Camiella Williams bought her first gun in sixth grade. She mourned her first dead friend in high school. Now, she is fighting to save other Chicago kids, however long the odds.
This article originally appeared in The Trace.
The first time I meet Camiella Williams, she pulls out her smartphone and calls up a Facebook album she created called "Lost but not forgotten." It's filled with pictures of mostly young African-American men, and serves as a kind of memorial wall to some of the people she's known who have been gunned down on the streets of Chicago. "Martece," she says, pausing at a photo of a young man in a neon green shirt and a baseball cap. "He got killed on 81st and Ashland, in the dollar store." The caption on the photo notes that Martece's little sister was killed six months later, in 2008. Williams, 28, has lost 23 close friends and relatives to gun violence in the past 12 years.
We're sitting on a bright orange couch in the student union of Governor's State University, a small state school in a suburb just south of Chicago. It's November, and students rushing by on their way to final exams stop to say hello. Williams has a round face and a gap-toothed smile, offset by fashionable rectangular glasses. The following week she will complete her bachelor's degree in criminology, and then begin a master's program in January.
Williams's interest in criminology springs from a childhood spent in poor areas of Chicago's South Side—Englewood, Auburn Gresham, Chicago Lawn—where gun violence is common. In the last five years alone these neighborhoods have collectively seen more than 2,000 shootings, according to the Chicago Police Department.
Scrolling through her Facebook album, Williams points to a photo of a grinning teenage boy with short dreadlocks. "This is my friend Johnathan," she says, a weariness in her voice. "He was killed at a nightclub in 2008. He was shot in the head by the security guard."
Another photo, another young man, this one singing into a studio microphone. "Tony was like my big brother. He was an artist." Tony was shot in the face outside an apartment complex in 2008 and died at the hospital a few hours later.
More faces float by: A middle-aged man. A few adolescent girls. A young man named Deonte, fatally shot during a spate of shootings over July 4th weekend in 2009.
"Imagine," Williams says. "They're your friends on Facebook one minute, and then they're gone the next."
A Young Chicago Woman Has Lost 23 Loved Ones to Gun Violence. She Wants You To See Their Faces. from The Trace.
Williams has more than 3,000 Facebook friends. Amid the reminders of loved ones she's lost, periodically she comes across people that she knows have carried out a shooting. Some of those same people circulate stop-the-violence messages, to her disbelief. "I'm like, dude, you're killing people," Williams says.
Not so long ago, gun violence could have consumed her life as well. Williams joined a gang in elementary school, bought her first handgun in sixth grade, and began dealing drugs in high school. It wasn't until she was 19, when she was pregnant with her child, that she decided to break away from the dangerous trajectory that she had set herself upon as a girl on the city's South Side. Her path from street life to graduate school has taken ten years.
"If I didn't have my son," Williams says, "I don't know where my life would have been." But she can guess. Either the gang disputes she often encountered might have lead her to kill someone. Or someone would have tried to kill her.
Williams was born in South Shore, an economically struggling neighborhood in the city's South Side with stately red-brick apartment buildings that recall more prosperous times. Even as a young child, she was aware of the area's problems. But until she was seven, she says, "life was perfect."
Then her parents went through a divorce, which was followed by her father's sudden death from AIDS. Williams began fighting in school and getting suspended. Though she had the potential to be a strong student, she couldn't focus in class. Ultimately, she had to repeat third grade.
When she was ten, Williams's family moved to Englewood, one of the poorest areas in Chicago. One night not long after her family moved in, Williams watched from her bedroom window as a man emptied a gun into her neighbor's house. "It was like something out of a movie," she recalls.
Her mom worked long hours as a clerk in a county hospital, and Williams soon fell in with a group of teenage boys that belonged to a local gang. When she was in fifth grade, two of them taught her how to shoot. For target practice they would set up light fixtures on a backyard fence where one of them lived.
Williams doesn't know exactly how her friends got hold of their weapons, but she says it was never too hard to buy or borrow a gun in that part of the city, where today a handgun can be purchased for as little as $25.
Williams and her family lived on the first floor of a red-brick apartment house with a wide porch that became a hangout for her friends, whether or not she was home to join them. Once, when her mother was pulling another night shift and Williams was at her grandmother's house nearby, the boys on her stoop were ambushed by a rival crew. The teen assailants, she says, drove by and unleashed a hail of bullets at the building, shooting out windows and wounding two neighbors who were sitting outside.
Williams came home to find the porch smeared with blood and the house pockmarked with bullet holes. Some of the rounds, she says, had pierced the clothes hanging in her closet. "I couldn't go out and get new clothes. So I went to school with bullet holes in my shirt."
A year later, in sixth grade, Williams got her first gun: a loaded 9mm pistol she bought from a friend with $25 of her allowance money. After school, she'd rush home and stuff the heavy weapon in her backpack before heading out. She'd pull it out of her pack to scare kids in the neighborhood. "That power, that fear that other people had, I got a rush off that," she says.
By high school, Williams had begun to sell marijuana. "I wanted to be the female [Pablo] Escobar," she says. "I just wanted to sell drugs and get cars." Over time, she acquired two more guns, a .38 and a .22.Increasingly a target for rival gang members—many of whom attended her high school—she felt she needed the weapons for protection. She didn't imagine it ever going beyond that. "My friends were not out killing people," she says.
Even as her first gun grew into a small collection, even after her house was shot up, Williams viewed Chicago's bloodshed as a far-away problem. "I was immune to it," she recalls. Then, in 2004, when she was 16, a boy named Quincy Harris was shot and killed while he sat in his car in an alleyway. Harris was a friend of Williams's older brother, smart and cute with "a rough edge." She had a big crush on him. His killer was never found.
It was the first time Williams realized that "gun violence existed close to you." The gunplay of her crew had been just that—play, posturing, the pump-up gestures of scared kids.
One day, Williams and a girlfriend decided to skip class and visit a boy who lived a few neighborhoods over. Around noon the three were walking down the street when members of a rival gang drove by. Their friend got nervous. "You don't have a banger on you?" Williams asked. He had forgotten his gun at home.
The car circled back and pulled up to Williams and her friends. A boy in the passenger seat pulled out a gun and pointed it at the group. "Y'all not supposed to be over here," he said.
"I was frozen! Thinking like, Oh shit, I was supposed to be in school!" Williams had never stared down the barrel of a gun before. Looking back, she thinks the guys in the car were only trying to scare them. But that was enough for her.
If there was one moment that forever changed Williams's perceptions, that made her grasp not only the pervasiveness of shootings but also their cruel indifference, it came in early spring 2006. That was when Starkesia Reed and Siretha White—both of them little sisters of Williams's friends—were killed by stray bullets.
Reed, 14, had been getting ready for school one morning early that March when a round from an AK-47 shattered a window and struck her in the eye, fatally wounding the teenager.
Ten days later, White was celebrating her 11th birthday at an aunt's house when a boy shot seven rounds from a 9mm at gang rivals attending the party. One of the bullets hit White in the back of the head, killing her instantly.
Williams was 19 at the time, and had just learned she was pregnant with her son. She was thinking about her child's future. "I'm like, man, So now they're killing kids? I need to get myself together."
As Williams neared her due date that summer, her close friend Jeremy Simms, known as Jroc, was shot and killed. She kept trying to reach him on the phone, hoping it wasn't true. But all she heard was his voice message. Finally she reached Simms's mother. "Sweetie," she told Williams, "Jroc got killed."
Williams went into labor the day of Simms's funeral.
To help her find a way out of the only life she had known since she was a preteen, Williams turned to Father Michael Pfleger, the pastor at Auburn Gresham's St. Sabina church and one of the city's most prominent anti-violence activists.
Pfleger had known Williams since she was a lively but troubled seventh grader at St. Sabina Academy. "She was always headstrong," he says. "She had a strong sense of injustice," but, he adds, as with many of his difficult students, "there's this passion and this energy and this strength that's inside of them, but they don't know how to use it productively."
One of the first steps Williams took as a fledgling activist was to build a memorial wall behind St. Sabina. We visited the wall one drizzly afternoon in January. Inside four glass panels framed in cherry wood, Williams has affixed photos of local residents who have been fatally shot. Williams tells me that the memorial has quadrupled in size since she started it in 2009, and now contains more than 160 photographs of victims who range from far too young to very old. If Williams didn't know a victim personally, she knew their families.
"Deonte went to Urban Prep," she says, pointing to the photograph of one young boy.
"Christopher Johnson, his momma's named Christina Johnson, he was killed last year."
Another photo shows Williams's 15-year-old cousin, Porshe Foster.
Williams described Foster's death in 2014 as "the worst pain ever. I felt like I couldn't breathe." Porshe was a vivacious, straight-A student who dreamed of becoming an architect. One evening over Thanksgiving weekend, she and a friend were hanging out with some boys in a backyard when gunfire rang out. The shooter was presumably aiming for the boys, who belonged to a neighborhood gang, but instead hit Foster in the back. Her killing, like most of the others represented by the smiling faces on the wall, remains unsolved.
When Williams's son was a year old, she packed her belongings and left for Chicago's south suburbs, moving with her mother and two adopted siblings into a five-bedroom house in a quiet subdivision. At their new home, her son could play outside without fear. She describes that day in August 2007 as like "stepping toward freedom."
At 20, Williams got her GED and began attending community college. But as she was making her escape, gun violence continued to claim the lives of people close to her.
In October 2010, Cordea Leyva was shot and killed on his way home from the store in the city's South Side. Leyva was a bespectacled 24-year-old with a wide grin, and he regularly chatted with Williams for hours on the phone. Witnesses said that two men fired nine shots into his back.
Williams says she has no idea why Leyva was killed, but at his wake, a woman told her that she knew who was responsible for his death. "I put her in my car, and I took her to the police station," Williams recalls. The witness picked out four men she claimed had orchestrated the killing, then refused to sign a statement out of fear of retaliation. No arrests were ever made in the case.
Today, Williams is a leader in local gun violence prevention groups, teaches at an alternative high school, and has a weekly radio show on an area gospel station. Given her background with gang members, she says that when she first got involved with "the movement," as she calls it, she worried about being labeled as a snitch. But over time, she became more and more outspoken, and now serves as a liaison on the violence prevention task force for Chicago Congresswoman Robin Kelly.
The congresswoman finds that Williams brings unique expertise to the job. "When you've gone through things personally, that gives you added insight," she says.
Williams has toyed with the idea of running for office herself. Another longtime mentor from her St. Sabina days, Danielle Drayton, sees Williams as an appealing candidate, especially to young people. "They relate to her, and they confide in her," Drayton says.
Because Williams connects so well with young people who deal with the same things she dealt with not long ago, her circle is always growing. And because guns are as easy to obtain on the streets of Chicago as they were when she was growing up, her personal roster of loss keeps growing, too. On March 13, Williams had yet another person taken from her by a shooting. Andre Taylor, a 16-year-old, three-sport athlete with dreams of attending Marquette University, was nearing home after walking his girlfriend to a bus stop when he was shot in the head by someone inside a passing SUV. Williams had met Taylor at a youth outreach event and had been mentoring the boy, speaking with him regularly about his plans.
The day after Taylor's death, Williams calls me from outside of Percy Julian High School, where he had been a sophomore. She is pacing back and forth, distraught, as she watches a group of girls solemnly gather in honor of their murdered classmate.
The scene evokes one at the school nine years ago, after the fatal shooting of another Julian student, Blair Holt. His murder on a city bus launched a wave of anti-gun-violence protests throughout Chicago.
"We're still here," Williams says, noting how little has changed in a decade. "My stomach's hurting watching these kids sit down in front of a goddamn tree with balloons and candles. These are babies! And then they're going to grow up like me, make it to twenty years old, and have the same goddamn story."
That Saturday, some 500 people attended a funeral for Taylor at a local church. Williams, all out of tears, sat stone-faced in the front.
Less than 24 hours after this story was edited, gun violence claimed the life of yet another close friend of Williams's. On March 26, Cordero Mosley, 27, was shot six times on Chicago's South Side. The two had been friends since grade school.
Video and photographs by Alyssa Schukar for The Trace
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