Escaping the Grip of Chicago’s Gangs

Now in a wheelchair, Paris Brown speaks of fear, loss, and the lure of gang life on Chicago's streets
August 5, 2020 Updated: August 5, 2020

CHICAGO—Paris Brown was 18 when he was paralyzed by a bullet in the back. He was driving around Chicago’s violent Austin neighborhood with friends who were in a gang when they entered rival territory.

Brown had always kept himself at arm’s length from the gang, never fully joining, though he spent a lot of time with them.

He was drawn to the gang. He wanted a sense of belonging, which was missing from his family life. He wanted security in a dangerous place. He wanted to stay friends with the boys he grew up with, who were in the gang. He wanted respect.

Now, at the age of 26, he sees that “it was respect out of fear. … At the time, I just saw it as respect, not a negative thing.”

He admired the gang, but had also seen enough of its ugly side to not join. The violence surrounding it still got him.

On July 20, sitting in the small apartment he shares with several family members, he recalled the path that led to his wheelchair.

Over the course of those 18 years, he saw his sister beaten into paralysis. He was personally shot at more than once and lost several friends in shootings. He saw a local basketball star, a young man headed for the NBA, shot and paralyzed. That last one, he blames himself for.

“A bad experience can have a good influence on you, because it teaches, if you choose to see that,” he told The Epoch Times.

Brown has always been one to reflect and think a little more deeply. In recent years, he’s joined groups in Chicago in which people like himself, sick of the violence and suffering, get together to talk about the trauma and support each other in rising out of it.

Born and raised in Austin, Brown spent most of his life within the neighborhood’s 12 square miles. He was 21 when he first set foot in downtown Chicago, only 30 minutes away by train, but practically another world.

Austin Boulevard marks the border between his neighborhood, at the western edge of Chicago, and the town of Oak Park. On that border, “I was seeing two different worlds,” Brown said. “I was seeing Oak Park, kind of suburban, clean, good.”

“Then in Austin, drugs, violence, gangs,” he said. “Just … blocks up—crime, violence, and death. Just that close to Oak Park.”

Brown’s early life in the 90s was turbulent. His mother was on drugs, and his father was around, but “living his life,” Brown said. As he grew up, Brown saw his father less and less.

When Brown was 8, his mother’s boyfriend beat his 2-year-old sister so badly that she went into a coma. When she emerged from the coma, she was blind and paralyzed.

But, Brown said, his early life wasn’t all bad. “It was the worst place ever when things were bad. When things were good, it was the best place ever.”

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services took Brown and his siblings away from his mother. Shortly thereafter, Brown’s aunt took him in.

Brown was dismayed that his father didn’t fight for custody. “My father was like, ‘OK, your aunt has you now. I’ll still be around [to visit you].’ But I rather wanted to live with him. … I wanted my parents to raise me,” Brown said.

His aunt was a hard-working city bus driver, leaving home in the early morning and coming back late in the evening. “All my childhood, she was always driving the bus,” Brown said.

The main adult figure in Brown’s life was his uncle. Brown emphasized the importance of that one anchor. Even though his uncle was a convicted felon, he was a much-needed father figure.

“Even people that do bad things [can] still be a good influence to us, because they help us learn,” Brown said.

Because of his criminal record, his uncle had few job options. He took on any job he could find, delivering newspapers in the suburbs and working small handyman jobs.

“He showed me at an early age the dignity of hard work,” Brown said. “He helped me to see what ways to be a man and what ways also not to be a man.”

His uncle monitored what kind of friends Brown was in company with. He was the person Brown turned to when he had a problem.

That lone pillar in Brown’s life collapsed when he was a freshman in high school. That year, his uncle died of a heart attack.

“My aunt was working all day. My uncle passed away. So no one was really around with me,” Brown said. “It’s just me and my other cousins, and we’re all watching ourselves.”

Also around this time, Brown’s friends joined a neighborhood gang. Some came from broken homes and sold drugs for money to buy essentials, he said.

Brown didn’t give much thought to the state of his clothes or shoes, but he was attracted to the gang by the nonmaterial things they had.

He noticed how people looked at his friends, at people in gangs. They showed respect—the respect Brown later realized was actually fear. And fear was something he came to learn people in gangs often felt themselves.

He noticed they were always surrounded by girls, something that also appealed to him as a teenage boy.

But more importantly, Brown noticed that the gang provided a feeling of solidarity, and they looked out for one another. “I was looking for a sense of belonging and acceptance,” he said.

“I think the wanting of feelings of my parents’ love and family that I didn’t get at my home, I saw elsewhere, which was in the gangs.”

He spent more and more time with his friends in the gang, but he held aloof when they were doing gang business. Sometimes they would be on their way to a basketball court and his friends would stop to sell drugs, then rejoin him.

Once, they were beating someone up and Brown questioned why. He recalled their reply, “‘Cause we are, man. … You scared?”

“So now instead of me trying to be logical and think about what I’m going to do, I’m trying to prove that I’m not scared,” Brown said. “Thinking was not a part of being in the gang. I didn’t fully agree with that,” he said. “That kept me from fully joining.”

“A lot of people join gangs and they don’t care to think why a lot of violence has happened. They just accept it.”

Epoch Times Photo
A cross sits on a sidewalk in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago on Nov. 18, 2016, near the spot where a 29-year-old man was shot and killed the day before. Gun-related homicides spiked in Chicago in 2016, and 2020 is on course for a similar spike. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Epoch Times Photo
A memorial is seen in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago on the spot where a 31-year-old man was shot and killed, on Sept. 8, 2015. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

But being around gang members, he got caught up in the violence. The first time he had gunfire aimed at him, he was 16, in 2010.

Crossroads

It was a hot summer day and someone opened a fire hydrant at Central and Chicago avenues in Austin. He and his friends went to cool down in the gush of water and have some fun. But it was in the territory of a rival gang.

His friends’ gang’s territory was only three blocks away.

“That’s why it’s so much killing,” Brown said. What should be a single community is fractured, with gangs carving it up into smaller and smaller pieces, he said.

“They lack the compassion or some sort of unity to understand that I can’t go to war with somebody that’s five blocks down the street from me.”

As they were walking back to their territory, gunfire came up behind them.

“Once I got shot at, it stopped being fun. It began to be dangerous,” Brown said. “My first idea was to just stop hanging out with them.”

It was the first of multiple times Brown felt himself at a crossroads. He had a choice to take the right path, but “I kept going the other direction,” he said. “I kept going left.”

At this first crossroads, he thought, “This is my life.”

“I didn’t know where else to go.”

He decided to take his cousin’s gun out with him for protection. “Why would I stop hanging out with my friends when I could just get a gun?” Brown said. “I thought that was the right answer.”

One day in 2011, his friends came to him and asked to borrow his gun. They had spotted rival gang members driving around in their territory. He didn’t want them to lose his cousin’s gun, so he said he’d go along with them and bring it himself.

“Half-way there, I realized I might have to shoot somebody.”

“I accepted that. Now, I had to go through with this, because if I don’t, I look scared and like a punk, and I might have issues with people moving forward,” Brown said. “I’ve seen what these people do to people they think are punks.”

He stood guard at Central and Race avenues for two hours without event, when a friend came by and asked him to go for a ride. Brown went with him.

Epoch Times Photo
The corner of Central and Race avenues in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago on Aug. 3, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)

Soon after they left, another friend called Brown. “Where were you at? They just shot J.J.”

“[J.J.] was the local community legend,” Brown said. “He was going to go to the NBA. He was in college playing basketball, he was the basketball star of the neighborhood.”

“Why did I leave him unprotected? I did this to him,” Brown said. When he got back to Central and Race, he found J.J. lying on the ground, bleeding from his neck. “He was the first person in my neighborhood who got shot and put in a wheelchair.”

He didn’t die, but he was paralyzed from the waist down.

“It messed me up,” Brown said. “I had nobody to talk to. I had to deal with it myself.”

“[This event] further showed me why I needed a gun,” Brown said. “Because you could just mind your own business, and be shot in the neck just like that, then your whole life changed.”

In July 2012, Brown was driving around with his friends when they entered rival gang territory. Brown was sitting in the back seat when a bullet struck his back and left him paralyzed.

Epoch Times Photo
Paris Brown sits in his apartment in Chicago on July 20, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)

Paralysis

After he got out of the hospital, Brown thought about drowning himself in a bathtub, but he couldn’t bring himself to go through with it.

Psychologically, he was drowning in fear—fear of being shot again, and fear of not being accepted by society as a disabled person.

“It made me not trust people,” Brown said. “I wouldn’t even want to go outside, I’d be so afraid.”

Once, while Brown was crossing an alley, a man nearby cleared his throat loudly. That startled Brown, and he immediately drew his gun and pointed it at the man.

“He started crying, and he was like, ‘Please, please.’”

Brown told him, “I’m so sorry, I’m not trying to hurt you.”

“I stopped carrying the gun one day, because of my jitteriness.”

He said not only victims of gang violence, but also witnesses, are traumatized. The fear crept into him long before he was shot himself. Losing friends to gunfire was already a common experience for him.

Epoch Times Photo
The Central subway station in Austin neighborhood of Chicago on Aug. 3, 2020, where five of Paris Brown’s friends have died by gunfire over the years. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)

He’s heard of how some perpetrators suffer from their guilt. He’s heard of gang members having nightmares about the people they’ve hurt and their victims’ families.

Forgiveness

Brown found out who shot him; the shooter confessed. That young man was fatally shot in 2018.

Brown forgives him. “I’m not looking at some evil kid that tried to kill me. He was just being what the environment was forcing him to be at the time.”

He didn’t have a father and grew up in a violent environment, Brown said. “It kept him from being able to make logical decisions. And it kept him in a sense of fear and also peer pressure.”

Brown also recognizes that he and his friends were in rival territory, and the gang there may have felt threatened by their presence. He takes responsibility for having chosen to be friends with gang members.

Helping Others

In 2016, Brown joined Good Kids Mad Cities, a youth organization in Chicago with the goal of reducing violent crimes. As its representative, Brown spoke with Democratic presidential candidates at a gun-safety forum last year.

Over the past four years with the organization, Brown has run an after-school program to help youth talk about drugs and violence. He has taught young people how to research issues affecting their community.

Learning about history has helped him understand the present situation of gang violence in Chicago, he said. He sees how multiple factors came together—racism, a banding together in the black community, the proliferation of drugs, poverty, the fracturing of gangs and their increased rivalry and violence, and government policies on gangs and drugs.

Seeing the bigger picture has helped him forgive the individuals caught up in it.

“It’s not his fault,” Brown said of his shooter.

“Working with Good Kids Mad City has been very rewarding, but I’m particularly proud of all of the moments when we’ve held safe spaces for gun violence survivors to heal, process, be creative, and free,” he said.

Epoch Times Photo
Paris Brown has become an advocate for safety and decreasing violence in Chicago since he was shot and paralyzed at the age of 18. (Courtesy of Paris Brown)

He recently left the organization and wants to start his own organization to help people who have been paralyzed by gunfire.

“I never felt ugly or that my circumstances defined me, but once I got in the wheelchair, I began to form judgments of myself based on how society viewed and accepted me,” Brown said.

His disability has put up barriers for him. In his daily life, he finds it hard to get around, with many places not having wheelchair access.

When he tried going to college, mobility was a challenge. He went to Northeastern Illinois University shortly after he became paralyzed. He made it through the fall, but when winter came, he couldn’t push his wheelchair through the snow.

He signed up for a transportation service for the disabled, but he said it was unpredictable. The van wouldn’t arrive on schedule, and when it did arrive, if he couldn’t get to it from his apartment in five minutes—which was hard to do, given his physical limitations—it would leave him.

It was also hard for him to afford the things he needed for school, plus rent, with his $600-per-month disability income.

He stopped attending college, but remains positive. “Everything that I can learn in school, I can also learn by myself, though it might take a bit longer.”