By Rebecca Santana, Claudia Lauer, Susan Montoya Bryan, Casey Smith, Tom Foreman Jr. and Hilary Powell, The Associated Press
They panic if a balloon pops. They hold dying family members. They push their wounded bodies to heal and scroll longingly through photos and videos of their lost loved ones. Behind the statistics and the political blame game over rising gun violence are the victims.
The spike plaguing many American cities this year has lawmakers reeling and police scrambling, though homicide rates are not rising as high as the double-digit jumps seen in 2020. Still, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, 316 people are shot every day in the U.S. and 106 of them die. It’s even prompted President Joe Biden to order federal strike forces in to help catch gun traffickers who are supplying weapons used in the shootings.
And for Americans who have lost someone, a grim reminder of how the cycle of violence never seems to end, only to ebb and flow. In Washington D.C., Kathren Brown’s 11-year-old was killed in 2019, and the new wave weighs her down.
“I just want people that are picking up these guns and hurting these innocent people (to know) you have no idea what you’re doing to these families,” she says. “We are suffering.”
Todriana Peters was a combination of sugar and sass, a 12-year-old with strong opinions who also liked to snuggle up with her grandmother or cousin on the couch.
“She was a sweetheart. She was our sweetheart,” said her grandmother Bonnie Peters, sitting in the living room of her home near a life-size cardboard cutout of a photograph of Todriana, wearing stylish sunglasses and angel’s wings.
Todriana loved to try new food like fu-fu — a West African dish found in New Orleans — and could polish off three pounds of crawfish. And unlike most 12-year-olds, she loved to clean. She’d clean her cousin’s closet or her grandmother’s house. Todriana liked things organized and neat.
Her cousin, Brione Rodgers, remembers Todriana as the consummate “girly-girl,” whose favorite colors were pink and purple. She loved going to the nail salon and liked to do people’s makeup. Despite their age difference, Brione and Todriana were more like sisters. Brione’s phone is filled with videos of the two of them performing TikTok dance routines or posing for selfies. Todriana liked to dance and often did backflips in the middle of her grandmother’s living room.
“When we have a family function she gets all the attention,” Bonnie said.
Brione and Todriana went everywhere together, so much so that people would ask Brione why she was always hanging out with a 12-year-old. “I said if you knew her, you would want her everywhere you went,” Brione said.
Brione was with Todriana the night she died May 30. The two had been at an end-of-school party for young kids and needed to charge their phones so they could let their grandmother know to open the door when they came home. They stopped by another party to get a charger from Brione’s brother. During the few minutes they were there, someone opened fire outside. Two people were wounded and Todriana, who was shot in the leg and head, died. So far, five people have been arrested and charged in the shooting.
After a 2019 that marked the lowest number of homicides in nearly half a century, New Orleans saw the number of people killed skyrocket in 2020. And this year homicides are up about 16% over the same time last year.
Todriana would have been 13 on September 20, and the family plans to have a special celebration in her honor then.
“You never know when they walk off from you, that you’re never going to see them alive again,” said her grandmother.
Alicia Otero would try to say no but all it would take was one glance of those puppy dog eyes followed by a long drawn out “pleeeease” and she would cave. Even at 24, her oldest son Elias knew how to win over his mother.
And she knew the fastest way to his heart. If it wasn’t homemade green chile enchiladas, hot wings would surely do the trick. They talked every day. The jabs and jokes were endless. They were best friends.
“He was amazing, he was just so amazing,” Otero said, sitting at the kitchen table not far from a memorial made up of dozens of photographs — from Elias’ early days of being pushed around in a stroller and sucking his thumb to camping trips with his younger brothers, football games, the last family trip to Las Vegas and a portrait of him when he worked as a correctional officer.
Elias Otero was killed in front of his home in southwest Albuquerque on Feb. 11, 2021. He was shot multiple times when he confronted a group of men who were holding his youngest brother at gunpoint in what witnesses described as an attempted robbery and carjacking.
No arrests have been made and his family is still reeling, heartbroken and in disbelief that they have been swept up in Albuquerque’s crime wave. With more than 70 homicides so far this year, the city is well on its way to smashing the previous record of 80 set in 2019.
It has been a nightmare for Elias’ parents, his siblings, his fiancé and the rest of their close-knit family. Everything had been on track for Elias, his mom said. He was doing well at work, he had his own place and he and his fiancé were starting to make plans. His mom had even started thinking about the possibility of a grandchild. It all turned upside down with a hysterical call on a cold winter’s night.
Since then she’s been meeting regularly with other families who’ve lost their loved ones to violence — in hopes they can help stop the violence or just to have a shoulder to lean on.
“Me and the other moms feel like no one is listening to us. No one is listening, like if their lives didn’t matter,” said Otero, holding back tears. “They’re not just a number — they’re everything to us.”
The front door of Michelle Bolling’s house has to be closed by about 6:40 p.m. every night, no matter how nice the weather is.
“That’s around the time my son was shot,” she said. “So he wants the door to be shut or he starts to panic.”
On April 15, Bolling’s son, Sadiq Nelson, was leaving the Police Athletic League facility in South Philadelphia, where he worked. He’d just celebrated his 19th birthday the night before. He had played basketball and talked to his boss about getting his 17-year-old brother a job.
Then everything changed. A car with darkly tinted windows stopped near Sadiq and another teen. A stranger opened fire sending a bullet through Sadiq’s left thigh, shattering his femur, then tearing away a large patch of skin from his right thigh.
Sadiq hasn’t walked since, and it will be months before he can even try. He wears a heavy, metal brace to keep all pressure and weight off his femur.
“I wouldn’t wish this feeling or death on nobody,” Nelson said, noting he had lost friends from elementary and high school to gun violence. “I’m probably going to have arthritis in my knee for the rest of my life. Some days I’m just off and don’t want to talk. Some days I’ll have flashbacks and just keep reliving what happened.”
To get a full picture of the gun violence epidemic, many experts say it’s important to look at not just the number of people killed but those who have survived gunshots and will likely need support for years to come. Sadiq is one of close to 1,000 people shot in nonfatal gun violence in Philadelphia through mid-July of 2021 — nearly double what it was in 2019.
Balloons popping, firecrackers or fireworks going off, cars that linger too long on the street, or cars with dark tinted windows all trigger panic attacks for Sadiq.
He sleeps downstairs in the living room because the stairs to his bedroom are hard to navigate. His 17-year-old brother stays with him because there are nights Sadiq doesn’t sleep at all.
Bolling has had her bad days too, but she’s tried to focus on what she can do to stop other mothers from getting those calls. She’s organizing a youth march in September to give teens and parents a chance to talk about how the violence has affected them.
“It’s gotta stop,” she said.
Malik Parks had always been proud of his long, black hair that earned him the nickname “Black Jesus” from close friends and family.
“He was beautiful, and he really just had the prettiest hair,” Machelle Tompkins said of her 23-year-old cousin. “Malik had such a good heart and was such a loving person, but that hair … you’d never forget it.”
Parks, who lived in Indianapolis, enjoyed playing video games and basketball at the gym with friends. He was recently baptized and was looking forward to starting a new job at UPS.
He also loved – “really, really loved” – to dance, especially with his mom.
“He was his mom’s angel child,” Tompkins said. “They had a very special bond. He just did anything … he was always there for her. They were so close.”
The night of May 8, hours before his death, it was Parks’ mom who helped comb his hair before he left for a friend’s birthday party. It’s not clear what exactly happened at the party. Tompkins said Parks tried to leave the gathering after he and another man had a verbal disagreement over a girl. Parks, who was unarmed, called his mom, telling her he felt unsafe, and asked if she could pick him up. Parks’ sister got there first but it was too late. He was shot and killed on the sidewalk outside the apartment complex where the party was held, dying in his sister’s arms. No arrests have been made in the case.
“He was a good kid who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Tompkins said. “It’s an unbelievable pain.”
Indianapolis police say the city is headed toward another record year for violence, with 144 homicides recorded as of July 20. That’s compared to 108 homicides for the same time period in 2020 — which was already the city’s most violent year ever recorded.
Malik’s family said they weren’t really fearful of violent crime before his death but Tompkins says they’re worried about safety even during everyday chores like going to the gas station or the store.
“What happened to Malik … it’s changed all of our lives forever,” she said.
There was hardly a day that Marcqueon Jaquez Goodman didn’t have a basketball in his hands. And if he wasn’t on the court, he was on TikTok, Instagram or PlayStation. His mother says he always had a smile on his face that drew people to him.
“He was loved by many,” said Latoria Goodman, 34. Near her were two photos of Marcqueon as well as a large, framed gold banner proclaiming him as a member of a local club basketball team where he was going to play guard.
“He was just a fun person to be around. He was the joy of our life,” she said.
Marcqueon would have been a junior in high school this fall and his mom said he was working on his grades so he could play for the school team. He could look to his uncle, Kadeem Allen, for motivation. Allen spent three seasons in the NBA with the New York Knicks and the Boston Celtics.
Marcqueon’s social media accounts were filled with pictures and videos of him playing the game he loved.
“That was his life. That was all he did,” said his mother. “He always said he wanted to play in the NBA like his uncle.”
Marcqueon’s nickname was “Binky” because it wasn’t until 3 years old that he finally parted with his pacifier. He would grow to become something of a fashion plate, but his aunt, Trina Allen, said he wanted nothing to do with suits like the one his grandma dressed him in for Easter one year.
“He did not care for that suit,” Allen remembers.
Basketball shoes were his thing, and his mother said he was very happy when he found out he had earned a spot on that club team. But he’d barely gotten to celebrate it. On the morning of April 28 he was heading to a friend’s house when he was shot and killed.
The city is in the midst of a grim, record-setting three-year run with midyear totals nearly exceeding what was considered a normal year in the early 2010s.
Latoria Goodman is convinced that whoever shot her son did so out of jealousy.
“It’s not like he went out there and got himself killed. No, they called him out there and killed him,” she said.
Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
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