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City Limits

‘The Reality Doesn’t Set in Until You’re in the Medical Examiner’s Office and You Really Take a Look at Your Daughter.’

Accounts from the front lines of urban gun violence. This week: Two prominent Chicago activists on what it's like to lose a loved one to a fatal shooting after fighting so hard to stop them.

Andrew Holmes is a prominent anti-violence activist from Chicago. He has too much practice with funerals. But that still didn’t prepare him for the night his daughter was shot. As Tamara Sword died in an emergency room in August, Holmes’s world was flipped on its head: This time, he found himself taking the place of the grief-stricken parents he usually consoles.

In his daughter’s death, Holmes joined a tragic fraternity that already counted as a member at least one other Chicagoan, who also happened to be a role model and frequent collaborator. Over the course of their careers, Hal Baskin and Holmes have worked together to raise awareness of the city’s rising gun violence. Baskin, who lives in Englewood, one of Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods, has lost several family members to gun violence. On Mother’s Day 2013, his nephew was shot as he left his grandmother’s house.

While the victims’ names in those very personal cases came as a shock to two men, the basic fact of new shootings did not. Of the numerous American cities contending with a sudden increase in gun deaths, Chicago has been among the hardest hit. Over Labor Day weekend alone, eight people were killed and 46 were wounded in shootings across the city. Holmes and Baskin deal with the aftermath of this violence firsthand. They say the pain always feels fresh — and that regularly dealing with tragedy in their community doesn’t make their own losses any less hard.

As part of a weekly series on America’s scarred urban centers, The Trace shares the stories of both men, and what it’s like to lose a loved one to gun violence after fighting so hard to reduce it.

Hal Baskin, 62, is a former gang member turned community activist in Chicago. Five months after his nephew was killed by gunfire on May 12, 2013, Baskin’s son was also injured in a shooting. 

When Ronald got killed, I think I felt just like anybody else. I’m only human. Even though I’ve been a part of the anti-violence community for almost forty years, I was just like any other person. I wanted to reach out and get some revenge. I mean, I know how to do that. I did that as a kid. But would that have resolved the problem? Would it have brought Ronald back? No.

I decided to stand down and show my family and friends and the people who admire me: No, I’m going to let the police do their job and just work harder to keep the streets clean and prevent things like this from happening again. The influence I have is important, because you cannot stop the killing until you talk to the killers. And that’s what I do.

That’s a heck of a Mother’s Day gift — you wake up and your grandson don’t make it back home.

I’ve gone to several hundred funerals over the past twenty years. I’ve lost three nephews and a little brother, and I lost a father forty-two years ago to gun violence. And I just got sick of it. You get tired of going to funerals and seeing these young babies, from 10 to 25, laying in a coffin before their time. You see these mothers crying, and that’s the real issue — when you see mothers and fathers and grandmothers crying with their hearts torn out by lost loved ones. I got sick and tired of that. When I was young, I was doing things that were not good for my community, but I changed my ways and I became a better person. I saw my community dying from violence and drugs and gangs and a lack of economic development. So I decided to get involved on a level that I could get involved in, and that’s basically trying to avert gang violence and drug violence in the community.

My nephew was a wake-up call. He lived out in the south suburbs and came in to see his grandma and his great-grandma on Mother’s Day. And he got shot. That’s a heck of a Mother’s Day gift — you wake up and your grandson don’t make it back home. It was heartbreaking. And it never stops hurting when a loved one dies. Your emotions are your emotions. I was feeling for my mother and my sisters, just like I was feeling when my brother and my father died. I’m not exempt to it.

I feel that pain, when somebody loses a loved one. Andrew Holmes just lost his daughter in Indianapolis, and Andrew is a friend of mine. We go way back. I started the movement before he got into the movement, but I support what he does. And his daughter’s death, it hit home. I talked to him that Saturday after it happened. He said, ‘I don’t know what I’m gonna do,’ and I said, ‘Well, I just wanted to call and let you know that we’re praying for you.’ Because he’s fighting the good fight, and it shouldn’t have involved his daughter. She just happened to be out at the wrong place at the wrong time. And that’s how it happens with most victims, they’re at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Andrew Holmes, 54, is a longtime community activist in Chicago who works with Chicago Survivors, an organization that provides support to families who have lost loved ones to violence. His daughter, Tamara Sword, was shot on August 22 at gas station in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Tamara had a lot of life in her. She was always funny, always joking, always trying to call me and show me that she had progressed on her own as a young lady. She was very bright, ever since she first started going to school. And when I was trying to stop gun violence, she was always by my side. When she was in high school, she would circulate flyers to enhance awareness of the issue.

A little bit before she got out of high school, she got pregnant, so I had to teach her about being a parent. And from there, she wanted to go down to Indianapolis so she could get her own apartment. She had received a voucher, and the only way she could get the apartment at the time was to move to Indianapolis and stay there for a whole year. She got a job at a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and she started from the ground on up. Once she worked at the KFC for a while, she became a manager, and she would always call me and tell me she was taking this test or that test. I would just tell her to pray before she took the test, pray to pass it, which she did. And she was a manager down there ever since.

Her joy and passion was her five kids. She would bend over backwards to keep them happy and to keep them active. She didn’t ever want any of them to get caught in crossfire or become a victim of the police, which is easily done, especially when you’re a single parent raising five kids. She called me one day and she was just so overjoyed: She had got a house. She said, “I got a house, I got a house big enough for me and the kids!” It was wonderful to see how she progressed. She got a house, the fruits of her labor paid off. She became, I would say, a great woman.

The only thing you could see on her face, to me, was ‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.’ Because that’s what she always said. ‘Daddy this’ and ‘Daddy that.’ That’s all I saw on her face when she laid there, was just Daddy.

Tamara did what every normal person would do as a mother, and sometimes when she had the time, she would go out with her friends. On the night she died, she had told her daughter that she was going out, so her daughter did her hair. When she and her friends were in line at one particular club, a security guard and one of the owners came out and told them they had to go back to their cars. They weren’t letting anyone else in because they had too many fights on the inside, and they were closing the club down. So they got out of line, and went down to a Phillips 66 gas station not too far away. Some of the people thrown out of the club stopped at that gas station, too.

What happened was, the perpetrators spotted some of the people they had been fighting with at the Phillips 66. They discharged a weapon and my daughter was the only one shot. She was hit in the chest. I looked at the security video from the gas station. I saw that she was running for cover, and fell, and then tried to get back up and get in her vehicle. She was still living when the paramedics got there and took her to the hospital.

I started driving to Indianapolis as soon as I heard, but she died before I even reached the state of Indiana. When I got there, I know I just did a lot of screaming and hollering. You don’t want to believe that it’s your own child. I still didn’t believe it until I got to Indianapolis and I got a chance to see her. You know, the reality doesn’t set in until you’re in the medical examiner’s office and you really take a look at your daughter. The only thing you could see on her face, to me, was “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.” Because that’s what she always said. “Daddy this” and “Daddy that.” That’s all I saw on her face when she laid there, was just “Daddy.”

There have always been homicides and gun violence up in Chicago, but I never thought that it would hit me this close, as far as hitting one of my kids. I always prayed, as I do for everybody else’s children, that it would never hit me, never hit my family. That they would be shielded.

[Photo Scott Olson/Getty Images]