"I believe parents are in denial. You can't be a blind housekeeper. You can't keep your house clean if you keep your eyes shut. Don’t close the doors in your house. Clean and check your kid’s room. Don’t stay out till all hours. When kids get to a certain age, parents think they can take their hands off. But you can’t."
I met Joyce Hill this past summer, when we worked together on the committee to organize Evanston’s first-ever Fifth Ward Festival. I quickly learned during our meetings that she is forthright, tough, smart, and irreverent. That she’s funny, vivacious and proud. But it took me longer to discover Joyce’s pain. And also her resilience.
I had heard that one of Joyce’s sons was in prison. I had noticed that she showed interest in issues affecting convicted felons, such as whether they could vote. But it was weeks after the festival took place that I sat down with Joyce over sandwiches at Curt's Cafe and she told me some of her story.
She is one of the far too many mothers in Evanston whose lives have been up-ended by guns and gun violence.
When there is a fatal shooting in Evanston, we most often hear about the victim—the (almost always) young African American man who has been shot and killed. We may read about his too-short life in the newspaper, or hear him eulogized at his funeral. We may see his mother weep, or glimpse his (now) peaceful face above the coffin’s edge from our seat in the pews. We mourn his lost life.
Seldom do we hear much about the shooter. Or his family. Often—too often—he’s not found. And when he is, we feel so much (understandable) anger toward him that all we really care to know is his name. His age. And that he was caught and put behind bars. Often, we’re angry at his parents too. We don’t imagine his mother weeping. We don’t often stop to think about the dreams his parents may have had for him or how those dreams were dashed.
But the scourge of too many guns that are too easily available, too few jobs, social and economic inequities, and hard-to-access mental health care are among the conditions that lead to dreams and lives lost and destroyed … on either end of a weapon.
In talking to Joyce, I wasn’t trying to determine guilt or innocence. I wasn’t looking to lay blame or make excuses. The story behind this story is complicated. I simply wanted to talk to Joyce, a woman I had gotten to know, a mother whose life has been changed by gun violence.
Joyce was born and raised in Evanston. She married here and raised her two sons, Vernon and Antoine, in the fifth ward. In 2005, when he was 19, Antoine shot and killed Robert Gresham, 22, during an argument at the (now-defunct) Keg. Antoine was charged with second degree murder and is still serving time in prison. The incident was covered widely.
Q: What was your dream for your sons when they were born?
A: My vision, my dream for my sons, was that they would become husbands then fathers, in that order. That was my plan. I tried to set an example. My husband and I both worked. When they were in school, I went back to school to get my medical technician certification [Joyce also has a BA in Management].
I timed it so it would be significant for them, so they could see that I was going back to college and that there was an importance in studying. I would come home and wait till they got in from school. We’d sit around the kitchen table and do our homework together. I had a 6 p.m. at-the-table rule to eat dinner every night. We went to church. I raised them how I was raised.
I did everything I could to raise them as men who would be husbands. I’d say, ‘This is what you do. This is how you act.’ I made them do chores. Their dad thought I was too hard on them. I wanted them to be able to do housework so they could share that duty with a wife. I've always wanted them to know there's a difference between what you should and shouldn't do.
Q: Did you ever imagine this would be Antoine’s future?
A: I never imagined this. Not because I’m a Pippi Longstocking. But I had plans. I was a very hands-on mother until they moved out of my house. I will admit that I think there were some things their father could have supported me on because I was always the one setting down the rules. My mother had standards for us. My brothers and sisters have masters degrees. They're homeowners. Everyone is a homeowner but me. I made some wrong choices.
Q: What was Antoine like as a child?
A: As a child, Antoine was very goal oriented. Give him a standard to meet and he would set out to do so. He was very determined and independent. But he moved out of my house when he was 18. He knew he couldn’t do the stuff he was doing from my house. I required my sons to do chores, call in, check in.
Q: How did things go wrong?
A: Antoine tried to do things the quick way. He was trying to find a short cut to being a supporter, to being a good man. What he thought was a good man. He started selling marijuana, and that’s how things ended up getting out of control. I believe he felt like selling pot was the easiest hustle because you got a light sentence if you got caught. I kept telling him, this was not the plan. Where are you going? I was trying to be a good mother, but I was powerless. Marijuana was his livelihood. The trouble started and the shooting happened because there was missing marijuana and Antoine, wrongly, got blamed for it.
Q: Where were you when you heard what had happened?
A: I was with my baby grand-daughter, Antoine’s daughter. She was my first grandchild. I was eating her for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Q: As a mom, what did it feel like to find out that your son shot someone?
A: It was a very hard pill to swallow. I had always taught my son’s to try and work things out and that ‘fighting’ would be a last resort...and then only in self defense.
Q: Did you know Antoine carried a gun?
A: No. By the time I found that out, he'd already shot Bob. There are so many guns around. I had no idea there were that many guns in Evanston. There are too many people are getting shot. These young men don't know how to resolve their conflicts. I don't know why the kids think its okay that guns are part of their hardware. They’re like cell phones to them. I haven't figured out why. They have testosterone, but why can't they just fight? I don't know where the breakdown is. I'm a fighter, I’ll fight you with words, and I’ll fight with fists. But actually pick up a gun to shoot and harm you? Never.
My older son Vernon got shot in 2003.That's the year my mother died, and Vernon blamed himself for her death. That incident against Vernon may have turned Antoine into another person. That's when I started dealing with gun violence. It wasn't supposed to affect us. That was my introduction into this life; me understanding this is real.
Q: Did you know Bob?
A: The boys were close friends growing up. They used to come to the house on Sundays. I'd always cook dinner. They would come over and I'd get home and there'd be no dinner left! But then Antoine and Bob started selling marijuana and gambling. All of a sudden things went in the opposite direction. I don't know when it happened.
Q: What did Antoine do after he shot Robert?
A: He came home and he threw up all night long. He regretted it right away.
Q: How do you feel about what Antoine did?
A: I think he did something really terrible. But, I want to believe that time heals all wounds.
Q: Why do you think so many young men in Evanston feel they need to carry guns?
A: They feel powerless and vulnerable.
Q: What can we be doing as a community to reduce gun violence?
A: I believe parents are in denial. You can't be a blind housekeeper. You can't keep your house clean if you keep your eyes shut. Don’t close the doors in your house. Clean and check your kid’s room. Don’t stay out till all hours. When kids get to a certain age, parents think they can take their hands off. But you can’t.
What I should have done is move my sons from the vision of them. I should have gone to the other side of town. I used to think we should have moved to south Evanston. But I'm not sure. Given the Evanston-Howard border now, who knows? Maybe I should have moved out of state.
Q: Other than a parent's or family’s responsibility, how can we stop gun violence?
A: Schools play a bigger part in the outcome of people's lives than they're willing to accept. Sure, there are the people who finish school and say, ‘I made it.’ But we're talking about the one's who didn't make it. When a teacher hurts a child, it damages them so much. Sometimes school is the child’s refuge from bad things going on at home.
So, rather than being damaged by a teacher, a kid decides not to go to school. And too often, when a black kid is identified with problems, teachers don't go the extra mile for them. But they do for white kids. And punishment is different based on your skin color.
So many social behaviors are formed in youth and it's already an uneasy time and when you're an adolescent. Schools should have a strict rule, that especially if something's going on at home, the school will intervene. If you can't complete school, it's a deep, dark hole that you can't climb out of.
Q: You have a son in prison for shooting a young man, another son who has been the victim of a shooting, and you're the grandmother of a little girl who lost her older brother to gun violence. Do you think stricter gun laws would help reduce gun violence in our community?
That's a hard question. Maybe, but I believe there will always be a black market for things. The reality of it is that guns are so deadly and permanent. It's heart wrenching.
Q: What does it feel like to have a son in prison?
A: It hurts bad....real bad. The prison system is terrible, and seeing the things that an inmate has to endure is a horrible phenomenon. It's grueling to watch your child, even as a man, be subjected to certain things.
Q: What do you wish for Antoine now? [Antoine was released in 2012, but due to a parole violation, went back to prison. He will be released in 2019].
A: I wish for him to be able to be forgiven. By society, by the city of Evanston. When he came home in 2012, they never let him have his own name back. He was ‘the boy who killed Bob Gresham.’ That ain't the name I gave him. He tried everything he possibly could to find a job, to go to school, to rekindle his relationship with his older daughter who didn't know him, to get to know his younger daughter. He had hope for the future to build these relationships, to do better. But the re-entry—it’s supposed to be a well-managed thing, but it's not. It's a terrible myth.
Q: What are your dreams for yourself?
A: I dream for myself to live long enough to see at least my grandchildren graduate and get married and have children. I start with family first because it is first with me. The other part of my dream for myself is professional. It’s to be someone that makes a very big difference in people's lives through my business or my profession.
Right now, I’m taking classes at DePaul toward a national accredited certification in human resources. I want to start a staffing company for people who get out of prison. Not minimum-wage jobs, but good jobs that will let people get on their feet, support themselves, have a life. Change what it’s like for people getting out of prison.
Q: What would you like to say, or what have you said, to Bob's mother?
A: Bob’s mother and I were close friends before this. I was like a big sister to her. I believe she has forgiven me. While I have been somewhat healed by that, I'm not healed completely healed without her forgiveness of my son.
When Antoine pleaded guilty, he made an emotional plea for forgiveness to Bob's mother in open court, but of course at the time she was too distraught to hear it, as was I. I don't know if she has forgiven him. So I guess what I would say would be, "Can you forgive my son?"
We have lost our sons. Even my son. He is lost too.