Twelve-year-old Michael Green wanted to shoot baskets down the street. The sound of gunfire was routine in his West Side Detroit neighborhood. His mother, LaShaunda Forrest-Green, rarely let him ride his bike around their block. Safer for him to stay inside, do his homework. But Michael was pleading, and the hoop was just across the street, so LaShaunda said yes.
The tall seventh-grader left the home where he and his mom had lived since his parents separated. Painted banana yellow, the house is a bright spot on a street dotted with boarded-up homes and empty lots. Michael remembers dribbling on the pavement when he heard gunfire. As he tried to duck, a bullet struck his arm.
Upstairs in her bedroom, LaShaunda heard the shots and knew Michael was out there. She ran outside to find her only child holding his arm, his white T-shirt already turning red with blood.
“We weren’t trying to wait on the ambulance,” she says.
For gunshot victims, every minute spent waiting for proper medical care counts. Research suggests that they are less likely to die when taken to a trauma center in a private vehicle than in an ambulance.
The bullet had shattered a bone and severed a major artery in Michael’s arm. While doctors worked on him, LaShaunda prayed and begged God not to take her son. She remembers the doctors openly discussing the possibility of Michael losing his arm. But ultimately surgeons were able to replace the damaged artery with one from his thigh.
According to police records, Michael was wounded in one of more than 1,200 nonfatal shootings in the city that year. Incidents of nonfatal gunfire have declined by sheer number since then, but Detroit’s homicide rate is still higher than those in most major cities, including Chicago, Philadelphia, and Memphis. According to local reporting, dozens of children are unintentionally hit by bullets every year in Detroit. The majority of them live.
In the weeks after the March 2012 shooting, Michael told local reporters he was scared to go outside. He said he felt like “anybody can get shot and killed at any time.”
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Now 19, Michael falls squarely in the demographic most likely to be hurt and killed by a gun: young black men between the ages of 15 and 24 for whom homicide is the leading cause of death. Many of these shootings occur in low-income neighborhoods, like Michael’s. Non-Hispanic black men are nine times more likely to be homicide victims than non-Hispanic whites, per data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Locally, the disparity can be even more profound: In Chicago, data from 2008 to 2014 shows that young black men were 50 times more likely to be fatally shot than their white counterparts.
LaShaunda felt the nurses stereotyped her son in the hospital that day. “Once he started talking, the nurses were like, ‘Oh wow, he’s so nice.’ Me and his dad looked at each other like, what did you expect? I felt like, they not looking at him like he’s 12, like he’s a child. They probably thought, ‘Oh, here come another gang-banger.’”
A screening of young survivors of violence in Philadelphia found that 75 percent had post-traumatic stress disorder. In Oakland, even those who don’t meet the criteria for full-blown PTSD suffer symptoms of trauma, including jumpiness, difficulty focusing and trouble sleeping. Despite their vulnerability, young men of color tend to have low access to services like health care and counseling, in part because they are not often seen by others — or by themselves — as victims in need of support.
The only support Michael needed at first was the go-ahead to play basketball again. He’d have to wait a year, the doctor said. No way, Michael thought. A few months after he was shot, he traveled to Tennessee with his team to play in a tournament.
Later, following a procedure to have a screw removed from his arm, Michael was back on the court when the stitches came out. He bled, but was unfazed.
These days, Michael is more likely to play a harmless prank on you than he is to speak emotionally about the shooting. Still, he says just seeing the scars scoring his arm “is kind of traumatizing.” He focuses on adorning his other arm with tattoos, and he recently got a new one. It’s an angel emerging from clouds, the date of the shooting, and the words “Saved by grace.”
For LaShaunda, fears for her son surface in her nightmares. A few months ago, she dreamed she answered the phone to hear Michael on the other line, calling to her in his 12-year-old voice, saying that he was bleeding. She woke up shaken, and went downstairs to Michael’s room and lay beside him in bed.
Perhaps the greatest source of stress is the case, which six years later still hangs like an unanswered question over their street. Back then, police said Michael was the unintentional victim of an ongoing feud between rival gangs. Prosecutors charged two men in the shooting. But witnesses didn’t show up for trial, and the case was dismissed. Michael says he knows the suspected shooters, and sometimes he sees them on the block or at the nearby gas station.
But when something bothers him, he picks up a basketball. The bullet hit his right arm, but it’s the left that he uses to shoot. When he’s not working at the airport loading luggage onto airplanes, he’s playing hoops.
The basketball court, however homemade, was the scene of the crime against him. Still, it is where he finds solace. It is where he can let go of whatever is in his head and feel safe, powerful even.
When he plays, he says, “I feel like, nobody in the world can mess with me.”