While the U.S. hopes it never again suffers a mass shooting like last Friday’s in Connecticut, violence is all too common for some children.
Kids in certain Milwaukee neighborhoods are familiar with the sound of gunfire, and with losing people they love.
WUWM’s Ann-Elise Henzl sat down to talk with several students here, who have lived amid violence.
This afternoon, Drequan Robinson is not thinking about violence. The 12-year-old is at an afterschool program playing pool, something he’s become good at, and he’s showing a younger boy the ropes.
Drequan: “You got the solids. You got all these colors…”
But Drequan has witnessed gun violence in his young life, including at a place you’d hope a child would feel safe.
Drequan: “On one morning I was at my grandma’s house and it was around the corner, and we heard gunshots and then my grandma told us to get on the ground and then the people ran around the corner, ran up the alley, and it was gunshots, and we see a person got shot and he died.”
Drequan is not alone. I sat down with him and a few other students who spend their evenings at the youth center City on a Hill on Milwaukee’s near west side. I asked if violence affects their lives, and each shared stories.
Crystal Richardson and Kejuan Riley are both 15 years old. Anthony Bennett is 16.
Crystal: “Not too long ago I was at my friend’s house, and we were just on the porch and then we heard some shots and then you just saw a whole bunch of police cars, and it’s sad because there’s a church right there.”
Kejuan: “One morning I was at my sister’s house, I was woken up by gunshots and I know who they were shooting at. It was outside the house. They drove by, got out and shot at the house, somebody ran in, and then they came back again.”
Anthony: “Last night I was just walking my dog and this dude walked up to me and I guess he had something in his hand, he had something silver, I don’t know what he had. He yelled like, ‘who was that?’ And I turned around like, ‘huh?’ And he was like, ‘never mind.’ He ran off, and I guess if I wouldn’t have said nothing, he would have thought I was somebody else.”
Twelve-year-old Drequan shares what his grandmother told him, after they heard gunfire.
Drequan: “She said people like that, they don’t care about each other they don’t even care about themselves and people who does that, they don’t achieve nothing in life.”
The other three say their parents have offered advice on staying safe.
Kejuan: “People you hang around with -- don’t be included with the people who do the bad stuff, just stick with the positive, not the negative.”
Anthony: “And whenever you go somewhere, always be aware of your surroundings, know where everything is at, know the environment, know what type of area it is so you can be precautious about how you go anywhere.”
Crystal: “Especially walking around with headphones in your ears, I know I do that a lot.”
Anthony: “Caught you off guard…”
There’s a chilling moment in the conversation, when I ask the kids what they would do, if threatened. Kejuan responds that he might get a gun, but would definitely summon reinforcements.
Kejuan: “If somebody’s after me I would get my family, that’s the people I could trust, (I’m) closest with.”
Crystal: “You would tell your family or bring your family into the mess?”
Kejuan: “They would have to, that’s family, like, why not?”
Crystal: “What if the mess goes up to something else, involving shooting or whatever?”
Kejuan: “There will be shooting.”
Crystal: “And what if someone in your family got shot, how would you feel?”
Kejuan: “They got shot. That’s how we’re going to stay beefy, you kill my family, I will kill your family, we stay beefy, I’m not lying.”
Crystal: “At least you’re truthful.”
Crystal and Anthony: “That’s how you feel."
Staff overhear Kejuan’s comment and are glad Crystal questioned his logic.
A few minutes later, after the students return to their homework and other activities, the adults tell me that the 15-year-old boy’s comments are common for someone new to the youth center, but after time, they usually change.
Norma Balentine is with the local group, Safe & Sound. It runs anti-violence programs.
Balentine: “If you live with that on a daily basis and that’s all you are confronted with, it’s hard to see yourself in another place, in another future. And that’s why you hear some young people say they don’t expect to live beyond their teens, or they don’t expect to grow up. Well, it’s because they’ve seen so much violence around them that they think ‘it’s probably going to touch me, as well.’”
Balentine says it’s essential to help kids dream of the life they want and plot ways to get there.
The message and positive activities the center offers seem to have influenced 16-year-old Anthony. He’s participated in anti-gang efforts and community outreach.
Anthony: “It just gave us a chance to help out a lot towards the community. And basically for those going to college -- which is all of us -- we can put that on our resumes and colleges will be attracted to that.”
College will come soon for Anthony. He’s on course to graduate early from high school, and plans to head to college a year from now.