CHICAGO—Anna Marie Edwards attended a vigil for 1-year-old Sincere Gaston on July 1. He was killed in a drive-by shooting, one of nine children killed in less than two weeks during a wave of gun violence in Chicago.
Edwards hugged the boy’s grieving mother. She understood the mother’s pain, having lost her own son in a drive-by shooting about two years ago. She also understood the need for support from other mothers who truly know what that pain is like.
“Every day I wake up, I think at first that my son is right there,” Edwards told The Epoch Times. “Sometimes I can be driving or at work and all of a sudden something hits me and tears just start rolling.”
Her son, Imario Ballard, was a mechanic who was fatally shot a month before he turned 40, in the South Side neighborhood Back of the Yards.
“I carried that child for nine months; I don’t care how old they may be, that’s still my baby,” Edwards said.
She didn’t make it to the hospital before he died, but she was told his last words were “Call my mama.”
“People tell you, ‘You should be over this,’” she said. “No—you’re never OK.”
“So that’s why … you’re going to lose friendships down the line,” she said. “[But] the friendships between mothers who have lost their children—it’s just like we’re sisters.”
In February, Edwards joined a local parent support group called Purpose Over Pain. The mothers there understand the pain that never goes away. They also find strength in faith and in helping others.
“God gives and takes lives,” Edwards said. “We don’t know why things happen. But God has a purpose for the pain, and in due time and season, he’ll reveal that.”
“I want to do something to give back and honor my son in his name,” she said.
Edwards and other mothers like her have carried their children’s pictures to rallies and vigils in Chicago in recent weeks, to raise awareness about gun violence and to provide comfort to others grieving over it.
About 1,900 people have been shot in Chicago so far this year; that’s 550 more than this time in 2019, according to data compiled by the Chicago Tribune. The last day of May was the most violent day the city has seen in 60 years, with 18 people shot dead.
Pamela Bosley is the founder of Purpose Over Pain. Her son Terrell Bosley was 18 years old when he was shot. He was helping unload drums in a church parking lot in the Roseland neighborhood ahead of choir practice.
That was 14 years ago, but “when you bury your child, you’ll never get over it,” she told The Epoch Times. She still finds it hard to cook his favorite meals.
Bosley, a former banking professional, did everything she could to keep Terrell away from the gangs in her community, she said. She dropped him off and picked him up at school. She kept him busy with sports, music, and church. But he was shot anyway, along with a fellow choir member.
His case is unsolved, like so many others, including that of Edwards’s son.
Nationally, about 60 percent of murder cases are cleared (which generally means charges have been laid or an offender identified), according to the FBI. In Chicago, only about 40 percent of murder cases are cleared. When the victims are black, less than 22 percent of the cases are solved, according to an analysis by WBEZ radio.
Police spokeswoman Monique Bond said of Terrell’s case at the time: “These two young men were going to choir practice and minding their own business. We have no reason to think these two individuals were involved in any type of gang activity.”
Bosley doesn’t know why Terrell was killed.
After her son’s life was taken, Bosley wanted to take her own. She first tried filling the garage with exhaust fumes. When that failed, she tried to overdose on sleeping pills.
“I woke up and the sun was in my face,” said Bosley, “I asked God, ‘You still kept me here?’”
Her father, a pastor, told her, “You need to stop, because no matter what you do, God is not going to let you leave this earth until it’s your time.”
She found her reason for living in helping others. In the past decade, Purpose Over Pain has helped more than 500 grieving mothers. It helps them cope, while also assisting them with practical matters such as funeral services, finding witnesses, and working with detectives.
“I just keep reaching and grabbing other moms,” Bosley said. “Every time I speak, I feel like I’m speaking on behalf of Terrell.”
Bosley has also hosted community events, trying to create safe spaces for youth in violent neighborhoods.
A Pattern of Violence
The roots of gun violence in Chicago run deep and wide. University of Illinois–Chicago criminology professor John Hagedorn traces those roots to a “Rust Belt pattern.”
In the first half of the 20th century, booming manufacturing in Chicago and other cities, including Detroit, drew many black people from the south. But “the ladder of mobility was pulled out from under” them during the last half of the 20th century, Hagedorn said at a 2019 conference on violence in Chicago, hosted by the university’s Great Cities Institute.
Manufacturing jobs were lost to suburbs, other countries, and automation, leaving many in poverty in the so-called Rust Belt cities.
While Chicago has the highest number of murders, its murder rate (per capita murders) is comparable to other Rust Belt cities, Hagedorn said. Some 70 percent of murder victims in Chicago are black, according to data compiled by the Chicago Sun-Times.
The violence is particularly concentrated in some neighborhoods, many of which experienced high unemployment after factories left. In the South Side, Acme Steel and General Mills left.
On the West Side, North Lawndale saw its Western Electric plant, which had employed 43,000, shut down in the 1960s. By 1970, the neighborhood had lost 75 percent of its businesses, according to the book “When Work Disappears,” by Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson.
Tywone Lee grew up in North Lawndale. On July 3, she sat on the stairs outside her home—in Austin, just northwest of North Lawndale, where she now lives—recalling the hard times she has lived through.
Her son Keyon Boyd, 18, was fatally shot a few blocks from their home four years ago. Her nephew Tony Webb, 17, was fatally shot in 2018. Her nephew Brein Metts Jr., 22, was fatally shot on May 13.
“I’m just really, really tired,” Lee told The Epoch Times. “Nobody is ever being held accountable.”
She criticizes not only the city government and police department, but also her own community.
“You hold your child accountable,” is her message for other parents in the area. She said many parents provide a safe harbor for their children even when they know those children have committed crimes, and even killed.
“That’s what I always instilled in my children—if you do a crime, please don’t come back to mama’s house, ’cause mama’s gonna turn you in,” she said.
She also raised her children with faith, she said. And she thinks a lot of the problems in the world today are because people don’t have faith in God.
“God see everything you do. You can’t hide nothing from Him,” Lee said. She would tell her children, “So when you think you being slick out here in these streets, just know God see you, and know that you will be punished for whatever you do.”
Her sons are not in gangs, she said. But gangs are so prevalent in Austin that it’s inevitable they have friends in gangs. She always knew they were at risk, that they needed faith to keep them out of trouble.
One week before her son was killed, he was rebaptized.
“Why did you get baptized again?” she asked. “You know you only got to get baptized once, you don’t got to keep getting rebaptized.”
“No, Ma, I just felt like I needed to get rebaptized,” he told her.
“This is just a week before he passed,” she said.
Lee’s grandmother instilled those lessons in her when she was growing up. “She is a tough cookie,” Lee said of her grandmother, who had come to Chicago from Mississippi.
Her mother, on the other hand, got hooked on drugs when cheap crack started flooding black communities in the ’80s.
“My mom’s generation, all of them, got strung out on drugs,” Lee said. “It was a big epidemic, pandemic, scamdemic, whatever you want to call it.”
Her mother became a leader in a local gang. As bad as it was, Lee said, it’s now worse in the gangs, because they operate with less structure and restraint.
“You have to get permission to do things. If you didn’t get permission from them, and you went out and did something, they were going to kill you,” she said. “Today, everybody is doing whatever they want to do. Nobody has to check in with nobody.”
Street gang expert Roberto Aspholm presented at the same conference on Chicago violence as Hagedon in 2019. He said gangs now have a more horizontal structure, made up of cliques, as opposed to the vertical command structure with formal rules that used to be common.
Much of Chicago’s violence today, he said, is because of interpersonal disputes and retaliation unrelated to the traditional gang rivalries or drug markets. He argued that the demolition of public housing caused the gangs to fracture in Chicago.
About 20 years ago, under Mayor Richard M. Daley, the Chicago Housing Authority launched a plan to demolish 18,000 public housing units and create “mixed-income communities.” Aspholm said this diffused thousands of young gang members into nearby communities, not severing their gang affiliations, but weakening the traditional hierarchies.
Celeste Campbell, like Lee, raised her children in Austin. Since her son was killed by gun violence, she has tried to guide young men in the community away from gangs.
Campbell told The Epoch Times that she raised her children to believe “nobody can stop you from being who you want to be; the only thing that holds you back is yourself.”
One of her daughters is a teacher, another is on her way to becoming a nurse, and her eldest son is a mechanical engineer. Her youngest son, Matthew Rodgers, was a rap artist who had just signed a contract with Black Entertainment Television before he was killed in a drive-by four years ago. He was 24 years old.
“I sometimes wonder, when he was taking his last breath, was he calling for me?” Campbell said. “It’s hard everyday making it without him.”
A year later, Campbell met an elderly lady whose son was murdered in the ’90s. The lady broke down in tears while talking about her son. It hit Campbell: “This is not just a today thing. I’ll have to deal with this for the rest of my life.”
“I’ll never be OK. But I’ll learn to cope with it,” she said. Campbell said to herself at the time, “I want to do something in my son’s name. I don’t know where to start. But I just know I have got to start somewhere.”
She started by distributing clothing to those in need. She recalled one young man she helped this way. He told her, “I want some clothes from you, but I don’t want people to be laughing at me.”
She snuck him the clothes bit by bit in his school parking lot, shoving pieces in his book bag, until he had a full wardrobe. Having decent clothes made a big difference in his life.
“He felt so much better,” Campbell said. “He started coming to school [more].”
Her focus is young men between the ages of 13 and 21. “They are at the tipping stage where they can either become a better person or a menace,” she said.
When her teacher friends see a young man going down the wrong path, they connect him with Campbell.
“I let them know that my same kids grew up in the same neighborhood. Every one of them graduated and is successful,” she said. “You have to want to be the one to make the change in your own life.”
Her belief in personal responsibility comes from her faith, she said. “God don’t put nothing on you that you can’t bear.”
Her son’s case is unsolved, “But I have faith that whoever did this, they’re going to get their just desserts,” she said.
After her son was killed, Campbell questioned God: “Why did you keep malicious people on earth? Why don’t they get shot?”
“I believe God is keeping them here to give them a second chance to straighten up,” she said. “At some point, they need to change and change others around them.”
Freddrica Nicholas runs a day care in Englewood, the neighborhood with the second-highest number of violent crimes in Chicago—more than 1,800 in the past year, according to the Chicago Police Department.
She’s unable to bear children, but she has fostered six and cared for many more through her day care.
Her first foster child was Destiny. After raising Destiny for 24 years, she was taken from her by gun violence.
Destiny came into her life when Nicholas was working at a drug rehab center. She befriended a pregnant girl there who planned to abort her child. Nicholas pleaded: “Please don’t abort the child. I’ll take it. I’ll take the child.”
She named her Destiny, “because she was destined to be mine,” Nicholas told The Epoch Times. Nicholas wanted to spend more time with Destiny, so she opened her own day care at home.
Destiny, 24, was about to follow in Nicholas’s footsteps and open her own day care, when she was shot at a gas station.
When Nicholas arrived at the scene, she saw Destiny’s truck and yellow police tape.
“This just can’t be,” Nicholas said to herself.
Destiny was with a friend who had a gang association, Nicholas said, and he was the target. He lived, but Destiny was struck in the neck by a bullet and died.
Nicholas mourned, but never in front of the children, including Destiny’s 4-year-old, Emari. She didn’t close her day care for a single day following the murder, because she felt those children really need her.
She cried alone in the bathroom, or in her bedroom at night.
“I will be who I need to be for the children,” Nicholas said. At her day care, children come in with uncombed hair, dirty clothes, and using swear words. They leave with combed hair, clean clothes, and clean mouths.
The parents notice the differences and do better in taking care of their children, she said. “Inward and outward, they change,” she said.
When parents ask her how she gets the children to behave well, she says: “Number one, I don’t allow them [to misbehave]. Number two, you have to lead by example. They are replicas of what they see.”
Nicholas has found witnesses to Destiny’s murder by going to the area where she was shot and asking around herself. But the only ones she has found were too scared to testify.
One told her: “If I ever tell, I could never walk the streets. I would have to go somewhere where I’d never be found, because they would kill me.”
Another told her: “I have three daughters. There is no way I can get on a witness stand.”
It’s the same fear that stops many mothers in Chicago from getting answers about their children’s deaths.
When Emari cries for her mother, Nicholas tells her: “She is up in heaven. She can never come back, but one day, we’re going to be there, too.”