I grew up in Milwaukee. As a teenager, my biggest fear was not looking cool enough on my bus ride to school, or not getting asked to prom. I never had to fear — nor did I even think about — bullets flying by in my neighborhood.
Last week in Milwaukee, I attended a town hall that featured March for Our Lives teenagers from Parkland, Florida, Chicago and Milwaukee. All theses kids had experienced shootings and most had witnessed deaths from gunfire. They made up a panel speaking to an audience of mainly adults.
The teens were eloquent. They were inspiring. They did not mince words.
“We want kids to be able to grow up,” said Ryan Deitsch. “For kids in Chicago, growing up really is an achievement.”
Deitsch survived the Parkland shooting and is part of the March for Our Lives "Road to Change" tour making its way west this summer in an attempt to register young people to vote.
Eight young people took to the stage and told their stories about how shootings had touched their lives.
One Milwaukee teen talked about how as a girl she would play with her friends. Then one day, one of them would not show up. Why? They had been shot and killed, often by a stray bullet. This was not unusual.
Another Milwaukee girl said fear of being shot was common for youngsters growing up in the inner cities.
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“All of us here, we’re speaking from our trauma, we’re speaking from our own fear,” said Tatiana Washington, who attends Rufus King High School in Milwaukee’s north side, which is mostly African American and has a high number of shootings. She is an intern for WAVE, Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort Educational Fund, an organization dedicated to ending gun violence.
As a mother of two white sons and one white stepdaughter all who grew up in Flagstaff, I worried about them, of course. As all mothers of teens do. Would they drink and drive? Would they make bad choices in friends? Would they even make friends?
But I never had to ask myself: Would they walk out of the house one day and never come home because of the color of their skin? Would they be shot before they had a chance to live a full life?
More than one of the children who spoke at the town hall said their mothers’ worst fear was just that. One kid said he was so tired of having to act carefully, never making a wrong move when he was walking outside, for fear he would be shot in crossfire, or by a police officer who assumed he was in a gang, because of the neighborhood he lived in.
I’ve been in Milwaukee for my annual month-of-June visit with my mom, now 91. I spend a good deal of time at her expensive retirement home, where she is living along with many people she’s been friends with for 60-plus years. As her memory fades and she begins to repeat herself, some of those friends — not all — are not as interested in her. Sure, she gets repetitious, and she is not always all there. But there’s heartbreak in watching her friends turn away.
Many of the women hired to bring Mom her medications and check in on her, travel from Milwaukee’s north side, where shooting deaths are far too common. One of them told me about having a half dozen of her daughter’s girlfriends spend the weekend at her small home. Of course we all had slumber parties for our kids. Like us, she did it so she would know exactly where the teenagers were. But she also did so to keep them out of a bullet’s path.
These women handle Mom gently, and humor her until she swallows her last pill of the day.
Then, they go home and hope to keep their children safe.