Ernest Willingham testified before the US Senate last month about growing up in Chicago with gun violence literally surrounding him. His father, brother and cousin were all shot and his best friend killed. He’s been to “more funerals than weddings,” he said.
Now a niece and another close friend have been shot since his June 15 testimony. The shootings are starting to feel like falling dominoes, Willingham said.
“I feel bad that we have to experience these things at such a young age,” he told the Tribune this week.
His niece was shot at home on the couch on June 20. The friend was hit four times by random bullets while waiting for food in his car on June 22.
For 19-year-old Willingham — whose best friend, Jahnae Patterson, was killed by stray bullets at age 17 — gun violence feels like a “constant, constant, constant cycle.”
‘We can’t even get food. We can’t even sit at home,” he said.
Willingham’s 17-year-old niece was sitting in the living room the day after Father’s Day when the doorbell rang, he said. Suddenly, bullets came through the window. One hit her in both legs.
The girl was released from Mount Sinai Hospital but her family has been displaced and has not been able to return to their home in North Lawndale for fear of more violence, Willingham said. After experiencing numbness, she went back to the hospital and found that the bullet hit a major blood vessel, he added. A 37-year-old man was killed in the shooting, Willingham and police said.
Willingham declined to share his niece’s name due to the same security concerns. The Tribune confirmed that the details in Willingham’s description of the incident matched police reports for a shooting that same day.
Two days later, Willingham’s friend Eryk Brown was shot.
When Willingham heard of the shooting, he thought about how much they had in common. Both have studied hard in school. Both left the city to study. Both plan to work in the medical field, inspired by the inequalities they have seen. Their common goals brought them together.
“Wow, that could have been me,” Willingham recalled thinking.
Brown was parked outside a vegan restaurant in Calumet Heights, waiting for food when he heard gunshots.
“I looked in the rearview mirror and I see blood on my face,” Brown said. He realized he had been shot as he drove away.
When the 21-year-old drove himself to Advocate Trinity Hospital, his friends panicked. Another 20-year-old friend in his car had been shot in the hand, he said. Brown, a nursing student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison on a full scholarship, said he pondered his dreams of becoming a nurse on his way to the hospital.
Bullets hit Brown’s left leg three times, grazed his right leg once and grazed his back twice. His car was shot at 18 times, he said. Brown uses crutches because he can’t put weight on his legs. He has no idea why the shooting took place, he said.
Meanwhile, Brown’s 17-year-old cousin was shot and killed last week while on a CTA bus, he said.
Brown said he thinks gun violence in Chicago stems in part from an unequal distribution of school resources. He attended a selective school, where he received care and assistance in applying to university.
“A lot of these kids don’t see those things,” Brown said.
The threat of gun violence was always looming when he grew up in North Lawndale, he said. He kept away from crowds and monitored his surroundings. He heard gunshots and stories of friends of friends getting shot.
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Now he feels like he should leave Chicago.
“If you stay here, it’s unsafe for you. You feel like you’re becoming a victim, if you’re not already,” Brown said.
Willingham, a third-year student at Northeastern University in Boston, said he struggles with those same fears as he weighs his safety and dreams for his future. He plans to become a doctor and was admitted early this week to the Icahn School of Medicine Mount Sinai in New York.
“We’re just trying to get a career, go to college, graduate and come back to fill the gap for what we missed, what we didn’t have,” Willingham said. “But we can’t do that if we’re injured.”
Willingham had previously told the Tribune that he wanted to live outside of Chicago in the future because of gun violence. But now he changes his mind. After Brown and his niece were shot, he said he… feels an even more urgent responsibility to care for the people here.