Shirley Chambers and Her Family

[Content Note: Guns, violence, racism.]

This weekend, I saw an ABC-7 Chicago news report about Shirley Chambers. Shirley Chambers is an African American woman who lives on Chicago's Near North Side, near the site of the now-leveled Cabrini-Green housing project, where she lived for many years. She, like many African American mothers in Chicago, recently lost her son to gun violence. But Shirley Chambers' son, Ronnie, who was killed Saturday, was the fourth child she lost to gun violence.

Shirley Chambers was the mother to Carlos, LaToya, Jerome, and Ronnie Chambers. They are all gone.

Carlos was killed in 1995 by another young man with whom he'd had an argument.

LaToya was killed in April of 2000 by a 13-year-old boy who was arguing with her boyfriend.

Jerome was killed in July of 2000 when he was shot from someone in van while standing at a payphone.

Ronnie was killed this weekend when someone opened fire on a van in which he was a passenger.

They are all gone.

The Chambers family should be national news. We should also be listening to Shirley Chambers when she says, "We need tougher gun laws," and when she cries, "I can't take it anymore."

I can't take it anymore.

Those who resist meaningful gun reform, which necessarily must include higher barriers to handgun ownership, demanded of Shirley Chambers the sacrifice of all four of her children, in service to their right to own weapons designed to kill people.

The gun lobby and its fervent supporters would vehemently deny what they would certainly regard as my cruel mischaracterization of their position. But that is the effective result of an obdurate resistance to meaningful gun reform: People will die.

All the soundbites about how it isn't guns who kill people, and all the victim-blaming that has been and will be heaped on Shirley Chambers and her children, and all the rationalizations about people with mental illness, and all the Othering of poor black people who live in cities, and all the sanctimonious hand-wringing about "cultural degradation," and all the excuses and justifications and cynical rhetorical flourishes in the world will not change this fact: Shirley Chambers' children are dead. All of her children are dead.

And we are expected to regard that fact as an acceptable by-product of the virtually unlimited right to own guns.

Four lives lost, and a mother's life torn to pieces. Collateral damage so the most fearful people in the country—people whose privilege disproportionately insulates them from the very real threats Chambers and her family have faced, the shattering violence to which they've been exposed and by which they've been profoundly victimized—can stockpile deadly firearms, and the makers of those deadly firearms can pocket enormous profits.

Were this heinous lot acting out their spinning of fearful fantasies and pursuing their stockpiling of killing machines in ignorant indifference to the realities of the lives of people like Shirley Chambers, it would be terrible enough. But it is worse.

They do not even offer the takers of lives in inner city neighborhoods the awful generosity of calling them mentally ill. They are dehumanized as irredeemable monsters, products of their race and/or a culture we are meant to believe exists in a vacuum, who aren't even worth a cursory attempt at empathy. They are dismissed as incomprehensible, incorrigible, innately different, intrinsically broken. And then they are consciously held up as justification for absurdly lax gun laws.

The murderers of Shirley Chambers' children are used to defend the very laws that gave them access to the tools of their violence in the first place.

It isn't gang kingpins who are lobbying Congress. It is people far removed from the institutional hostility and neglect in which gangs, and all the affiliated violence of gangs, are born. And they lobby under the pretense that they must defend themselves from that violence, even though it is not they, but Shirley Chambers' children and all the people like them, who live under the genuine threat from these weapons.

The people who killed Shirley Chambers' children aren't storming out to the suburbs, out to rural America, out of their own neighborhoods, to kill. Which is not to diminish in any way the violence that spills out of gangland warfare, because that happens, but it happens to people like Shirley Chambers, not to Wayne LaPierre.

Once upon a time, I was taking the Chicago El home from work to my far north side flat after a late night at work. I was on a car with only a few other people, the exact number and attributes of whom has faded into the fog of ancient memory. I remember today only one other person—an elderly African American lady, who was sitting across from me.

Two stops away from my destination, itself a few blocks from my flat, from which I occasionally heard the reverberating sound of gunshots exchanged on a nearby beach that had been claimed by gangs, a young African American man, donning a colored kerchief indicating his particular gang affiliation, walked through the car. He mumbled to us in a low voice, "Get off the train." I don't precisely recall what words he used following, but the message was: Two rival gangs were about to have a gunfight on the train. Each of us was solemnly and urgently warned before he continued to the next car.

As the train pulled into the station, we all disembarked, and stood quietly shaken on the platform, waiting for the next train as someone used the emergency box to contact the CTA. A night long before cellphones were commonplace.

This was the business of violence. I've no illusions that the primary intent was a concern for our safety, rather than the avoidance of increased scrutiny in the event of civilian casualty. I've no nescience about the role my privilege played in my extraction from the site of impending violence.

What I knew then and remember still is the humanity of the men going about the business of violence, and that my privilege protects me from the particular sort of violence that is invoked in resistance to gun reform more than a weapon in my hand ever would.

And what I know is nothing compared to Shirley Chambers. We need to listen to her.

I can't take it anymore.

Why should any of us take this anymore? How on earth did we lose our way so badly that any of us are willing to take this anymore?

If we do not support meaningful gun reform, we leave Shirley Chambers to carry this burden alone. We tell her that her country finds acceptable the murders of her children in order that we may continue to indulge manufactured fears and voracious greed.

I can't take that.

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