The evening of July 12, 2016, began like any other carefree summer night for Tommy Williams. He had just made up with his girlfriend and had picked up two of his cousins. The three were now hanging out in a car parked in the Berkeley neighborhood of Norfolk, Virginia, laughing, sharing a blunt, and chanting along to the drill music of Lil Bibby. From his phone, Williams streamed it all for a handful of followers on Facebook Live. About five minutes after pressing record, Williams rapped the lyrics, “Word around town is we got them pounds.” Seconds later, a volley of bullets exploded through the passenger side window.
I felt the glass fly across my face. I tried to jump out of the car — that’s when I was shot two times in my back. I tried to move but I couldn’t, so I lay on my stomach with my face to the ground, holding my head. Gunshots were still going off.
I remember looking to my left, where my cousin was laying on the ground beside me. He’d jumped out of the car too. I saw his body flinching as he was getting shot.
There was a warm, tingling feeling in my legs — I guess that was my legs going out on me. One of the bullets hit me in my back and exited through the front of my neck, close to my shoulder; my arm was real twisted up. It was like a sharp burning pain, like my arm was broken.
I was thinking I was about to die.
Williams’s phone fell to the car floor but continued to record. Dozens more shots snapped off. Then came a moment of silence, and Williams’s voice saying, “Call the ambulance, please.” A man can be heard urging the cousins to “stay calm, stay relaxed.” Williams tried to follow that advice, even though he was in searing pain and it was becoming hard to breathe. The paramedics arrived and took him and his cousins to a hospital. As night fell, the video slowly faded to black.
The next day Williams awoke groggily in a hospital bed, at the beginning of a long and difficult recovery. Overnight, the Facebook Live video had spread across the Internet, picked up by outlets from the local newspaper to the New York Times to the BBC. What very few of the video’s million-plus viewers knew was the extent of Williams’s injuries. One of the bullets had severed his spinal cord, paralyzing him from the middle of his chest down.
I knew I couldn’t walk that first day, but I thought it was temporary. After I’d been moved to the ninth floor for rehab, the doctor and his assistants came and told me my injury was complete. That was terrifying. I broke down and cried, cried, cried. I remember calling my girlfriend and telling her that I had a one percent chance of ever walking again. We were both crying together on the phone.
From time to time I catch myself going back to watch the video, trying to refresh my memory of that day — what I could have done differently, how I could have been more alert. It’s hard to watch, and sometimes I have to exit out. I don’t listen to that Lil Bibby song anymore.
Other times, I wish the video didn’t exist, because a lot of people had negative stuff to say about it. One guy was saying we brought the shooting upon ourselves because we were sitting in the car smoking marijuana. Just because we were smoking a little bit of weed, they feel like we gangstas, America’s Most Wanted. Another guy made a comment saying the whole thing was a hoax.
There is no national registry of spinal cord injuries, but the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center estimates that between 243,000 and 347,000 people in the U.S. have suffered one. Thirteen percent of those patients — or between 31,590 and 45,110 Americans — were injured as a result of violence, usually a gunshot.
The path of each gunshot survivor’s recovery is shaped by an array of variables, including their level of injury, insurance coverage, financial situation, and support system — but almost all will spend the rest of their lives coping with their conditions. According to Jooyoung Lee, a sociologist who has studied gunshot survivors in Philadelphia, many victims do not have access to extensive medical or mental health care once they’re released from the hospital.
At 25, Williams is still young enough to receive health insurance through his father’s employer. He sees a physical therapist and an occupational therapist and attends therapy five days a week, from 7:30 am to 4 pm. He says he recently got approved for Medicaid, which he is counting on to take over when he ages out of his dad’s plan, though the potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act and other changes to federal health insurance policy make his future access to necessary treatments uncertain.
I signed up for social security, disability, but all of that is still pending. I haven’t been approved for anything.
Once you get a spinal cord injury, it throws off your whole balance. At first, I couldn’t even sit up without my blood pressure dropping. I had to learn how to transfer from a wheelchair to a bed or a mat, how to put my shoes on, how to dress myself, how to bathe myself.
One of the bullets came out through my neck near my shoulder and messed up a lot of nerves in my arm. I had to learn how to use my core muscles in my stomach and regain a lot of strength in my arm again. I have real bad nerve damage and have to take pain medicine.
Spinal cord injuries can be extremely disruptive to a person’s ability to do physical activities they once took for granted. Williams is one of many forced to leave jobs they can no longer perform.
Before this happened I could make my own money. I’d been working at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard as a fire watcher, watching out for fires on the ship. Now, being in a wheelchair, I can’t walk up stairs on the naval ship or move through tight spaces.
I’m not able to work. I have zero income. I’m relying on my mom and my dad to help me out.
My oldest daughter, who lives in Georgia, was turning 4 in October. I didn’t have no money to buy her nothing for her birthday. My dad gave me some money and took me to the mall so I could go shopping for her. It ain’t nothing like being able to do it yourself.
Shooting survivors who are paralyzed sometimes feel isolated in their new lifestyle. Many turn to social media for practical advice, connection, and inspiration. Earlier this week The Trace profiled Tyrone Shoemake, a gunshot survivor and paraplegic in Philadelphia who’s hawking his personal brand of motivation to others in wheelchairs. Williams discovered Shoemake as well, and was amazed to see him working out and driving.
I just can’t move the way I used to. I stay in a second-floor apartment, and I can’t walk up and down the stairs. I could benefit from a single-floor apartment or house. When I’m not at therapy, I’m just in the house. The only thing I really have to do, if I’m not playing video games or playing with my kids, is be on Facebook.
A lot of my closest friends faded away. It’s like they forgot about me, or I don’t exist to them anymore because I can’t walk. The only people that really come and check on me is my family and my girlfriend. Say the weekend come, I know everyone else is going out to the clubs, but I gotta be in the house, stuck. That’s when I feel lonely.
Driving is one thing I’d like to do that would make me feel normal again. I’ve seen this one lady who goes to therapy, she has her own customized van and the hand controls. I’d like a customized van or truck that could easily put me into the vehicle. I also need those hand controls that people in wheelchairs use. There’s a place in Norfolk that sells them.
My youngest daughter lives in Norfolk, and we spend a lot of time together. She’s used to seeing me standing tall, walking straight. It hurts that she has to see me in a wheelchair, that she has to ask me, “Daddy, why you can’t walk?” To go outside to play with her, my cousin has to carry me down the stairs on his back.
Three weeks after the Norfolk shooting, U.S. Marshals arrested a suspect. But Williams worries there was more than one shooter, and that the others are still at large. (The Norfolk police did not provide further comment on the case, citing a pending trial.) After getting out of the hospital, he decided he needed protection.
When I first got out of the hospital, I went to the local gunshop and I tried to purchase a handgun. I was just trying to protect myself. The people who shot us were still out on the streets, and they hadn’t been in court yet. Back then they had a lead on one person, but he wasn’t the only one involved. There was other people involved.
Williams failed his background check — he says he didn’t realize a felony conviction on his juvenile record would bar him from owning a firearm — and was now guilty of providing false information. Virginia is one of eight states with a “lie and try” policy, meaning local law enforcement is notified whenever someone fails a background check. Virginia law enforcement also is compelled to investigate every denied sale, which resulted in Williams’s indictment and arrest. He is due in court in March.
Once they told me I couldn’t get a gun, I let it go. I take different precautions. I used to post on Facebook, like, ‘I’m going this place, I’m going that place.’ Now I just keep my whereabouts and location to myself, secretive.