In the midst of the global pandemic, Champaign-Urbana has its own local epidemic: gun violence. As of July 20, police had received 95 reports in 2020 of shooting incidents in Champaign alone. This is more than double the total for all of 2019. Twenty-seven people had been shot and several killed. A survey by CU Public Health found that, after mental health, gun violence ranked as the second highest public health priority in four zip codes: 61820, 61821, 61801 and 61802. Since the vast majority of these incidents involve young Black men, many white people seemingly don’t feel this is their problem.
As an organization that addresses the issue of mass incarceration and criminalization of youth, FirstFollowers has begun to tackle gun violence. We believe it is a problem for the whole community, and that all members of the community should feel the importance of bringing this violence to a halt. In our work, we try to avoid making pronouncements on the issue, but rather choose to highlight the voices of those directly impacted. We follow a saying popularized among formerly incarcerated people across the country: “Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution, but often farthest from the resources needed to solve the problem.” So our approach to gun violence is to insert the voices of those impacted and then support them in their struggle to access resources needed to address the issue.
In keeping with our approach, in this article we offer a few insights from individuals in our organization and the community who have been impacted by gun violence. These comments come from discussions at our May 26 public Zoom forum, “Aiming for Peace in 217,” and through interviews our members Marlon Mitchell and Khayriyah Mitchell completed with community members.
Impact of Gun Violence
James Corbin (Outreach Coordinator, FirstFollowers): “Personally, I got a bullet in my back. So it left me in a wheelchair. So I’m still dealing with a lot of health issues. And I lost a lot of family, a lot of friends. You never get over that hurt. Everybody don’t know how to turn a negative into a positive.”
Causes of the Violence
Marcell McNutt (emerging adult and GoMAD program participant): “Violence has raised in the community due to lack of resources, lack of unity, lack of guidance, lack of male figures in the household.”
Jesse Figures (emerging adult): “I feel like music plays a big role . . it shows people got their guns, they got their drugs, kids look at that and they think it’s cool, so they gravitate toward that so they can fit in, that they can get the girl or whatever.”
James Corbin: “More people died over one statement: ‘don’t be no punk!’”
Ulanda Hunter (community activist and mother): “When I hear about the young kids shooting and killing each other, it’s sad that it’s going on. I think it is unfortunate that we have not found a way to keep the guns out of kids’ hands. I think all these meetings that I sit on almost every other day, several times a month, do not get to the root of the matter. I think that the community within itself, the people that live in the community, the people who was born and raised here, I think that’s an issue for them to solve.”
Mekhi Christmon (Champaign youth): “I don’t know why it’s so easy for people to get guns, but it is for people my age. They say since people are already out here hurting people, they should protect themself. And they really think that [it’s] protecting somebody if you’re going after your enemy. But it’s not.”
Dayanna Christmon (Community member and mother): “When my son first went to high school I was a nervous wreck. Just off the fact of they’re so young, talking about the access to guns, being mad about the wrong things, it’s scary having a fifteen-year-old son . . you always gonna have that nervousness, that stressed-out feeling about I’m sending my child into this world. You don’t know what happens in school.”
Khayriyah Mitchell (emerging adult and FirstFollowers member): “I feel like we need to be the leaders of everything. Because this is our generation. The generation before us had already lived their life, they already went through their youth, they already getting their paycheck, they already in their career. I can’t stress that enough. It’s our responsibility because y’all can put all these [things] here for us in the street but it takes us to use them and use them wisely.”
Ulanda Hunter: “They [the University of Illinois] have resources and they have money. And you know what they do? They place people in the Boys and Girls Clubs, in other organizations so they can get their thesis or get the experience they need to finish their degree. And instead of them taking those dollars back and putting it into the community where it really counts, they are not. I feel like the university should take so much of their money and invest their money in all these non-profit organizations.”
Jesse Figures: “They [elected officials] want our youth to change so bad but they’re not really putting their time into the youth.”
Dayanna Christmon: “I’m willing, I’m open to talking, debating to discuss all of this, but as a mother I have to take care of home, I have to work, so sometimes we use that as the excuse to say, “Oh, I ain’t got time to join this . . I ain’t got time to go rally about what’s going on in the community. I think it’s about finding that perfect time to get all the parents together to talk about it.”
Poem: Aim for Peace
By Adonis Felton (community member and participant in FirstFollowers emerging adult program, GoMAD)
This magazine got no name
Fall victim and become another page of an obituary
Unless you survive
Now living’s hard
You’re an unfinished job
Retaliate or move on
That normal life is long gone
Any you probably won’t get right with Christ
Until your homegoing
So you probably won’t pray.
Fish eat fish, kill or be killed, predator eat prey
Each day is a new day but everything don’t change
If you want to keep the kids safe,
Peace is where you should aim.