“Bam, Bam, Bam,” Demetrius Harris remembers hearing just before his legs failed him and he was thrown to the ground. “Bam, Bam.” More shots rang out. “Bam, Bam, Bam.”
Harris winced and squeezed an imaginary trigger as he reenacted each blast.
“I tried to run but one of the bullets crashed through the car window and hit my spine,” said Harris, a former drug dealer on Chicago’s South Side. “Something said get up. When I tried to get up my lower half just slumped.”
Joel Irizarry, a one-time gang member on the northwest side, remembers the moment he was shot with just as much clarity. He said he watched his shooter pull out a pistol, raise it and fire a single shot.
“The bullet went through the backseat and hit me dead in the spine,” said Irizarry, who was 17 when he was shot. “As soon as it hit me I was instantly paralyzed.”
Both men were caught in Chicago’s violent gun culture when they were wounded. In Cook County Hospital alone, doctors treated more than 1,000 people for gunshot wounds in the last year. Like so many other Chicagoans wounded by gunfire each year, Irizarry and Harris survived, but suffered catastrophic physical injury. Officials in some of the city’s hospitals and trauma centers say that while accurate statistics are difficult to come by, they are seeing more patients suffering from spinal cord injuries associated with gun violence, a haunting uptick that seems to be trending with the city’s rising homicide rate.
They say the rise in such injuries comes after steady declines from the bad old days of the early 1990s when the boon in crack cocaine fueled a record level of shootings and killings. The gnarled spines and shattered limbs are the most direct correlative, aside from the mounting dead, of a city seemingly consumed by relentlessly whizzing bullets and bloodshed.
Across Chicago, in hospitals and rehab centers and among a growing, loosely affiliated network of survivors—many of whom have been paralyzed by gunfire—the physical and emotional remnants of violence are all too present: Disfigurement, disability and, oftentimes, shame.
“I knew at some point it was going to happen,” said Harris, 33, who was shot in 2003 and left paralyzed from the waist down. “I knew at some point I was going to go to jail…I knew at some point I was probably going to get shot. I just didn’t know that when the bullet hit me it would tear my spinal cord up and I would be confined to a chair for the rest of my life.”
Among this unfortunate club of hobbled survivors, there is a growing camaraderie.
Harris and Irizarry are part of an anti-violence program called In My Shoes, a peer-led curriculum funded by Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital that speaks mostly with youth about the consequences of gang and drug involvement.
Peer leaders of In My Shoes say the program is part practicum on how to be independent after suffering a spinal cord injury, and part therapy and rehab group. Mostly, they’re a group of cautionary storytellers. The program’s staff is made up almost entirely of people who have been paralyzed as a result of gun violence.
“Seeing a young person get shot and end up with a disability, that to me is one of the most heart-wrenching things, because a lot of times they are so young, 12-, 13-, 14-years-old,” said Irizarry. “These are babies. They haven’t begun to live yet. And now they have to live the rest of their life with a disability is very, very disheartening. But we let them know that life isn’t over.”
Victims of our own circumstance
On a recent afternoon Harris and Irizarry rolled their wheelchairs down the corridors of Schwab, on Chicago’s West Side, chatting with passersby and trading smiles and handshakes with random staff who whisked through the center’s main lobby.
Far from their former street life, they spend countless hours in hospitals regaling those who will listen with their war stories. They talk in painful detail of the burn of a bullet cutting through their flesh, and the moment they realized that they would never walk again. But they also talk about the role they played in their own, tragic misfortune.
“At the end of the day we’re all victims—victims of our own circumstances,” Irizarry said. “A lot of times young people only hear about death or jail. They don’t hear about the disability. They don’t know that this,” he said motioning to the wheelchair he was sitting in, “is an option.”
When someone is newly injured there is also grief, denial, regret and figuring out how to navigate the physical space around them while in a hulking wheelchair under unsteady hands.
The group pairs those who were shot with mentors with similar disabilities. They set personal goals. Help people get back into school. They teach them how to plan out their every trip outside of home. Schools and buildings without wheelchair ramps and un-shoveled sidewalks are the bane of a wheelchair-bound person’s life, especially during the brutal Chicago winters, Irizarry and Harris say.
With equal parts clarity and candor, Irizarry and Harris drum up the ghosts of their pasts and the violent episodes that led to their injuries.
“Being a gangster isn’t something that you do. It’s a result of what happens to you,” Harris said. “Nobody wakes up at eight and says ’I'm going to be a gangster.’ You react to the lifestyle that you’re put in and the situations that mold you and it makes you hard, and it makes you cold, it makes you callous and have no compassion.”
The night that Harris was shot, he says his killer squeezed off as many as eight shots before his gun jammed. As he lay there, he said he turned to look his killer in the face, but instead saw his legs kicking uncontrollably even though he couldn’t feel a thing from his waist to his toes.
“I know I’m not crippled,” he pleaded to himself, “I know I’m not paralyzed.”
Long before those first shots rang out, Harris said he had a bad feeling about how the night might end.
It was about 8 p.m. on a spring evening in 2003, and Harris, who said he’d traded education and legal jobs for a hustler’s life, set out on his neighborhood’s main strip to make a couple dollars selling drugs.
Harris said he had a bad feeling about going out that night, but the prospect of getting paid clouded his instincts. Earlier in the day there was an informal meeting with his crew. And one of its leaders warned everyone to stay off the block that night, that there’d been too much shooting and too much attention from the police. Harris said he saw the warning as an opportunity; if the entire clique was staying low-key, that meant more customers and more money for him.
“He kept saying, I got a real bad feeling,” Harris recalled. “While he’s telling us all this as a group, I’m sitting there thinking that if he wants everybody to stay in the house, I’d be able to make a killing, a bigger profit.”
Later that night, Harris hit the strip and almost immediately ran into a local flower peddler known in the neighborhood as “Flower Man,” standing in the doorway of a bar. He was looking to buy some marijuana and crack cocaine.
The weed Harris had on him. The crack was in his car, which was parked down the block. After handing Flower Man the weed, he made his way down the street to his car to retrieve the cocaine. He reached for the car door handle then heard gunfire.
The impact of the bullets tossed him to the ground.
Harris said he turned to look at his legs and they were still kicking. “I couldn’t stop them,” Harris said. He tried to get up, but couldn’t.
Harris suffered a gunshot wound to his T7 vertebra. A nurse would later break the news to his family that he’d never walk again.
“They were in denial for a long time,” he said. Some of them still are. But Harris isn’t.
“When you 13 and 14 you might convince yourself that you Superman, but when you 23 and you’ve been to over 20 funerals you don’t believe in Superman or bulletproof,” Harris said.
Harris said he has buried at least 10 close friends killed by gun violence in the 10 years since he was paralyzed.
He rattled off a list of names: Gary Pinex. Keith Daniels. Rally Prichard. Paris Mercer. All dead.
“I’m just lucky to be alive. I’ve seen people way tougher than me, way stronger than me, lying dead in the streets,” Harris said. “I’ve seen death. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen death.”
Gang Banging at 15
By the time Irizarry was in his mid-teens he was living a double life. At home he was a protective big brother and a loving son to his single mother. But in the streets of his West Humboldt Park neighborhood, he was something else entirely.
“I started gang banging at an early age, about 15,” Irizarry said. “I couldn’t get to school. I couldn’t get to work or go the local grocery store without being chased, harassed, beat up. There’s only so much you can take of being a victim… I felt my only option is to join this gang and get this little protection that they claim to give you.”
For Irizarry, then a tall, skinny kid all of “135 pounds soaking wet,” the odds of surviving on his own weren’t worth taking. One gang controlled his high school. Another controlled his neighborhood. Shooting and fighting were everyday occurrences.
But even as he became a more active, combative member of his gang and started selling drugs to “keep some money in my pocket,” the two realities he was living were becoming starker. His mother and father had separated, so he was the man of the house. He did his best to keep his little brother and sister in line while his mother worked long hours at a local retailer. Irizarry said he even managed to keep up decent grades in high school, and as the end of his senior year approached he was excited about becoming the first in his family to earn a high school diploma.
Then, on a sunny afternoon in the Spring of 1998, it all came to an end.
“He pulled out a pistol and shot just once,” Irizarry said.
Irizarry said he was targeted by a rival gang member who’d seen him pull up to a neighborhood park, along with a friend whom he’d had beef with from an earlier fight. First he threw bottles and bricks. Then, as Irizarry peeled away from the park, the young man whipped out a gun and fired.
The bullet crashed through the back of the car and directly into Irizarry’s spine.
He knew immediately that he’d been hit. Unable to move his legs, he said his foot smashed down on the accelerator, sending his car careening down the street. He finally managed to throw the car into neutral to slow it down, at which point his “so-called friend” and fellow gang member hopped out of the car and left Irizarry, his younger brother and a cousin in the car to fend for themselves.
“He left me for dead,” Irizarry said. “I kept praying, asking God not to let me die like this.”
Days later at the hospital he asked a doctor, “When am I going to walk out of this hospital.”
“You’re never going to walk again,” the doctor told him.
“Instantly my world was shattered,” Irizarry said. “There were a lot of nights waking up and hoping that this was a nightmare, only to wake up and see a wheelchair parked next to my bed.”
When Irizarry finally made it back home from the hospital he experienced a mix of emotions. There was excitement to be finally leaving the hospital, frustration with his disability and fear of more violence. His shooter was a member of a rival gang in the neighborhood. Anything could happen, he thought. This time he’d be a sitting duck.
“What we’re confronting with the violently acquired injury, they’re going home to where they were shot,” said Dr. Michelle Gittler, a physiatrist and expert on violently acquired spinal cord injuries at Schwab. “They are going right back to that community where their injuries occurred and that’s one of the hardest issues.”
After the initial shock wore off, Irizarry made immediate plans to change his life. He distanced himself from his old gang. And his family uprooted to a nearby suburb.
But the impact of his injury rippled through his family. He could no longer help out financially because he could no longer work. The $400 or so he received each month in Social Security Income did little to help buoy his families expenses. And he could no longer keep his younger siblings in check.
“My mom, having to see me in this situation and trying not to cry every day, it hurt,” Irizarry said. “Even though I was the oldest I was her baby. She was there when I first started to walk, and now I’d never walk again.”
But his injury did something no nudging before it could’ve done: he was off the streets.
He went back to school and began to realize, in part through his rehab work at Schwab, that life was not over.
After doing his rehab at the hospital he eventually was hired as a peer mentor with In My Shoes.
One of the truest signs that he’d moved on, he said, was when he came face to face with someone from the same gang that had shot him.
The rival wasn’t menacing this go-round. He wasn’t chasing him or pointing a pistol in his direction.
This time, they were on the same team.
He was from the neighborhood and was found shot one evening behind Irizarry’s father’s barbershop. The rumor was that his own gang had turned on him. The man was paralyzed from the waist down and seemed as affected mentally as he was physically. He was anxious and paranoid. He’d been holed up in his home and refused to go out in public or take public transportation.
“He was always worried about who was around, that someone was always going to try to kill him,” Irizarry said. But almost every day Irizarry called the guy or they’d meet up to talk. Soon, Irizarry coaxed him into riding public transportation and then, back onto the social scene.
The two developed a friendship and a bond.
Eventually Irizarry landed him a job fixing wheelchairs at Schwab rehab.
“That other stuff to me was in the past,” Irizarry said, noting though that he rarely shares his former gang affiliation. “It could still be dangerous in certain neighborhoods.”
To this day, wounded gang members are rolled into Schwab, their tough exteriors softened by their disabilities. And Irizarry, Harris and the rest of the team initiate them into this new club.
Some change their ways. Some don’t, Harris and Irizarry say.
“Some people have been doing it so long it’s hard for them to break out of it,” Harris said. “Some say they want a way out, others say they can’t find a way out. But for us, after everything we lost, whatever we were going to get out of it wasn’t going to be worth what we’ve already lost. Some people have been doing this so long and are afraid of change. They just fall back to what they know.”
Previously in MSNBC’s ongoing look at Chicago gun violence, Trymaine Lee documented the struggle of Ryann Brown, who was shot in the head by a gunman when she was 18-years-old, to rebuild her life.