Warning! This is a LONG read.
Criminals, Victims and the Black Men Left Behind
Photo: Carla Murphy
Editor’s note: Our series “Life Cycles of Inequity” explores the ways in which inequity impacts the lives of black men. Each month, we focus on a life stage or event in which that impact has been shown to be particularly profound. This article was reported in partnership with theInvestigative Fund at the Nation Institute.
The first time Jeremy Berry got shot it was late March 2012 and he called himself trying to help a homey from his block. Berry, about 5’9”, slim in build, lives in the Roseland section of Chicago’s South Side. He jumped into a fistfight, first with his hands and then throwing a brick. When Berry missed his target, the guy “upped a gun” and shot him. He spent a week in the hospital and three months recovering at his aunt’s house. The bullet remains in his right butt cheek.
The second time Berry got shot, it was June 2013 and he was hanging outside on the corner, “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” A basketball game with young men from another block in Roseland soured when a player from Berry’s block complained of a stolen watch and money. Berry didn’t participate in the tit-for-tat retaliations that followed, but that didn’t matter. He lived on the block, so he was included automatically as a target. One bullet hit a friend of his in the neck—he survived—and another tore through Berry’s chest. He stayed longer in the hospital this time, about nine days, and he spent two-and-a-half months recovering at a friend’s home. He also got a gun.
All together, the physical recovery from both shootings leached seven months from Berry’s life. “I got myself shot that first time,” Berry says, speaking in the Southern-tinged drawl of the black Midwest. “After the second time, I felt like I had to protect myself.”
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And, he admits, he wanted revenge.
“But God took me off the street to teach me to turn the other cheek. Everything happened for a reason. God is never late, ” Berry says, lapsing into the church-speak he uses whenever conversation glints at his future. It’s not the prosperity gospel, though. This stretch of S. Michigan Avenue, 20 minutes by bus from the last stop on the el train, is storefront church territory. Berry’s mantra is the half praise, half plea of the survival sermon.
At 22 years old, Berry has been homeless since turning 17 and largely unemployed since graduating from high school. He likes to work with his hands and began working on cars when he was 9. Now, older adults in the neighborhood look out for him, offering him odd jobs like cutting grass or household repairs. When a kind offer appears, or when need and Chicago’s winter winds overtake his pride, he couch surfs around the neighborhood. At one point in his life, he dabbled in selling drugs.
Berry is a poster child for young, black men who’re at risk of getting killed. Yet, even though he has been shot twice in 15 months, he is not a poster child for crime victims—not in a society that too often demands innocence as a prerequisite for a compassionate response.
Despite a two-decade decline in violent crime nationwide—homicide, in particular—pockets of sustained violence remain in many urban neighborhoods. The fear of becoming a victim today is less a citywide threat, more a neighborhood one in poor sections of places like Chicago, New Orleans and St. Louis, and smaller cities like E. St. Louis, Camden and Baton Rouge, too. In May, President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative for boys and men of color issued a progress report that highlighted homicide as the leading cause of death for black males ages 10 to 24. But like much discussion about violence and black men, the report contained less detail about the much larger number of victims of violent crime who, like Berry, survive the assaults. What happens to them?
In the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, for every gunshot homicide there are roughly six non-fatal shootings caused by assault. Unlike homicides, however, non-fatal shootings and their impact on the health, educational, social and economic outcomes of survivors, families and their communities are vastly understudied. Yale University sociologist Andrew Papachristos reviewed six years of Chicago Police Department data, running through September 2012, and found that one in 200 black men are victims of a non-fatal shooting each year. That’s 12 times the city average. Further, they are concentrated in specific neighborhoods; roughly 70 percent of these victims can be found in small networks comprising less than 6 percent of Chicago’s population. The data suggests neighborhoods full of the walking wounded.
Yet, in Chicago, advocates, parents and service providers told Colorlines that there are little to no victim services available for these wounded men—to the point that victims, their families and communities are shouldering alone the financial and psychic costs of crime. There does exist a national apparatus for helping people affected by violent crime recover—an $11 billion fund Congress established to support crime victims. But young black men have largely fallen through the cracks of these programs, in part because law enforcement often serves as arbiter of who’s a deserving victim and who’s not, deciding who gets aid and who must fend for themselves.
Service providers in Chicago also say the lack of an organized response aimed at black male victims is a lost opportunity to stop the cycle of violence. The hours and days following a shooting mark a singular point of vulnerability and are therefore a sweet spot for intervention. Failing to respond in that moment not only wastes the opportunity, it also pushes young men even further off the grid and into the only system that will have them: criminal justice.
“People don’t think of African-American males as being victims of violence,” says Waldo Johnson, an associate professor of social work at the University of Chicago, who has studied the health of black men and boys on Chicago’s South Side for 20 years. “People think of young black males as the ones who perpetrate violent crime, and if they are victims, then that’s part of what they experience while doing things they shouldn’t be doing.”
For the past several summers, Chicago has predictably made national headlines for its gun violence. The city has not disappointed this summer. “At Least 40 Shot In Chicago Weekend Wave of Violence,” The Huffington Post declared in mid July. That came two weeks after the long July 4th weekend, in which more than 80 people were shot, 16 fatally.
As in other cities, popular attention and compassion homes in on homicides, particularly when dramatized by the loss of an obvious innocent. When 11-year-old Shamiya Adams was killed by a stray bullet in mid July, it brought a kind of selective attention to the 40 other people shot that same weekend. Dozens of people were shot over the July 4th weekend, but news media focused most intensely that week on 17-year-old Marcel Pearson, who was killed just days before college orientation.
Jeremy Berry is not that kind of victim. A self-described C student in high school, he almost didn’t graduate. Like many victims of violence, losses of various kinds began at home. His stepfather died when he was 12, his father when he was two. His mother is addicted to drugs, as is one of his older brothers. Two more brothers are in jail, another is in and out of lockup.
One weekday afternoon, over duplicate orders of pancakes and extra portions of country ham at one of the Roseland neighborhood’s few operating businesses, Berry and his friend since childhood, Dominique Harris, 23, describe how normal it is to get shot at around here.
“Our whole block been shot,” Harris says. “A good chunk of ‘em,” qualifies Berry, the more reserved of the two. Harris was shot himself last August.
As they eat, above their heads a mock rifle hangs from the ceiling, welcoming customers to The Ranch Steakhouse. Images of movie gunslingers Clint Eastwood and Gene Autry line fake wood-paneled walls. Animal prey speak to the man-and-his-gun theme. Young antler ceiling lamps and a stuffed pheasant perch diagonally across from a diptych of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama. “45 Years Later,” reads the message above King. Above Obama: “At Last.” (Photo below: Dominque Harris and Berry. Carla Murphy/Colorlines)
“You can ask for a show of hands in a classroom of 35 kids and have the vast majority know somebody who was shot or somebody who was shot and killed,” says Susan Johnson, a senior minister at Hyde Park Union Church and executive director of Chicago Citizens for Change, which is home to Chicago Survivors, a crisis response team serving families of homicide victims, aged 26 and under.
When beginning Chicago Survivors four years ago, Johnson and her team surveyed a single block in a neighborhood just south of Hyde Park, the University of Chicago’s leafy home base. Of 22 single-family homes, 12 had lost an immediate family member to violence. Eight of those households had lost more than one.
“[This] is so contrary to the way that I grew up or the way that any previous generation grew up,” Johnson says. “I think it’s hard for us to absorb what it means to be saturated with that level of violence.”
James Doherty is head of trauma surgery at Advocate Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, a suburb of Chicago. He sees much of the damage from gunfire. Advocate Christ is one of five trauma centers serving the South Side of Chicago and its southern suburbs. It is the main trauma center for most of the expansive South Side and where Berry and Harris were treated in 2013. Last year, 90 percent of Advocate Christ’s 386 gun shot victims were black men. Seventy-five percent were under 30 years old and 80 percent were either uninsured or on Medicaid.
Given an estimated mortality rate of 10 to 15 percent, roughly 80 percent of Advocate Christ’s gunshot victims likely returned to their South Side neighborhoods last year.
“In terms of the volume of trauma and severity of injuries we’re seeing, this is definitely a serious public health issue,” Doherty says. Asked whether he’d call it a crisis, he adds, “I’d be careful calling anything a crisis because it implies it’s on someone’s radar and resources are being mobilized.”
Thirty years ago Congress did in fact mobilize resources to help people deal with the consequences of violent crime. The initiative has done little, however, to help men like Berry and Harris, or neighborhoods like Roseland.
The Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) passed in 1984, tucked into President Ronald Reagan’s omnibus anti-crime package. By drawing only on fees and fines assessed to people and corporations convicted of federal crimes, along with private dontions, the law established dedicated funding to help individuals recover from violent crimes.
There are two funding streams, one for assistance and one for compensation. The latter is most well known to the general public, and it allows individuals to apply to state agencies for direct reimbursement of the cost of things like counseling, medical care, funerals or even travel costs to receive treatment. The victim assistance fund, on the other hand, typically flows through state agencies to nonprofit organizations that serve their communities or a particular population of victims. According to Department of Justice guidelines, each of VOCA’s priority areas—domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse and “previously underserved” crime victim populations, however a state defines them—must receive 10 percent of annual funding. That leaves another 60 percent to be distributed according to the needs of each state.
In addition to VOCA, each state operates its own state victim assistance and compensation programs. These programs are jointly funded by VOCA and by the states, which charge their own fees and fines to people convicted of crimes in state courts. And some state programs, including Illinois, draw significantly on taxpayer dollars, too.
Over the past decade, this entire apparatus has been critiqued consistently by victim advocates for serving far too few survivors and families. For example, 6.8 million people, mainly in urban areas, become victims of violent crime annually. In 2012, victim assistance from VOCA reached nearly 3.4 million people, or just under half. The numbers for victim compensation, on the other hand, are far lower. According to a June 2014 report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, all of the nation’s victim compensation programs reimburse about 200,000 people each year, so just under 3 percent of crime victims.
Johnson, of Chicago Survivors, helps parents and siblings of homicide victims to immediately apply for victim compensation. She says a big problem is the central role law enforcement plays in the process. In Illinois, victim compensation is administered through the attorney general’s office. Claims analysts make crucial recommendations about who should get compensation to the Court of Claims, which ultimately approves or denies applications. Sources familiar with the process told Colorlines that both the analysts and the judges rely heavily on police reports to help determine whether a victim or his family will receive compensation.
Eligibility rules for victim compensation vary by state, but two broad guidelines, in practice, bar many young, black male victims of violent crime. One guideline comes from VOCA itself, which directs states to consider whether victims cooperate with police and prosecutors’ investigations—a complicated proposal in high crime neighborhoods with tense police-community relations. The other guideline comes up at the state level. Illinois’ victim compensation statute requires a victim not have contributed in some way to his or her own injuries through “his own wrongful act.” According to the National Association of Crime Victim Compensation Boards, whose members are the administrators of state programs, most states have a similar rule.
“Typically the biggest problem that we have is that somewhere there is a police document that associates the victim with gang affiliation,” Johnson says. Sitting across the heavy oak table in her church’s upstairs office, the tinkle-voiced, white grandmother of three makes a face. “It can be that the crime is a gang-related crime, but the victim is an innocent victim. And we don’t see that disassociation made in the police write-ups. So then the victim of the crime gets tainted with that, and then the victims compensation will be denied.”
“Some of these people are fathers and have children,” she adds. (Photo below: Gun shot victim memorial in Chicago. Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Whether a Chicago police officer’s report should weigh so heavily in determining victim compensation is a fair question. Nearly every Chicagoan interviewed in the course of reporting this article, on and off the record, from service provider to victim to parent to clergy, described police-community relations as no less than horrible. The city has a long rap sheet for tolerating police misconduct, including torture. All but one service provider also challenged the conventional wisdom that most of Chicago’s gunshot victims belong to gangs. And some questioned the philosophy behind a victims program that penalizes any victim of violent crime. A few work closely and well with the Chicago Police Department in a bid to improve relations. But they’re also aware that, as Johnson says, Chicago’s 50-year history of racist policing is “a big burden to overcome.”
“Police don’t see us as innocent,” Harris says. “They see us as a gangbanger. They see us on the block, they could care less if somebody die.”
Berry argues that labeling everyone a gang member overlooks why violence is actually happening. “It’s people on the block that’s all different gangs,” he says, rattling off a burst of acronyms for each set. “They all rocking with each other. It’s all about what block you’re on. It’s a block thing. And everybody wanna be tough. People out here killing each other for nothing. It ain’t even over money.”
Berry and Harris both say they applied for victim compensation following their shootings—Berry after his first, only. But Ann Spillane, chief of staff in the attorney general’s office, says the office has no record of a claim for Harris. Berry, she said, filed a claim for two bills. One bill, for his ambulance service, was paid directly to the vendor. His hospital bill, however, was not reimbursed. The hospital never verified to the state that it followed proper billing procedures for indigent care, as is required by law, so the claim had to be rejected. “[Victims are] going through a difficult part of their lives [and] the law does require a fairly significant amount of documentary support,” says Spillane. “There can be some back and forth and it can be frustrating on both sides.”
Spillane also acknowledged that police reports play a role in recommending whether a claim is approved. “We do review the police report. But we also go to great lengths to look at other sources,” she says, including talking to victims and victim advocates. “We do make sure that we’re being thorough and that we’re talking to the victim and getting all the underlying records to make sure we understand what happened and we are fair and balanced as we can be while we’re complying with the law. Our goal if at all possible is to make sure the victims get compensated.”
The Costs of Violence
In Harris’s shooting, the bullet missed his heart by centimeters, he was told. After leaving the hospital, he says, “I couldn’t even wash myself up. I was temporarily handicapped for like a month and a half. After, I got some strength and started to breathe better. But I couldn’t lift anything. I couldn’t do anything I needed to do. Bending over tying my shoes, I needed help putting on my pants. I was sweating constantly. I had to keep a towel.”
While recovering, he lost two jobs. One was on-call security for events like Lollapalooza and Taste of Chicago and the other, a parent leader in a community group for young parents. For the past six years, Harris has been a stepfather to his girlfriend’s 7-year-old son.
Between the two of them, Berry and Harris owe tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills—excluding the portion not already written off by hospitals or covered by Medicaid. Berry can’t pin down the exact cost. It is too big to comfortably express.
“They be sending 500-something-dollar bills, $600 bills, all types of bills,” Harris jokes, shaking his head. “They showed me every time I pulled up for morphine.”
A long list of barriers got in the way of victim compensation helping Harris and Berry pay these bills. But that may not be the biggest way the victim services apparatus has failed to impact their lives. The biggest failure may lie in the near absence of funding for community groups that could provide Harris and Berry the counseling and support they need to heal and, for those who need it, to interrupt retaliations in neighborhoods like Roseland. Advoacte Christ Hospital’s Doherty, a self-described middle-aged white guy, says people like him are not “credible messengers.” Such messengers do exist, but they are powerfully overwhelmed and underfunded.
“I’ve known Jeremy since he was about 15-years-old,” says Diane Latiker, founder of the community group Kids Off the Block. “He was—is—an awesome young man. Whenever I had a conversation with him it would be on a different level. He was very smart.”
Latiker coached basketball when Berry was a teen, and he would stop by the courts to play. Eventually he began to talk. Given his difficult home life, he had a lot to talk about. Gun violence and block conflicts cut those sessions short, however. He stopped seeing her after his second shooting.
“The guy who shot me lives in Miss Diane’s area,” Berry says. So he and Harris stopped going over there, to avoid more trouble. “We don’t want Miss Diane getting shot.”
“And we don’t wanna get shot neither!” Harris says. “Just when we ride pass they be showing us little gun signals.”
“I be a little sad sometimes not being able to talk to her though,” Berry admits.
Without Latiker in his life, Berry was left with no consistent emotional support or mentorship. To this day, no older adult has asked Berry, he says, about either of his shootings, the impact they’ve had on his life, what his needs may have been immediately after recovery, how the shootings interfered with plans to work, to earn enough money to give a little something to friends who offer him shelter during the Chicago winter. (Photo below: Memorial service for 11-year-old gun victim Shamiya Adams. Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Latiker, nominated a CNN Hero in 2011 for her work with Roseland’s youth, had to close the doors to her center for several weeks this summer due to lack of funding. “It’s mainly because of the population I work with,” she speculates, meaning, low-income boys and young men who may either belong to a gang, know someone in a gang or live in an area known for gang violence. Kids Off the Block began in her apartment and it has survived for eight years mainly because of individual donors. “With all the exposure we’ve received—and we’ve gotten a lot—we’ve still not been able to get funding.”
Latiker is familiar counsel for Roseland’s boys and young men, including many who have been shot or otherwise victimized. But Kids Off the Block does not describe itself as a victims program—and Latiker never thought to describe it as such, either. She knew of victim compensation programs through conversations with her young men and their families, but until this reporting she had never heard of victim assistance grants for nonprofits. It’s indicative of a sizable knowledge gap between organizations actually doing the work of victim assistance in neighborhoods dense with gun violence and federal and state victim assistance programs.
According to the state attorney general’s annual list of grantees, during the past two years, the only organization with potential to overlap with young, black male victims that received funding from Illinois’ state-funded victim assistance program was Parents Against Gangs. When asked about groups servicing young, black male crime victims, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office said this was the only group to apply that focused on “gang related violence.” Founded in the Cabrini Green housing project in 1987 by Betty Major-Rose, following the murder of her daughter, Parents Against Gangs has since 1991 supported and counseled the families of homicide victims, most of whom are young, black and male. But even this group doesn’t work directly with male survivors. Major-Rose has long wanted to expand to do so, but hasn’t had the capacity.
“Immediately after victimization is the most crucial point for intervention—and you can’t deal with just one person, you have to take the family as a whole,” she says. “They’re at their most vulnerable. They’re ready to listen, ready to receive what you have to say and do for them. I’ve seen it for myself.”
But Major-Rose’s road-tested lessons are her own. Parents Against Gangs has an annual budget of $20,000, plus whatever comes out of Major-Rose’s personal checking account, and a small roster of volunteers and family. Her husband is a substance abuse counselor and their two daughters, both of whom are now in psychology doctoral programs, help out. Their catchment area, she says, is all of Chicago.
Meanwhile, Legal Assistance Foundation Chicago was the only Chicago-area nonprofit with potential to reach young, black male victims to recieve funding from the state’s VOCA portfolio during the last fiscal year. A multi-service agency that provides legal assistance to the poor, the organization helps crime victims to apply for compensation.
Cure Violence (formerly, Ceasefire) is likely the largest and best-known program whose work, though not defined as victim services, regularly puts them in contact with young, black male victims of violent crime. In fact, as its model is to interrupt violence, Cure Violence long ago began partnering with trauma centers like Advocate Christ to gain immediate access to victims and their families. According to the group’s CFO, they have never received funding from either the state’s victim assistance fund or through VOCA.
“Because Cure Violence is not a law enforcement program, we can’t qualify for these Department of Justice grants that are specifically written for law enforcement programs,” says Charles Ransford, Cure Violence’s head of research and policy. “It’s victims who are not comfortable working with police.”
Forgiveness, and Healing
The yawning gap between young black male victims of violent crime and victim services nationally is known. In a May 2013 report, the first comprehensive review of victim assistance in 15 years, the Department of Justice identifies young men and boys of color as an underserved population. Among its recommendations, the report calls for more solid research into their needs, as well as a fresh look at how services are delivered, including whether, for example, victim services’ volunteer-dependent model can effectively reach underserved populations. And My Brother’s Keeper’s May 2014 report recommends integrating public health approaches to violence prevention—approaches like the one Cure Violence uses—into the dominant and punitive criminal justice model.
Diane Latiker is wary that the investment needed for Roseland’s young African-American men and boys will come. She knows one young man who was shot three times in the same month, after all. He’s just one of many with similar experiences and to her, the outside world keeps on turning. She describes an acute abandonment felt by leaders in lower income neighborhoods, from Camden to Flint to Roseland, for whom violence has not gone away.
“The whole community is hurting. Sick. And there’s no way to go,” Latiker says. “You live there. You can’t afford to move out. You can’t afford to keep the lights on. There are lines for the food pantry. You tell a young man like Jeremy to get a job, straighten his life up. But society won’t give him that opportunity. He has been trying and every door is shut.”
Harris doesn’t like the 4th of July anymore. It’s the firecrackers. “I’m jumping and diving like it’s a shot, all kinda crazy stuff,” he says. “I’m paranoid.”
A father and a boyfriend, he’s anxious to work. He wants to marry and have a family. “I don’t want to be a flirtin’ man. I got six sisters, I don’t need too many problems.”
The gun Berry started carrying after he was shot the second time got him in trouble again last September. Police arrested him—his first time—on a felony weapons charge. So he found shelter last winter in Cook County Jail and other penal institutions. He’s been out since March.
“You gotta have patience, man. When doing time, I always tell myself, ‘There’s always gonna be a better day from the day right now.’ I always say, ‘He has a blessing with our name on it. You gotta stay out here and be patient.’
“Everybody [out here] need to stop thinking they tough and go to church and learn how to forgive, man. Y’all want God to forgive y’all so you gotta learn how to forgive people.”