When Zarriel Trotter appeared in a video decrying his city’s gun violence in February of last year, the Chicago boy’s words came out in a rush. “I don’t want to live around my community where I got to keep on hearing and hearing people keep on getting shot, people keep on getting killed,” the 13-year-old stammered.
He didn’t know it at the time, but his own life would soon be threatened. On Friday, March 25, Trotter was shot in the back by a stray bullet during a gang shootout in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. He was gravely wounded, but is now recovering in a hospital. Police said he was not the intended target.
“Every morning he greets me with a big smile on his face, which makes my day,” Elizabeth Jamison-Dunn, the principal of his charter school, told the Chicago Tribune after the shooting. “I feel horrible that this happened to him.”
It may seem like a bitter irony: a teen, pleading in a video for a halt to gun violence, becoming a victim himself. But the reality is even more cruel. Young people who feel compelled to speak out against gun violence are often doing so because the threat of death is part of the daily fabric of their lives. Some have lost dozens of friends and family members to gun violence. A 2012 study conducted by researchers from Harvard, Rutgers, and Yale found that 85 percent of all gunshot injuries within a subset of Boston’s Cape Verdean community were suffered by people within a single social network that includes family members, coworkers, and friends.
The odds of someone in that community getting shot increased by 25 percent for each gunshot victim in their social network, the researchers determined.
Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist and physician, says gun violence spreads like a disease in such communities. He explained in an interview with The Trace last August that our brains are hardwired to mimic behavior that provokes an exceptionally strong emotional response.
“There are neurons on the brain that cause copying, which is the principle way people pick up all kinds of behavior,” Slutkin said. “Violence is a very powerful type of behavior for copying because it’s so electric and emotional.”
The Trace identified nine gunshot victims over the past 15 months who had previously spoken out in some public forum against gun violence. Three, including Trotter, had appeared in an anti-violence film or video.
In July of 2014, 16-year-old Kyzeir Baker of Newark, New Jersey, appeared in a video about his city’s gun violence that was filmed during a summer class at a youth development center. “It’s sad to see how all of these young teenagers are dying so fast, every day,” Baker says in the clip.
Baker said he didn’t plan to follow in their footsteps. “A lot of adults gave me knowledge, and I took that knowledge and used it, and turned myself around,” he said. “Because they believed in me.”
He was fatally shot five months later.
In December, another Newark resident who had appeared on film to talk about the scourge of gun violence was shot and killed. Darel Evans, 33, a former gang member, had starred in “Brick City,” a 2009 Sundance documentary series about then-mayor Cory Booker’s efforts to quell the city’s gun violence epidemic.
Trotter, who is recovering in a hospital, is the youngest victim of gun violence who had previously appeared in an anti-violence film that The Trace identified. But youth is not an insulation from the carnage. In “Our Black Boys: Real Talk,” which was produced by a Chicago-based marketing agency as part of a campaign called “Black is Human,” he speaks about halting the cycle of retaliation that often follows acts of gun murder in urban areas. “If you are scared of them, you should talk it over, not try to kill them because of being afraid,” he says of the gunmen who terrorize his neighborhood. The video closes with a sentence that packs a punch considering how close Trotter came to dying:
“The loss of a black boy is a loss for America.”