For "Wounded in America," an exhibit opening this weekend at the Peace Museum, photographer Robert Drea traveled around the country taking photographs of victims of gun violence. Writer Stephanie Arena collected their accounts of being shot. Here are some stories they found in Chicago.
Shot March 5, 1999, at the Eisenhower Expressway and Morgan
Photographed at the scene
It was winter, a horrible snowstorm. I had just got my hair cut and I was driving home. The former Bays Muffins building at the Eisenhower Expressway and Morgan Street had been abandoned for a while, and these guys were renting spaces to residents in my building. I had a device to raise the door, and when I raised it, in my rearview mirror I saw a car follow me in. I pulled into my space. I didn't notice that the car pulled up behind me. As I turned my car off I was shocked to see that there was a man who opened my car door and put a gun to my head and started screaming at me to give him everything, to give him my jewelry. He looked at my hands and he grabbed at my rings, and I took them off for him.
He wanted my purse. I had a coat on, and he grabbed at my neck and pulled my coat open--I had a necklace on. He was just generally abusive to me. It was very surreal. I felt calm. I saw the gun, and I'd certainly never seen a real gun before. It was very gray, very real to me, and he put it to my head and I just thought, cooperate, do whatever he says. He had my wedding rings and my jewelry and my purse. There was a loud noise. At the time I almost thought it was an accident, I was so surprised by it. Now I realize it was the gun going off. I honestly didn't know what it was. I thought, what was that? I know now that when you're shot you don't feel pain right away: something about your body going into shock, the pain doesn't really happen for a while, for five or ten minutes.
It was a semiautomatic. It had those dumdum bullets in it--they're made to maim, to do more damage, and upon impact they explode. When he shot me, I put my hand up and it hit me in the hand. Because it was a semiautomatic weapon several bullets flew even though he may have squeezed the trigger only once. I had a coat on, and I had entrance and exit holes in my coat--at my chest--but only my hand was hit. My hand fell in my lap, and I looked down at it and there were two giant gaping holes in the palm of my hand. As he was walking away he said, "You better get that looked at." I don't know why he pulled the trigger. I had given him everything.
I was bleeding. I took my hat off and I put my hand in it. I got up to the intercom of my building and started ringing bells. I couldn't really read the names. One of my neighbors walked up and helped me. The ambulance came. There was a long delay before they took me to Cook County Hospital. Being at County was almost as bad as being shot. Someone on my ward was screaming constantly. A resident suggested I leave County and go to Northwestern, which had a great hand surgeon. We walked out of County. We decided the best option was to amputate my little finger and save my palm.
I focused on recovery. I couldn't dress myself, I couldn't pursue my career. I had a lot of physical therapy. For a while I was terrified of everything. I had therapy, I just talked about things. I do worry now--I don't get myself in places where I could get trapped--but I'm fine. I wanted to be able to use my hand and I can. The shooter was never caught.
College student at the time of the shooting
Shot July 3, 2000, at LaCrosse and 45th streets
Photographed at home in Austin
I was in a dice game at about 11 at night. There were about four people playing. I gamble all the time. This time I'd just won a lot of money. After you win you give people back a little amount, for pocket money, and they be cool. Usually I win about three or four hundred from somebody like him. If I win 300 off one person I give $50 back. This time I won $2,700. I passed out about 500 back to him. Then he kept asking for more back and I told him I wasn't giving it. I don't know what he was expecting, about a G back or something. Then I walked away and then he just got to shooting. He shot me in my back, and then I turned around and he just kept shooting. I got shot in the chest, my arms, my legs. He shot me eight times.
When he started shooting, really the first bullet I didn't even feel. That's why I turned around, because I thought I'd snap on him, for shooting in the air like this, and I turned around and he had the gun pointed towards me, he was shooting at me. My ears rung, I couldn't hear nothing else. I couldn't hear the street sounds, it was like bells ringing in my head. When I tried to turn and run, that's when I got shot in my spinal cord. The first shot went up into my upper back.
Within about a minute there were about 50 people standing over me. I heard a lady saying, "Call 911, call 911!" I remember saying, "I can't move my legs, I can't move my legs!" It took about 45 minutes before an ambulance came. I don't know who they called. I was just laying there bleeding. They ended up taking me to Mount Sinai Hospital.
All my friends were surrounding the ambulance, so they moved me about three blocks over and we sat there for about 15 minutes. They were asking stupid questions--have you been drinking, have you been smoking, you have any insurance, what's your name, what's your date of birth--when they should have been trying to roll. The X-rays showed the bullet was right next to my spine, it had not engaged. They said they were going to take me to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where they were going to do an operation on my back to remove the bullet. But then the next morning the bullet had engaged with my spinal cord.
Shot February 20, 1997, at the Jefferson Park el stop
Photographed at the scene
That night it was misty and foggy as I came up the stairs from the Blue Line train. There's a pedestrian walkway at the Jefferson Park terminal that goes to the residential area. I could see someone standing at the top of the stairs. He was staring at me, and as I walked past I saw another kid who looked younger. I knew something was going on. I was going down the stairs and kept walking to the curb. I remember looking at my foot as I was coming off the curb, and then running into someone. He nudged me with his shoulder at my sternum, and it was enough to knock me back. As soon as I looked up the younger kid was right behind me, and the kid who was at the top of the stairs was at my side.
He said, "Hey! Can I have a dollar?" I said, "No, I don't have any money." He said, "I know you've got money, give me a dollar." The conversation continued like that, and then I saw he had a gun. He said, "Bitch, I know you just came from work, I know you've got money!" As I refused to give him money he got more aggressive. We walked about 200 feet in a couple of minutes. Finally he put the gun to my head and said, "Bitch, I know you have money. You give me your money now, or I'm going to shoot you!" I didn't have money and I didn't know what to do. I was thinking, nothing I say now is going to satisfy this kid. I backed up a couple of steps to break away from him. While he had the gun to my head, the other kid was pulling at my backpack, throwing me off balance. I took a couple of steps back and took off running. I remember looking over my shoulder and him pointing the gun at me. By the second or third stride I heard him fire. He fired three times, and I felt it hit me. There was a tremendous amount of pain in my back.
I remember feeling really dazed and looking down at my hand, and it was remarkable, like my hand was completely detached from my body. I was holding it with my other arm, and it was all cramped up, in a fist. I dropped to my knees. I think I fell forward onto my face, and then I got right back up. Before, when I had looked back at him, he was poised so he could take off right away. He had his one arm stretched out with the gun, and the rest of his body was turned the other way. I didn't feel like I was going to get shot again. I got up and I saw this door open, and it was a garden apartment and I walked in. The girl was in her living room, and she said, "What are you doing?" It was weird because we immediately recognized each other. She was a friend of my friend's sister. I said, "I think I just got shot." She said, "What? Well you look--" and she stopped, and she said, "Well, why don't you just sit down? I'm going to call an ambulance."
College student/admitting insurance coordinator at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital
Shot May 5, 1998, on Kilbourn at Wrightwood, near Kelvyn Park
Photographed at the scene
It was 2:30 in the afternoon; I'd just got out of school. I was driving to the park to play basketball. On the passenger side was a guy in the same gang as me; in the backseat I had my little brother and cousin. As we rode up I saw rival members posted through the park. They saw my guy in the car; he'd fought a rival gang member that week. I thought, let me get out of here. I'm not going to get my little brother and cousin involved, so I took off. As soon as I hit the corner and turned there was a guy waiting for me, on the driver's side, dressed in black. I saw him pull out the gun, he shot once. The bullet went through the backseat, hitting me in the spine, at the T11 level, mid-back. I was instantly paralyzed. My foot was on the gas and it slammed harder on the pedal. I started to lose control of the vehicle; it got up to 40, 50, 60 miles. The whole time, I'm screaming, "I've been shot!" My little brother is screaming, "Joel, stop the car, please!"--but I couldn't, I was paralyzed. Luckily I had the presence of mind to throw the car into neutral. The car started to coast. Once it slowed down, I threw it into park. I heard the door slam, I looked up and my guy--the dude who said he'd die for me--ran out of the car and left me. I look up to the rearview mirror, and the guy who just shot me is running towards us with the pistol. I'm thinking, I'm going to die. My cousin got to the front seat, pushed me over, and started driving to the hospital. My brother and I started praying.
Earlier, they had killed one of the big gang guys; there were shootings just about every day. When my guy came to the hospital he was crying and apologizing. They were looking for him, but they shot me. I forgave him. He was the last thing on my mind.
Once I got to the hospital I kept asking, "Am I going to die?" The doctor wouldn't answer. After a few days I said, "When am I going to start walking again?" That's when the doctor said, "Joel, I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but you're never going to walk again."
I joined the gang around 15. I was lying low that year because I wanted to graduate--I would have been the first graduate in my family--but I was still hanging out with the same crowd. I joined the gang because everybody I grew up with started gangbanging. When rival gangs would see me they would make the assumption, he's one of them. Every chance they got they were harassing me, beating me. You can only take so much. I figured, I'll join the gang and get the protection they claim to give. I never once thought about getting shot.
Once in a while you get to thinking, What if? What would my life be? That stings. Every once in a while you'll daydream, if it hadn't happened, where would I be now? But if I thought about it too much I probably wouldn't progress.
Wounded in America
WHEN: Reception Fri 3/11 5-8:30 PM; through 5/11, Thu-Sat 11 AM-4 PM,
Sun 1-4 PM
WHERE: Peace Museum, 100 N. Central Park
PRICE: $3 suggested donation
INFO: 773-638-6450 or peacemuseum.org
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.