As a child growing up in New York City, I can remember hearing gunshots, thinking that they were actually firecrackers. I remember my mother’s fear when I walked to the corner store, even though it was so close she could see it from our house.
When I was in high school, I remember the day I heard shots fired from a local playground. As I hid for cover, I watched a friend bleed from a bullet wound, and another friend die right in front of me. These experiences with gun violence were my everyday existence as a child.
I had hoped they wouldn’t be the everyday reality for my children.
During the late 1980s and early '90s, New York City’s murder rate grew worse just as I became a mother. My son’s uncle was killed in his apartment building. A friend of mine was killed coming out of a building as I sat on a bench waiting for him. Stories of gun violence continued to surround me, and I began to understand why my mother was so afraid.
Then, on August 7, 2006, I received a call that stopped my breath.
“Reese, Ronnie was shot.”
My cousin called to tell me about my oldest son, Andrell Daron — we called him Ronnie. Soon after I reached him, he was pronounced dead.
As one mother to another, I'm making a plea to Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman to hold the second highest position in the free world: Think what it would be like to have your life turned upside down by violence. Think about the last person you saw — your child, your spouse or a close family member — and imagine never seeing them again. You will never hear their voice, feel the caress of their skin or their supportive embrace. As a mother, there is a void that can never be replaced when you lose a child.
The guilt I feel over not being able to save him will never leave.
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I am certain the vice president has heard stories like mine before. Perhaps she even prosecuted cases like that of my son’s murderers. I want Harris to know that the impact of gun violence and of incarceration starts before and continues after our courts are involved.
I raised two Black sons alone, after their father was sentenced to 40 years in prison for a double homicide. Even as a single mother, I dedicated my life to protecting my sons from the violence in our streets. My son was not a member of a gang, and yet he was killed as a result of gun violence perpetrated by gang members. While five of the shooters were sentenced, this outcome has not given me closure.
During the trials, all I could think of was the hard lives of these young men. One was only 15 years old. I thought of his mother — another Black woman — who had buried one son and had now lost another to prison. I realized then that the criminal justice system could not be the only answer to gun violence, and that something else had to be done to keep our children safe.
While there has been interest in and movement surrounding gun-control legislation, most efforts have been in response to mass shootings. These efforts have largely ignored our communities of color — where too many children lose their lives every day— and have prioritized expanding policing and incarceration.
Even though many think I received “justice,” justice cannot just look like the consistent incarceration of young men of color. Our communities need investment in comprehensive solutions, and funding of programs that empower our youth of color, not put them behind bars.
The day my son was killed, I fell to my knees and screamed in pain. My only child came to my side and said: “Ma get up. Ronnie would not want you acting like this.”
His words made me jump to my feet, and since that day, I have not stopped fighting to make our community safer for our children. The power we have as Black mothers and women is unshakable. In the face of unthinkable violence, we get up, we fight back and we bring others with us.
I'm trying to appeal to the vice president as a Black mother and woman. We need investment in policies and programs that address gun violence at its roots, and that prioritize our survival and not just respond to our deaths.
The Biden administration has made some progress, and I've been fortunate enough to be a part of that. I was one of many who participated in a virtual meeting with Susan Rice, the administration's domestic policy adviser, in February, about community violence prevention. I was also lucky enough to be at the White House this week when President Joe Biden announced plans to tighten restrictions on gun acquisition. All a good start, but our cities need more.
The child who shot my son hadn't even purchased the gun that he used. There were multiple guns deployed during that murder, and gun trafficking in cities is rampant. We need to hold gun purchasers and traffickers accountable, not just the young Black boys who are pushed to pull the trigger.
As a Black mother, I celebrate all that our vice president has accomplished and ask that she bring our voices, and our gun violence fight, to the White House. Black mothers, our communities and, most important, our children are counting on it.
Oresa Napper-Williams is the founder of Not Another Child and a peer support specialist and grief counselor based in New York City.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mother to mother: Woman who lost son to gun violence makes plea to Kamala Harris