Monifa Akosua was 13 years old when she went to her first funeral for a friend who had been gunned down. Now, 27, Akosua says she’s been attending funerals for gunshot victims ever since, including one for her cousin, Fontino Hardy, who was fatally shot three years ago.
On April 8, her brother, Marczari Martin, was struck by bullets in front of their home in Richmond, California. He survived, but remains hospitalized. His friend was shot to death that weekend.
Gunfire is so common in Richmond that Akosua says she’s become almost numb to it. “The only thing you’re thinking about it is, please don’t let it be someone I know.”
Across the country, on April 14, people whose lives have been irrevocably impacted by violent crime shared their stories in a nationwide vigil called “Survivors Speak.” The gatherings took place in 22 cities, including San Diego, Detroit, Miami, and Richmond, Akosua’s hometown.
She participated in the vigil to honor her brother, her cousin, and friends whose lives were lost. She also wanted to be the voice for young people in her community, to express her frustration over the uptick in deadly violence in Richmond and the lack of support for those traumatized by it.
At the Miami vigil, a young man shared that he sometimes cries, wondering why God had allowed 10 of his friends to be shot to death. A mother described her young children’s fear of leaving the house, because gun violence is so rampant in their neighborhood. Another mother, whose son was shot to death in front of their home, spoke of having to wait six months to attend grief counseling at a local clinic.
“Survivors Speak” was organized by Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice (CSSJ), a group that provides emotional support to victims of violence and connects them with available resources. The group also advocates for better resources for trauma recovery. As my colleague Elizabeth van Brocklin has written for The Trace, the cost of care can be staggering for gunshot survivors.
Shakyra Diaz, the managing director of CSSJ, said the vigils were an opportunity to “amplify what crime survivors all around the country want, which is to prevent crime, reduce incarceration, and to better support survivors’ families and communities on their healing journey.”
Diaz, who is based in Cleveland, said that the group works in “communities that experience a great deal of harm and receive the least amount of help.” Part of CSSJ’s strength, she said, is that many team members live in those communities and have experienced similar trauma. Diaz has lost 40 loved ones to gun violence and said that she is a survivor of sexual assault.
For people who have endured the unthinkable — be it surviving a violent crime or losing a loved one to it — these vigils can lessen the loneliness and the stigma that can come with experiencing trauma.
“The connection that crime survivors feel is very unique,” said Diaz, “and we wanted to be able to facilitate a way to bring that connection around the country.”
Aswad Thomas, a gunshot survivor, was quoted in a Detroit news outlet that he only started to heal when he was able to connect with others in his community who had experienced similar trauma.
In 2009, Thomas was three weeks away from playing professional basketball in Europe, when he was shot eight times during a robbery at a local convenience store. One of the bullets missed his spinal cord by inches. The incident ended his basketball career, and led to years of emotional and physical pain.
“Much of the trauma that lingers from being a victim of a crime is isolation and shame, and we’re letting that shame go, collectively,” Diaz said.