Surviving Gun Violence: A Keynote Conversation
Full video and edited transcript; "Surviving Gun Violence"; February 10, 2017.
Bruce Shapiro: We spent the morning hearing from researchers on the cutting edge of understanding gun violence, its impact, prevention, and responses in new ways. Now we're going to veer off in a different direction and have a two-element conversation, under the broad rubric of surviving gun violence. We are very lucky, in multiple dimensions, to be joined here by Shawn Harrington and by Joe Nocera.
We pretty much had this program set in early December. On December 16th I think it was, I opened up my paper and found this interview by Joe with Shawn Harrington, about the event that put Shawn in a wheelchair. It struck me both as a piece of reporting of such eloquence, and Shawn as a kind of witness, the person who all of us who are reporters in this room find ourselves engaging with. So now we’re having a talk about how we do our job as reporters, about the experiences of survivors and perspectives of survivors that may or may not typically make it into coverage, about the issues of innovation and reporting, and also about what we really need to be looking at. The ethics of interviewing, and the approaches. So much was opened up by this piece that I knew I had to have these guys. Fortunately, they both were available and said yes.
Let me just begin by reading one little bit from Joe's piece, some of you may not have read it. He begins by introducing us a bit to Shawn, whom those of us who saw the film Hoop Dreams remembered Shawn as one of the characters in that wonderful documentary, the greatest sports documentary of all time and one of the great documentaries of all time.
"And then what happened. By this, Harrington was referring to his own shooting. One of his daily rituals was driving his daughter, Naja, to high school. Early one morning, in late January in 2014, with Harrington's car in a repair shop, they set out together in a rented white sedan. At the corner of Augusta Boulevard and Hamlin Avenue, in the West Side neighborhood of Humboldt Park, a shooting had just taken place involving a white sedan. When Harrington and Naja drove into that same intersection, the men who had been shooting at the other white sedan opened fire, thinking it was the same car.
"Harrington lay on top of his daughter, trying to protect her. 'Daddy, I don't want to die,' she cried. By the time the shooting stopped, she was unharmed but he had been hit twice. One bullet went through his back and damaged two vertebrae, causing him to lose the use of his legs. He has used a wheelchair ever since.”
I'm going to give the bios that seem less important in grounding us in the moment.
Shawn Harrington is a Special Education teacher, Assistant boys basketball coach at Marshall High School, his alma mater, and an anti-violence activist. He played basketball at the University of New Mexico and went on to become a teacher, mentor, and coach.
Joe Nocera, for any of us who have been reporting on guns, he's of course a touchstone. He was an Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times Opinion pages between April 2011 and November 2015. Before that, he wrote the Talking Business column for the New York Times each Saturday, and was a staff writer for the New York Times magazine. For more than three decades, Nocera has chronicled the world of business in magazines like Fortune, GQ, Esquire, Texas Monthly. He has a long list of awards and has written an even longer line of books covering the financial crisis, the American middle class and related issues, and, of course, he is someone who put guns and gun violence at the center of his own columns for a while.
Shawn, I want to start out by asking you something. One of the things that struck me in this interview that you did was that you had to have a really high degree of trust in Joe. To do an interview in which you're exposing your experience of the worst day of anyone's life.
Also, if you could talk about what has gone on since, how you see these issues. Anyone here who's been a reporter knows that we all, no matter how experienced we are, dread getting it wrong in an interview with a violence survivor. When Joe approached you to do this, or when other reporters have approached you, what is it that worked, or didn't? What made you trust him in this case? How did you think about doing this interview? Why did you do it and why did you trust this guy?
Shawn Harrington: Good afternoon, everyone.
The first time I met Joe was before we did this article. If I'm not mistaken, he had reached out and spoke to me months prior asking if I was interested in possibly doing a write up on my story. Through Rus Bradburd, that's how we connected.
Joe Nocera: This was your coach.
SH: He was my coach in New Mexico State University. Then, knowing Joe’s background, after having met him helped. Knowing he was a veteran and seasoned reporter with the New York Times, I felt that if he thought me sharing my story would help shed some light on what's going on here or reach through to another kid here in Chicago, or in New York, or in any of these major cities, I thought it was worth giving it a shot.
BS: Joe, when I read your bio, you're a business guy. Talk a little bit about how you came to guns, as an issue, and how you came to this particular story too.
JN: Well, in the larger gun story, like many other American, I was galvanized by Newtown. When you're on the Op-Ed page, you have free reign. Even though I was really brought up there to write about business, they weren't going to stop me from if I wanted to do something else.
I started to find ways to write about guns and gun violence. I did a whole bunch of things. The one I particularly remember is the guy who used to cut the lawn in Florida at some winter community while the owner was in Wisconsin. He walks into the house and he gets shot. It turns out this is a one in a million shot. Some guy escaped from prison, broke into the guy's empty house, and found a loaded gun next to the bed.
You know also, with my Assistant, Jennifer Mascia, who's now at the Trace, we started something called the Gun Report, where all we did was went to Google News and just listed incidents of violence that had happened that day. We did this every day for a year and a half. It became something that I cared about a lot. When I went down to the Sports section, I knew I wasn't going to have that many opportunities to write about guns but I was looking around for them.
This guy, Rus Bradburd, started bugging me about meeting Shawn. Rus was actually writing a book about him and he kept trying to put it in a larger context. You know, "Joe, basketball players are getting shot." He said something like, "Four or five of Shawn's players, over the years, have been shot. Some in wheelchairs, some dead." I called Shawn up and at first I wasn't going to write about him because he was so upbeat. It was like, "Oh, man. This guy has been taught every cliché in the book. He's obviously been in sports way too long.”
The players who'd been shot were out of high school, at least. They're usually in their mid-20s or so. Then not that long ago two twins — a football player and a basketball player who were still at Marshal — were at a street corner at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning and they were killed. Rus sent me the clip and I was like, "I got to do this." I called Shawn again, I said, "I'm pretty serious this time. I want to come down there." He said, "Come on down." You know, I just went to Chicago, went to his house. We sat for two, two and a half hours, and that was that.
BS: Shawn, one of the interesting things about this conversation is the political context for it. You are a guy from Chicago, a city that has been struggling with gun violence for a long time. You're also a guy from Chicago, a city that is being regularly pilloried by the President of the United States. When you hear how gun violence in Chicago is usually portrayed in national reporting and then you think about the neighborhood you grew up in, your own life, and then what's happened to you, what do you wish reporters were focusing on, thinking about, or knowing? How do you think about this stuff?
SH: I guess to get to know the individual a little more, getting to know the families and things like that. I mean, I'm not a politician, I don't know much about politics, but we have been in a national spotlight and it's been a tragedy that's going on here in our city, as of late. When I was in high school, a lot of the same tragedies were going on in high school. It's just today-
BS: Just situate people. What years were that? Remind people.
SH: I graduated from Marsh High School in 1993, so the early '90s, the mid '90s, Chicago was just as violent as it was then. It's just now social media plays a major part in everything that's going on in our country. I think it plays a major part in what's going on here now, in our city.
JN: Can I sneak in there?
When I went to his neighborhood, I was struck by the fact that every couple of blocks, there was a sign. I don't know exactly what it said, but it basically said, "We're trying to be a gun-free zone," or, "We're looking out for our neighborhood." It made me realize that there are a lot of people in these neighborhoods who are trying to fight gun violence and who'd like to stop gun violence and do something about it. I didn't write about them but that seems to me a really untold story here is the suffering that the people in the neighborhoods go through on a day-to-day basis. The fact that they really don't want this going on.
BS: Yeah. Did the experience of being shot, dealing with all of the medical complications afterward, has that changed how you see guns as a community issue? Nobody likes having their friends and neighbors at risk of being shot. How's your thinking about it changed?
SH: It hasn't changed much. I definitely believe that we need stronger gun laws here. For me, every day still presents a different challenge.
BS: What are some of those?
SH: Just learning how to live life in a wheelchair, even though it's been three years. Every day, I'm presented with a different challenge. Like when I drop stuff everything doesn't fall right next to me so I have to find a way of improvising, using reacher tools or finding another way to position myself in the bed, and just dealing with emotions that come with me from being an overly active, everyday athlete, to now, like I say, making sure I still continue to live life. That and trying to be a positive role model to some of our kids here as I still can be.
BS: What about coaching? How has it, in a practical way, changed what you do?
SH: It changed that dramatically because I'm a hands-on kind of guy. Being a former basketball player myself I'm not the type to just instruct the kid. I like to get out there and show him physically, how to sit down, how to play a passing lane, how to play defense, how to shoot the ball, hold the follow through. Now it's a little more vocal, but the one flip side of it they're a lot more attentive now when I talk. I take that. I'll take that.
It's just sometimes, I have to take myself away from practice or from the games or from the floor because sometimes I get so emotional, I can't jump up and shout, or point, or get more hands-on like I was. I've gotten a lot more used to it but it's still one of those challenges that every day, I have to take a deep breath before I go into the gym or before I go in front of the kids. Say, "Okay, let's go do this again today.”
BS: You know, I imagine that's one of those things that when people see you as a model of resilience they may not be fully getting. The daily details of this, right?
BS: Joe, when you've approached Shawn and also other gun violence survivors, what have you found that may be a particular challenge? Do you find it's harder to talk to people who have been deeply traumatized by gun violence than others? What do you do in your reporting to get there?
JN: If you don't mind, I'm going to veer toward that.
BS: Veer wherever you need.
JN: I do believe that the story of gun violence survivors is largely untold, and it needs to be told more. When something like Aurora happens, I don't remember how many people died but there were like 50 or 60 people who were injured. I haven't heard from any of them. I believe one of them was a pregnant woman who had three kids and who's now paralyzed. I think people understand the people who die, but they don't conceptualize what the people who survive go through.
The other gun violence survivor I interviewed was a guy named Jan Reid. Not a close friend by any means but when I lived in Austin, Texas and worked for Texas Monthly, he was a contributor to Texas Monthly. He got shot in Mexico when he was covering a prize fight. Their cab was stopped, they were robbed, and then he was shot. What I wanted to convey in that column was he's in pain every day, he's in pain every single day. He can walk, with a cane, but he's never not in pain. He talked about all the operations, all the physical therapy, and all the things he can't do anymore, and how it limits his life, physically.
I don't know what else to say. Again, I so wish journalists would write about survivors, not just those who've died.
BS: It strikes me that what you're talking about is not just covering survivors but covering the minute details and challenges of day-to-day life. It's easy for us to look away from this, even when we think we're covering these folks. You're describing a fearless look at the most challenging part of being a gun violence survivor, right?
JN: Right. Don't hold me to this but the survivors who've gotten the most ink, and I mean that in a positive way, it wasn't a gun, it was the Boston Marathon survivors.
That was an act of terrorism in which people survived. You know, guns is a different kind of terrorism but it's an act of terrorism too.
BS: Shawn, let me ask you about some things. You know, you have been interviewed a fair amount at this point. A little bit of a public figure in this. One of the questions I often get from reporters about covering gun violence survivors, and other kinds of trauma victims, is, "Gosh, I'm afraid of re-traumatizing him/her. I'm afraid that my interview's going to make their life miserable." Has that been an issue for you, at any point? Were there kinds of interviews that brought stuff up in a challenging way? Are there ways that went well? How do you think about that?
SH: Well, definitely. Each interview is different. Like I say, each day comes with different emotions. I might wake up one day, I'm the happiest person on earth and the next day, I'm going through it. Most of the interviews, people that interview ask is there anything that I'm uncomfortable with talking about or anything that I don't want to talk about. Once we get that clarified and they then ask those questions, the interview normally went accordingly. Because they asked those type of questions, "Is there anything that you're uncomfortable with? Is there anything you don't want to talk about in this interview?" upfront, that helped tremendously.
BS: What are the kinds of things that you find yourself saying that you'd rather not talk about?
SH: My daughter. She was still in high school, we still lived on the west side where this incident happened. I didn't want her face, her name, things like that out there. The Cobras still have families. I did as much as I could to protect my family. I knew my face and stuff was going to be out there but as far as protecting my family and the fact that my family still stayed in the same west side neighborhood was my main thing.
BS: That was the main thing. Was there ever a time where an interviewer really got it wrong with you? We don't have to name names.
SH: No, no. I'm just trying to think. That I can think of, no. Just like Mr. Nocera here, most of them were caring and asked questions at first. Most of them reached out to me prior to doing the interview, phone conversations, emails, and things of that nature. Like I said, when we did the interview, that was my second or third conversation with Mr. Nocera. The fact that he reached out to me again showed me that it wasn't just about a story, that he really cared about what was going on and what was happening.
BS: He made the investment.
BS: Yeah. Joe, how do you think about the kind of stress that being in the news can bring?
JN: All right, I'm going to be an asshole journalist here.
BS: Please do, please do. That's why you're here.
JN: I don't think about it. I don't think about it. If Shawn doesn't want me to ask a question, he's going to have to say it in the moment, "I don't want to answer that." If I call somebody up on the phone and say, "I want to come and interview you." I'm not going to blindside them. "I want to interview about your injury, how you've coped, what it's done to your life, how it's changed your marriage," which I did with Jan Reid.
JN: He said, "Yes." I'm not going to go in there and censor myself right away. If Jan wants to say, "You know, I don't really want you to talk about my marriage," he'll say it when I ask a question about his marriage. I just think you got to be a hard ass about this stuff.
BS: Let's go to questions from the room.
Audience: Did they catch the person who shot you? If they did, have you had any dealings with them? Any conversations or interactions?
SH: Actually, yes. There were two guys and they did catch both of them. I just actually went to trial two weeks ago. Here it is, there years later, and I just started the trial. That was a big ripping the band-aid off the wound in itself. Both guys were found guilty on all charges. Sentencing is up for February 28, coming up soon. I'm right now debating if I'm going to go give my victim impact statement or if I'm just going to have the prosecutors read it off. I'm in that mode right now.
They caught one within a couple of days and then they caught the second one, I believe, maybe three months later. It was a pretty high publicized case here in Chicago. There was a lot of pressure, I guess, on the police to apprehend the guys. They did catch them both and like I said, here it is, three years later, we just started going through the trial. I'm desperately looking to close this chapter of that book.
BS: I'm curious, did you find the judicial system supportive of you or were you basically an exhibit on the way to the conviction of these guys?
SH: I guess you could say a little bit of both. They did keep me abreast of whatever was going on. Every time they would go to court and have these continuances, monthly. The state's attorney did keep me abreast of everything that was going on. Other than that, I just try not to think about it as much. I had got to the point where I accepted the fact, what happened, so that I could move forward with my life. I think that was my biggest hurdle in all of this, accepting what happened so that I could move forward with my life, my daughter could live a fuller life, and that she wasn't harmed in all of this.
Audience: I remember you saying back in the early '90s, when you were graduating high school, that crime was also a problem back then. My mother was actually killed in '94 on the south side and I wanted to just know, what changes do you see with gun violence from the '90s until now? How would you suggest I go about trying to be a change agent within the community?
SH: Like I said, I think the biggest difference now is social media. A lot of the kids are on social media, arguing, debating. "Well, I'm over here." It's so easy to go on and find out where someone is. You can hit a locator button. I'm not on Facebook, Twitter, I don't do none of the social media but from what I know, you can pinpoint someone from clicking the locator button, for the most part.
Sorry about your loss. I lost my mom in 2003 to gun violence and I'm an only child also. The way I dealt with it, I was an athlete back then so I spent a lot of time in the gym, playing basketball with friends, working out, and stuff like that. Anytime I sat around with an idle mind is when it ate at me the most.
As far as being an advocate and speaking to the kids, we know we won't get through to them all. My biggest thing with them is to pursue their education. Pursuing your education you broaden your horizons and open up some new doors, opportunity for you. I think, as much as you can, speak to the kids in the community. You're going to have some attentive ears, some, you won't. If one of those kids come up and say, "Thank you, you reached out or you said something that struck a chord," I think you're doing a good job.
That's why I go out and speak as much as I can and just speak from my experience of, I was out, pursuing my education. Education is truly the key to open doors of opportunity is what I tell the kids. Everyone won't graduate from college but a lot of the life lessons that you learn along the way will help you learn and live a productive life, learn to communicate with different people on different levels, know how people live that's not where you’re from. A lot of the life lessons that I learned in college helped me along the way, helped me deal with a lot of things that I deal with today.
Audience: Thank you both for being here and for telling his story. It was very powerful. I definitely agree with you, Joe, that I feel like we don't do enough stories about survivors. Since we know most of the people that are victims of gun violence do survive, how does that affect them? Also, the toll that that takes on the communities that they're in, people who either survive or were left behind.
Shawn, you mentioned your mom's death. I'm wondering about what your relationship to gun violence was prior to what happened to you, and if you can talk about how reporters can do a better job, really, of talking about the toll that ongoing, daily, urban gun violence takes on a community. What effect does that have on the people that are living with that every day? Even if they are not directly experiencing that gun violence, they are living with it for years. What does that do to that community?
SH: Sad to say that here in Chicago, it seemed like in a lot of places, the violence has been so ongoing, repetitive. As a city, some of us have gotten numb to the violence, the stuff that's going on. My mom was a victim of gun violence, she was shot. That was the first time I had to really deal with gun violence affecting my family in that manner.
They say God don't put you through nothing you can't handle. I really truly believe God prepared me for this, going through what I went through with my mom. That was the worst day of my life. Being in this chair doesn't compare to the pain of losing my mom. That's how I'm able to do these interviews, talk, and be so upbeat about it. I went through the fire. When I lost my mom, that was the worst of the worst. I never thought I was going to come up on the other side of that. Me going through that is the reason I'm here today, able to be an advocate, still speak and tell my story, and not let it be so effective, I believe.
As far as the community, it's true when they say it takes a community, it takes a village. It truly takes a village. One of the differences is, when I was growing up the neighbors were a lot more hands on. You know, your neighbor could see you doing wrong and discipline you, and then take you home to your parents, and you got disciplined. I don't know how many of you all had it, I grew up with the fear of a whooping. I got butt whoopings growing up so I grew up with the fear that away from home, I knew if it got back home, I would be disciplined. Yes. I knew my neighbors, everybody in the community that knew my family knew, "Okay, if I got seen over here doing something, I would be disciplined here. Then I'd go home and disciplined a second time."
I think now, in some of our neighborhoods, the moms and the grandmothers have gotten shy, gotten away from them because some of the kids now are so disrespectful. Some of the parents will, in some cases, condone the kids' bad behavior or chastise an adult in front of their child. Now that child’s going to know, "Well, my mom don't respect you and my dad don't respect you, so I don't have to respect you." That's one of the biggest things that I share with a lot of our kids here. "You give respect in two ways. You earn it, or when you give it, it's given back." That's one of the biggest things, I think, with a lot of our youth here now. They're going to, in a sense, demand respect. You'll be darned if you don't respect them.
A lot of time, me being a Special Ed teacher, working in public system, I do just as much parenting as I do teaching in the school. A lot of kids, surprisingly, want that love and affection. When I was in the hospital and in rehab, from January to April 2014, I got so much love and affection from those kids from Marshall High School. Some of the most hardened kids that you wouldn't even think had a heart, I got some of the most heartfelt cards from those kids that missed me, that I didn't know that I was getting through to, that I was actually getting through to.
With some of the kids, if they did good on the quiz or on the test, okay, lunch or something was on me. The letters from those kids that said, "I can't wait for you to get back to show you the grades I got on this test. You owe me lunch." Things like that. I miss it, I miss it. To know that I was making that effect or having that effect on those kids where I didn't know that I was, by just talking to them and showing them that there was someone that really cared for them.
Audience: Thanks for sharing your story with us, first of all. I have three questions. How did you process what happened to you with your daughter? Did you guys get through this process together? I'm curious how you did that. I also want to know how the police treated you through the investigation of your case. Joe mentioned you have to be a hard ass and I'm wondering if he came across that way with you.
SH: Well, let me see if I can remember them. If I forget something, just remind me.
He definitely asked the questions. He told me that if there was anything that I was uncomfortable with to let him know. I don't think that there was anything that we crossed the line. It was the fact that that wasn't my first time meeting or talking to Mr. Nocera. I had talked to him in prior conversations so he showed me that it wasn't just about telling my story, I really felt that he had a legit concern. If he was able to help me, in some way, by telling the story was what he wanted to do. It wasn't just about him covering the story in the New York Times.
It definitely took me and my daughter together to get through this. The fact that she came out from this all unscathed, without a scratch on her, was my first hurdle to get over. We went through a lot of therapy and we were mentally damaged, of course, but we got through it together. We went to therapists. When she started getting back to going out to the mall with her friends and wanting to do things with her friends, just being a normal teenager is when I realized, "She's okay now. Now I can focus on me,” by going to therapy and focusing on what I had to focus on to get better.
As far as the police, I know a lot of stuff in Chicago goes unsolved, and things of that nature. They were truly hands-on with me through the whole process. Any time they got updates or things like that, I knew what was going on. As Joe said, if he thinks Rus Bradburd was hassling him, you should ask the Chicago Police Department about how they hear every day from Joe, and from Rus Bradburd. Rus Bradburd has been my biggest advocate through this whole ordeal. I can honestly say, right now, sitting in front of you, I don't know where I would be, physically and mentally, without Rus Bradburd.
He's doing all of this from Las Cruces, New Mexico, people. Every time he get a chance to come to Chicago, he's always hands-on. He's been my biggest advocate in this whole ordeal and making sure that I stay on top of things. Like I say, here it is three years later. I'm still finding myself finding new things every day or dealing with new challenges and things of that nature, every day.
JN: Let me sneak in here and say, just because you're a hard ass doesn't mean you're not asking questions in a sympathetic or empathetic manner. I'm 64 years old, I've been doing this for 36 or 37 years. I've probably had five angry or loud interviews or Q&A sessions in my entire life. Even when you're doing a tough story, you want to ask questions in a nice way, and you want to listen to what they say. If they say, "I'm not going to go there," it's like all right, you're not going to go there. That doesn't mean I'm not going to ask.
I did want to pick up on one thing that Shawn said, which is many of these shootings are never solved. The reason that's important to journalists is because that's one of the things that really devastates the neighborhood and creates hopelessness, this idea that nobody's held accountable for these shootings and that the people committing the gun violence are able to do it with such impunity.
BS: Shawn, you're an African American man in Chicago. The Chicago PD is a mixed bag, at the moment, shall we say. How do you find yourself thinking about the Chicago Police Department when you hear, on the one hand, stories of abuse, shootings, coverup, and the controversies that have gone on, and on the other hand, you've clearly had dedicated detectives working on your own case, amid all these unsolved cases. This is a very complicated set of feelings, I imagine.
SH: To start off to say the Chicago police have a very, very tough job on their hands. I commend any Chicago police that's doing their job, admirably, and doing what they have to do. We do see a lot of police brutality and cases, but with all ethnicities. I mean, I think it happens a lot here, it happens in the inner city.
I lost where I was going with your question. What you were saying.
BS: We'll find our way back to it.
SH: They have a tough job on their hand. They can do better. I mean, I'm not sure if I can be of any help on both sides, I would love to. I could mediate or get us all on the same page. I think, like you said, the biggest thing is that a lot of cases go unsolved. A lot of people are like, "Hey, what about us? What about our family members? What about our relatives that these type of things happen to?" It seems like a lot of it is shoved aside. I think that's where a lot of the retaliation from the public and the people here in the city probably comes from.
Audience: Can you imagine how things would be different for you if your case wasn’t solved or if the two guys hadn't been found? If you and your daughter hadn't been able to go to therapy?
BS: Could everyone hear that? It was could Shawn imagine how the case might have been different if the shooters had not been caught and tried, or if there hadn't been such help available.
SH: Definitely. I definitely think that would be probably still a major stressor in my life. I mean, that was a big stress relief when they told me that the first one was caught, then they told me the second one was caught.
Yeah, thank god for therapists. Me and my daughter went through a lot together for us to be a case of mistaken identity. The therapists helped us tremendously. Like I said, once she got back to being active, wanting to go to the mall, hang out with her friends is when I know she got back to being a normal teenager. To this day, we're still going to see therapists and things like that. We still have therapy sessions set up where we're going to speak to our therapist on a regular basis, at least maybe once a month. Just to make sure that we're still doing okay.
Audience: Sorry, just one more question. Do you have friends who have experienced gun violence? Obviously not your same exact experience but who have experienced gun violence in some way and have not had access to therapy or not had solved cases?
SH: Yeah, I have friends who have family who’ve been victims of gun violence here in Chicago. The cases are still unsolved. I try to give them as much support as they've given me through this time. Of my immediate friends, I've lost close friends over the years from gun violence. Just speaking with their families that I've never lost touch with over the years. Then, for them to give that love back to me when I was going through this incident. I'm not sure. Hopefully that answers your question.
Audience: Joe, I'm wondering if, as you did some of the research on gun violence, especially urban gun violence, did you find any federal policies that may have contributed to the change in the way gun violence happened? I'm thinking about when you wrote in the article about Shawn that it's a lot more diffuse now because the gangs aren't as controlled. They’re not acting out against each other. I'm just wondering if there's any strategy that maybe the feds or state took that haven't led to the nature of the gun violence changing.
JN: Well, I mean, diffuse or not, the fact is there's less gun violence today than there was 15 years ago. One of the things I think that's happened is that the incidents of mass shootings has awakened people to gun violence more broadly. I feel like white society, or upper-middle class society in particular, is much more aware of the gun violence than they were 20 years ago.
I mean, New York, 20-30 years ago was a gun violence mess. It's actually gotten a lot better. Chicago seems to be the big city that has the most problems right now. I don't know what they're doing wrong that New York is doing right. I really haven't looked into that at all. That was a little beyond my purview.
BS: Shawn, I'm wondering, you've been interviewed a lot. What is one question that you haven't been asked that you wish you would have been asked?
SH: I don't know. I honestly don't know.
BS: Let me ask this, when you think about your family, maybe even your mom, or you think about your daughter, or you think about your neighborhood or the kids you work with at school, what do you wish reporters were covering?
SH: Probably more of me working with the Special Ed kids at school. That's one thing. I miss that more than coaching. Just the effect that I had on some of those kids. One of my first visits when I was in the hospital was one of my students, Chauncey Jones. Chauncey just started working a job through a work program at the school, just started catching public transportation for the first time, within a month prior to this happening to me. One day, on his way to work, he decided to get off on the L by Stroger Hospital to come to see me on his way to work. Like I said, he just started catching public transportation for the first time.
BS: This is a Special Ed kid?
SH: This is a Special Ed kid that got off the train on his way to work to come to see me. It's like, "Chauncey, what are you doing here?" He was like, "Oh, I asked my mom if it was okay if I stopped to see you on my way to work today. She told me where to get off here on Damon and come over here to see you, and then get back on and go to work."
The first young man I worked with was a young man by the name of Anthony Hunter. I loved this kid like a son. Anthony Hunter, I got him as a junior. He's autistic but he's a straight A student. He was just a little slow grasping the concept of a lesson, but once he got the lesson, he could go to the board and teach it himself. He was an artist, has a very sharp eye. He could look at anyone in this room one time, and not look up at your face again, and draw you to a T.
When I first got there, he was such in a shell. He didn't like being around people, he didn't like being around loud noises. The kid wouldn't even make eye contact with me. I had to duck down to make him start looking up at me. The more I got to know Anthony ... Like I said, I started working with Anthony the second semester of his junior year. To see this kid open up and to come out of this shell he was in, like I say, didn't make eye contact with people, had no plans on ... We're talking about junior and senior prom, he’d say, "No, I don't want to go to prom." Didn't like being around music too.
After talking and working with this kid, come around senior year, I talk him to run for homecoming king and he won homecoming king over the most popular kid in school, who was a starting guard on my basketball team. I'll never forget the day in the hallway, the principal wanted to be able to celebrate with him when they announced that he won. Me and the principal was high fiving, hugging each other. We turned around, Anthony's gone. He took off somewhere, running around the school, was going celebrating that he won homecoming king.
To this day, right now, I believe him winning homecoming king has affected Anthony immensely. If Anthony were to walk into this room right now, he walks in with his head up, he's proud, he speaks, but it's something that changed his life back then that's even helping him today, as a young man.
BS: Yeah. Joe, I have a reporters question for you. When I hear Shawn talk, when I read your piece, and certainly when I read Gun Report, when you were doing it, pretty much every time I thought, "Wow, I've been reporting on gun issues for 20 years, crime, and yet I'm looking at the issue in a new way, through new eyes, with every story.” Part of the challenge of covering guns as an issue right now is helping people who think they know the issue, including all of our readers, listeners, or viewers pay attention to a story that they think they've made their mind up about, or know what they need to know about, or don't want to know about.
How did you think about which stories to do? What kinds of story telling to engage in? With that in mind, with getting people to look with fresh eyes.
JN: As you were talking, the story that I was thinking about was the great Pam Colloff story in Texas Monthly this year about the woman who survived the University of Texas tower shooting. I just thought to myself, "Well, as long as a story's good enough, it doesn't matter." Which is partly true and partly not true. It is true that if you find this compelling character and you trace her life for 30 years, and you trace how her life was affected by the fact that she was shot by the guy in the tower at the University of Texas 30 some odd years ago. Wow!
BS: I hate to age you but it's more than 30 some odd years.
JN: Yeah, yeah. Whatever. It was a long time ago, it was a long time ago.
I'm going to use a very different analogy, okay? Around the same time I was getting into guns, I was getting into writing about the NCAA. When you first start to write about the NCAA, everything seems new, different, and, "Oh my god, these guys are so horrible. I'm going to kill them, I'm going to kill them, I'm going to kill them." You do about 20 of those and then, after a certain while, it's like, "Oh man, another one of the athletes getting screwed stories. I'm not going to do that." You start to look for things that are more interesting and that make a larger point, that say something better than just, "The NCAA screwed another athlete." I started to pick my spots more carefully.
I think the same is true in guns. You know, the New York Times spent a lot of time this year writing about guns in Chicago. Long, lengthy series, great photographs, a lot of visual razzmatazz, digital crap. That really aged me! It was really good. They can't do it again. They need to find other ways to come at the story, different ways. Writing about survivors, writing about neighborhoods, writing about the way the shooters don't get caught. People do think they know it. They do.
You know, I've been to Chicago plenty of times, I've never been to Shawn’s neighborhood before. I'd never seen those signs on the wall before. For a white guy from New York, this was news. This was interesting. This was like, "Oh, this is going on here." It's hard to be specific about it but the way you think about it is, "Will this illuminate or will it just say the same little thing?" I think that's how I would think about it.
BS: Through your stories, do you think you've been able to reach some of the gun people?
JN: I will say this: the Gun Report, in its day, because of the way the New York Times does comments, we did have, I think, the most civilized gun debate in the country, day after day after day.
We'd have about, every day, there'd be a 200-250 comments. A lot of them the same people, not always. It was very civilized. It was like an actual back and forth that wasn't just people shouting at each other.
I'm sad to say that guns is part of the polarization of America. You're really not going to get a Second Amendment absolutist to believe in background checks. To me, that seems incredible. They think it's the first step toward confiscating your guns. I would have conversations with them and they'd say, "Why are you spending so much time on massacres?" He said, "They're such a tiny percentage. They're such a tiny percentage." Then I started writing a lot about five year olds shooting two year olds, which happens, by the way, a hell of a lot more than you'd think. They'd say, "Well, that's such a tiny percentage, that's such a tiny percentage."
I think every forum that I've been to, every debate I've either participated in or watched, there's just no place where there's common ground. I mean, that's true of a lot of our politics but it is especially true with guns.
BS: Shawn, have you gotten any trolling, hate mail, any kind of harassment as a result of your public identity here?
JN: He's not on social media, he's off the hook.
SH: Yeah. Exactly, exactly. Not that I can think of. I'm sure there has been a few negative things though. Where, I don't know. I know our city has a bad rap with a lot of bad things going on but I get a lot of love and support from this city. From the west side, north side, east side, downtown.
BS: Were you nervous testifying?
SH: Very, very. First, to have to see those guys in court again, after all this time. Definitely. Then the fact that there was an actual video of the entire shooting, of these two guys shooting at my car was played in the middle of the courtroom. They briefed me like a week before that but it still didn't prepare me for seeing it in the courtroom.
Audience: Mr. Nocera, I've seen some reporting, you were talking about survivors of the cost of healing people, therapy, physical therapy, and so on. Do you think that is our bridge to reach out to conservatives who would say, "Look what it's costing"? Do you think that's not going to have much of an impact?
JN: First of all, I think it's a very worthy story, but I don't think it's going to have much of an impact. I mean, there has to be a societal sea change. The question was, if somebody started to do reporting on the financial consequences of shootings, among the survivors. How much it costs the society, how much it cost the insurance companies, would that make a difference in terms of the way conservatives think about that?
My answer to that is I don't really believe it would. You know, to me, Newtown was such a line in the sand. Newtown was where you really, really thought, "Finally, something's happened that's so terrible that even people who uphold gun rights have got to be in favor of some new regulations or laws that would make it harder for this to happen." Then you had Joe Manchin, who's a West Virginian, who is a member of the NRA, co-sponsoring a bill for background checks, which I thought was a very courageous thing for him to do. For that to not pass was ... I mean, to me, it was shocking. It was also the signal that ... It's almost like if this won't do it, what in the world will?
Audience: Shawn, first of all, thanks again for coming out and telling your story. You said the sentencing hearing is coming up. Do you have an opinion on how long you'd like to see these guys doing?
SH: As much as they can get. To the fullest extent of the law, that the law will allow. Whatever that is, yeah. I want them to get sentenced to the fullest extent of the law, whatever that may be.
Audience: Did any of your students want to know if you were going to cooperate with police for the trial? If it's ever come up, just in counseling the young men you work with, if you've ever counseled them, whether or not your work with police on neighborhood happenings or anything that may have been covered in the trials?
SH: No, nothing that came up with the kids. If it did, I would definitely tell them, "If you know something, telling the police is the right thing to do. If you've got something that could help them solve a crime, no matter how minor or major." If a crime was committed, I'm definitely going to tell those kids to let the police know what you know.
No, that question never came up with the kids. No.
Audience: Joe apparently convinced you that sharing your story would have an impact. We've all probably made that pitch to one person or another in our careers. Now that you've shared it, do you feel like it has?
SH: Oh yeah. I mean, I've gotten so much positive feedback from Joe's article, from around the world. I've gotten letters from people from as far as London that said-
Audience: Can you give an example?
SH: The person that wrote me the letter from London said they were originally from New York and they subscribed to the New York Times. They saw the article and read it. They said they just wanted to extend a helping hand. They said, "We're not a rich family, we don't have much." They sent me a check for $150 from London because they read the story from Joe. I mean, I know that doesn't seem like much to a lot of people but it's a lot to me. It's a lot to me and it definitely helped. It's not even about the money with me. It's the fact that someone read my story and felt the need to reach out, just to show me some love and support for what I was going through was the big deal to me.
Audience: Can you summarize what you intend to tell your shooters, whether or not you're there in court at the sentencing or what letter you send to the prosecutor?
SH: No. When I do go, if I go, I don't plan on addressing them directly. Say my piece to the court, to the judge, and to the prosecutors. Say what I feel, how has it affected my life. I don't even plan on giving them a few seconds of their day of me being in there. As far as me even acknowledging them, looking their way, I really don't plan on it.
BS: Is your daughter entitled to a victim impact statement? Is she thinking about that?
SH: Yes. Well, my daughter, she's away at school. She's a freshman at Illinois State right now. We've already talked. She would have to miss school and come back so she's going to write in her impact statement. Either I'll be reading it or the prosecutors will be reading. She actually was late going back to school for the trial. It happened right after Christmas break so she missed the first two days of school that week to stay here for the trial.
BS: It would be interesting, sometime, to go back and see if the victim impact process really was helpful or not. It'd be interesting to talk through, you know?
SH: Could be.
BS: Yeah. Someone else? Joe, I have another-
SH: Someone raised their hand back there.
BS: Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't see you.
Audience: You mentioned going to therapy after the shooting. When you lost your mother, you said you worked it out, physically, in the gym. I was wondering if there was any kind of stigma or if you had other perceptions of going to therapy until it was something that you had to do, maybe with your daughter. If it was something that is the norm because you work with kids and you know about these sorts of things.
SH: You're talking about going to therapy?
BS: Maybe why'd you do it now versus maybe not before?
SH: When my mom passed, I wasn't working so I didn't have the insurance covering it, to go to therapy and things like that.
JN: Good answer.
SH: Me being an athlete, at the time, basketball is what I knew and that's how I dealt with things. Running up and down the court, it's the only time I didn't have an idle mind. I mean, even going back to the locker room, it was back to reality. For those few minutes or few hours, however long, running up and down the court, it gave me a peace of mind.
Like I said, I'm an only child and that's the worst, the absolute worst. Just being in this chair doesn't compare to the pain that I felt in 2003. I think that's why I'm able to cope with this situation as I am.
BS: Yeah. Joe, we have a room full of reporters here, mostly from all over the Midwest, local and regional news media. Thinking, whether it's about through your conversations with Shawn or your other reporting, if there were one or two issues worth really drilling down on for local and regional reporting in this part of the country, or anywhere, for that matter, what would you want to see? Where would you want to see reporters expending their shoe leather and their time.
JN: Oy. They know way better than me.
BS: Yeah, but you've got some ideas. Come on. You're the editor for five minutes, go assign them. What?
JN: I mean, I feel like I've hit the ones that I've been thinking about. That it's about not the people who've died but the people who are living. I feel that very strongly. I feel that reporters should be spending more time in these neighborhoods, they should be understanding what's going on better. They should be profiling the organizations and the people who are trying to stop gun violence. I don't see very much written about it but I know it's out there. When I was a columnist, I did two or three thing along those lines.
I mean, that's mainly what I think about. You know, I don't have any great, grand theory about how to write about gun violence. It's one story at a time.
BS: All right, well that's probably as good a place as any to end. Shawn, Joe, thank you both.
SH: Thank you.