Ernest Willingham testified before the US Senate last month that he grew up in Chicago where gun violence literally surrounded him. His father, brother and cousin were all shot and his best friend was killed. He’s been to “more funerals than weddings,” he said.
Now a niece and another close friend have been shot since he testified on June 15. The shootings have started to feel like falling dominoes, Willingham said.
“I feel bad that we have to experience these things at such a young age,” he told the Tribune this week.
His niece was shot dead on June 20 while sitting on the couch at home. The friend was hit four times by random bullets on June 22 while waiting for food in his car.
For 19-year-old Willingham – whose best friend Jahnae Patterson was killed by stray bullets when he was 17 – gun violence feels like a “continuous, constant, constant cycle.”
“We can’t even get food. We can’t even sit at home,” he said.
Willingham’s 17-year-old niece was sitting in the living room the day after Father’s Day when the doorbell rang, he said. Suddenly, bullets banged through the window. One hit her in both legs.
The girl was discharged from Mount Sinai Hospital, but her family is displaced and has been unable to return to their North Lawndale home for fear of further violence, Willingham said. After experiencing numbness, she went back to the hospital and discovered the bullet had hit a large blood vessel, he added. A 37-year-old man was killed in the shooting, Willingham and police said.
Willingham declined to give his niece’s name over the same security concerns. The Tribune confirmed that details in Willingham’s description of the incident matched police reports for a shooting on the same day.
Two days later, Willingham’s friend Eryk Brown was shot dead.
Upon hearing about the shooting, Willingham reflected on how much they had in common. Both studied hard at school. Both left town for college. Both plan to work in the medical field inspired by the injustices they have seen. Their common goals brought them together.
“Wow, that could have been me,” Willingham recalled.
Brown was parked outside a vegan restaurant in Calumet Heights waiting for food when he heard gunshots.
“I looked in the rearview mirror and I see blood on my face,” Brown said. He realized he had been shot as he drove away.
As the 21-year-old drove to Advocate Trinity Hospital, his friends panicked. Another 20-year-old friend was shot in the hand in his car, he said. Brown, a full-scholarship nursing student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said he was pondering his dreams of becoming a nurse on the way to the hospital.
Bullets hit Brown’s left leg three times, grazed his right leg once and his back twice. His car was shot 18 times, he said. Brown uses crutches because he cannot put weight on his legs. He has no idea why the shooting happened, he said.
Meanwhile, Brown’s 17-year-old cousin was shot and killed while riding on a CTA bus last week, he said.
Brown said he thinks gun violence in Chicago is partly due to an unequal distribution of school resources. He attended a special school where he received mentoring and help applying to college.
“A lot of these kids don’t see these things,” Brown said.
Growing up in North Lawndale, he was always threatened with gun violence, he said. He stayed away from crowds and checked his surroundings. He heard shots and stories from friends of friends being shot.
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Now he feels he has to leave Chicago.
“If you stay here, it’s unsafe for you, you feel like you’re going to be a victim if you’re not already,” Brown said.
Willingham, a third-year student at Northeastern University in Boston, said he struggles with the same fears as he weighs his security and dreams for his future. He wants to be a doctor and was admitted early this week to the Icahn School of Medicine Mount Sinai in New York.
“We’re just trying to have a career, go to college, graduate school and come back to fill the gap for what was missing, what we didn’t have,” Willingham said. “But we can’t do that when we’re hurt.”
Willingham previously told the Tribune he wanted to live outside of Chicago because of gun violence. But now he has concerns. After Brown and his niece were shot, he said he did feels even more urgently obliged to take care of the people here.