have had enough, écrit Bevan Hurley.
Nyisha and Jaya Beemon were not just mother and daughter, they were a team.
When Nyisha, 36, a nurse, would work late, Jaya would take charge of the family home, making sure her three younger siblings were fed and got to school.
“If I wasn’t there, she made sure everything ran right,” Ms Beemon tells L'indépendant.
Keen to follow in her mother’s footsteps, Jaya, an 18-year-old college freshman, had enrolled to study nursing at Malcolm X College in Chicago.
Au 25 février, 2020, she spent the day at the Shedd Aquarium with a friend, and on her way home stopped at a convenience store on Chicago’s South Side.
While she was inside, three gunmen approached the store allegedly seeking out a rival gang member.
Surveillance footage shows them fire 22 shots indiscriminately into the shop.
Jaya was fatally shot in the neck, while four others were also hit, two men, âge 19 et 63, and two females, vieilli 18 et 17. None were the intended target, la police dit.
“They just opened the door and started shooting. She didn’t see it coming. By the time she looked up, the bullet was already piercing her,” Ms Beemon says.
She heard there’d been a shooting and, tracing a map pin her daughter had dropped on her mobile phone, rushed to the store.
She was told her daughter had been taken to the University of Chicago Hospital but given no further information.
Là, Ms Beemon, a former hospice nurse, found her daughter lying in the back of an emergency room, one of her arms dangling from their side of a stretcher, her neck wounds visible.
“The instant I saw her I passed out,” says Ms Beemon.
“It was like I was having an out of body experience. They called the police and I was arrested. I was told that was the improper way to grieve.”
Ms Beemon was charged with resisting arrest after she allegedly kicked a police officer while being dragged from the room.
The charges were later dropped, but she is still trying to have them expunged from her record.
After her daughter’s death, Ms Beemon fell into a dark place. The crippling grief of Jaya’s senseless death, the trauma of being cuffed and thrown into jail cell while her daughter’s killers were free, left her barely able to breathe. Life was a blur.
“Who prepares you for the sudden death of a child?"
The blight of gang violence
Ms Beemon had been all too aware of the dangers of gang violence growing up on the crime-plagued South Side of Chicago, but it was different back then.
“We had violence, we had gangs, but it was structured. Women and children didn’t get killed. They didn’t shoot during times when kids were going back and forth to school," elle dit.
Police and federal law enforcement have periodically managed to decapitate gang leadership since the 1970s using anti-racketeering laws.
But that has only succeeded in fracturing the gangs and led to an explosion in violence.
“You knock off the gang leaders, and now everybody is going rogue,” says Ms Beemon.
Le weekend dernier, au moins 51 people were shot in the city, including a 4-year-old boy who was shot in the legs and hand on the South Side on Friday night. Nine people died over the weekend.
En réponse, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has proposed a law to allow the city to go after the gangs’ assets through civil lawsuits. Critics say it won’t make any difference.
Police investigating Jaya’s death arrested and charged a 15-year-old with her murder last December. It was the third time he’d been arrested with a weapon, Ms Beemon says.
He’s awaiting trial, while the two other suspects remain at large.
Coupled with the city’s spiralling violence is a falling clearance rate for homicides. The Chicago Police Department solved just 50.3 per cent of homicides in 2019, et seulement 44.5 percent in 2020, à propos de 20 percentage points below the national average.
That figure falls dramatically when the victim is Black; juste 22 per cent of homicides involving African-Americans were solved in 2019.
‘If you have no faith … who do you pray to?»
Jaya had a personality as sparkly as her dress sense, Ms Beemon says.
She wore sequinned outfits and bright Chuck Taylors, and would dance around the house with music blaring from a speaker.
“She was delightful. It didn’t even have to be a party. Elle a été the party, every day.”
She was always protective of her kids, driving them to school, to dance lessons and sports practices. When she couldn’t drive them, she ordered a private care. She taught them drills on what to do in an active shooter situation.
After Jaya’s death, her mother was offered grief counselling, and at one meeting with other bereaved mothers a therapist told her to pray.
“If you have no faith and you’ve seen your 18 year old innocent daughter killed, who do you pray to? At this moment that was not the best answer for us, so we had to find other coping mechanisms.”
Seeing the complete lack of support for parents who had lost their children, she and other mothers created an informal support group, the Warrior Moms of Chicago, to shine a national spotlight on gun violence in their community.
They hold regular group-therapy sessions, and provide assistance on practical matters like how to keep the police investigating their children’s death accountable.
Ms Beemon says Mayor Lightfoot seemed to put more emphasis on catching looters during the 2020 summer riots than murderers on the South Side.
Desperate times for radical measures, says Ms Beemon. She wants to see much tougher sentences for gun possession, police put suspects’ pictures on every street corner, and call in the National Guard.
“We have a pandemic of gun violence," elle dit.
“They told us Covid-19 was a pandemic. We have more kids dying from gun violence in Chicago than Covid-19, so which one is the pandemic? We don’t see the need for urgency, we don’t see the need for reformation, for change?"
Ms Beemon was also determined to keep her daughter’s memory alive, and has established the non-profit Jaya Beemon Foundation, which she hopes will create wraparound social services for youth at risk of falling into gangs.
She says it’s crucial to change the thought processes of teenagers who may see violence as the only way to solve their problems. The best way to do that is through peer-to-peer support groups.
The foundation has 207 volunteers, and has already given out three scholarships to nursing students at Malcolm X Nursing College System, where Jaya was studying.
It’s organised marches and held pop-up events to distribute warm clothes and food in impoverished areas.
On a recent trip to New York City to take her children to see The Lion King on Broadway, Nyisha Beemon closely observed policing in the city.
On trips to Queens, Brooklyn and Times Square, she saw officers walking their beat, providing a visible crime deterrent.
“You never see that in Chicago," elle dit.
It’s rare for New York to receive favourable comparisons on crime, but Ms Beemon sees real potential in some of the policies of incoming Mayor Eric Adams.
One of Mr Adams’ proposals is to recruit officers of colour from the neighbourhoods with the highest crime rates, and to give community leaders input into police leadership in their precinct.
Ms Beemon is prepared to try anything to take the power back from the street gangs.
“The hardest thing in the world is to be a mum after you lost a child," elle dit.
She says the death of every child to gun violence brings back the same wave of grief that she felt when she lost Jaya.
She’s determined to prevent as many mothers as possible from experiencing that.
“They aren’t helping us. So we have to help ourselves.”