Leave Regular Radio Behind
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

An Anti-Violence Activist Shares Her Reason For Buying A Gun


Every other hour is roughly how often someone gets shot in Chicago since a surge of violence began last year. It's also the name of a yearlong series on gun violence from our member station there, WBEZ. We've been focusing this week on who picks up a gun and why.


Today - the story of a woman who was wrapped up in gang violence when she was young and worked hard to separate herself from that life. She's now an anti-gun activist, yet she still struggles with trauma. As WBEZ's Chip Mitchell reports, it's led her to make a startling choice.

CHIP MITCHELL, BYLINE: Camiella Williams grew up on Chicago's South Side. She had two parents raising her and providing a loving home, summer days full of hopscotch, Double Dutch, the YMCA.

CAMIELLA WILLIAMS: But at nighttime - gunshots, my neighbors getting robbed or an ambulance because one of the guys that was selling got shot or got robbed.

MITCHELL: It didn't take long for the violence to reach Williams.

WILLIAMS: I got hit in the eye with a brick, close to being blind. That was when I was about 9. So I was fighting at a very early age.

MITCHELL: And eventually that brawling led to gang activity.

WILLIAMS: Basically where you grew up at - your friends, the neighborhood you're from. So it's, like, you fighting. You all got cliques. My clique better than your clique. We tough. We powerful. And the whole block's fighting blocks. That's how it was.

MITCHELL: Williams says she brought home her first gun when she was only 12. Over the next few years, she says she ran wild. But a lot of her friends started getting shot. And when she was 18, she had a baby, a boy.

WILLIAMS: So I wanted to make a change for him because I didn't want him to be exposed to the lifestyle that I was intrigued with at the time.

MITCHELL: So Camiella Williams moved with her mom to a Chicago suburb away from that gritty neighborhood. She got a GED, went to college and started grad school. She got a job at an alternative high school and began working with kids in trouble. She got elected to the board of trustees of a community college. She even got involved with the gun control movement.

WILLIAMS: I did everything - legislation.

MITCHELL: Lobbying at the city and county levels for measures like tougher penalties for assault weapons, delegations to the Illinois Capitol.

WILLIAMS: And I was one of the people that helped coronate the trips 'cause I had relationships with a lot of the families who lost their loved ones to gun violence.

MITCHELL: Trips to Washington, meetings with Congress members. It was heady stuff for a former gang member. But last year, her life was upended.

WILLIAMS: In March, I lost Andre Taylor, my mentee that I was mentoring.

MITCHELL: Shot in the head.

WILLIAMS: Then I lost Cordero. We went to school together. And then I lost Davharea Wilson. His mother grew up with my mother. But nothing - whatever - man, July 29, and I'm in the shower, and I hear my mom scream. And I say, what's going on? She say, Jalen got killed. Our baby got killed.

MITCHELL: The baby was Williams' 21-year-old cousin Ural Jalen Durant, hit by an SUV during a shooting incident, ruled a homicide. Today, more than a year later, her cousin's death remains an open wound.

WILLIAMS: I have trouble sleeping. I stepped down from all these groups.

MITCHELL: From a lot of her anti-violence work.

WILLIAMS: I don't think people understand because they tell me, Camiella, keep fighting. You're doing a good job. Keep speaking. We hear you. But to me, in my heart, do you really hear me? I don't think nobody hear me.

MITCHELL: What Williams is feeling - it's not just sorrow. It's anger. She's even finding it difficult these days to work with shooting survivors.

WILLIAMS: These parents that I'm helping - their kids got killed. How do I know that your kid ain't killed my people? How do I know. If I don't have Jalen and I don't have my loved ones and my loved ones' mothers and fathers don't have their kids, why should their mom and daddy have them?

MITCHELL: She has dark thoughts about what she would do if she found out who killed her cousin.

WILLIAMS: I want them to die. This is my thoughts.

MITCHELL: I told Williams' story to Kimya Barden. She researches trauma at Northeastern Illinois University. We met over coffee.

KIMYA BARDEN: And I think there's this assumption that because in certain areas in Chicago with this concentrated crime rate - that folks just get used to it, folks killing each other. They're used to hearing about it. And that's just not the case.

MITCHELL: Barden isn't just talking about individual trauma but collective trauma.

BARDEN: Native American scholars - they'll talk about it with regard to genocidal attempts to First Nations people. Jewish scholars will talk about it with regard to folks who have survived the Holocaust. Black scholars often talk about it with regard to the legacy of enslavement post-enslavement.

MITCHELL: She says that legacy includes segregation, poverty and gun violence. Camiella Williams says she knows she's suffering from trauma, but she's not willing - maybe not able to separate herself entirely from the violence that caused it. And that's led her to do something uncharacteristic for a gun control activist. She went out and got a concealed carry license and a gun. She says it's to protect herself and her son. He's 11 now. If anyone harmed him...

WILLIAMS: I mean I just know that I would probably retaliate.

MITCHELL: This is not a threat. It's a recognition. It's Williams saying how trauma from Chicago's street violence could play out even in her suburban life.


MITCHELL: I got a closer look at this at her home. She told me about an incident there one evening this summer.

WILLIAMS: In front of my house.

MITCHELL: Right here in the driveway.

WILLIAMS: In the driveway. I could see my son riding back and forth.

MITCHELL: On his bike. Suddenly, she says, he came back. His hand was bleeding.

WILLIAMS: Like, what? Did you fall? He say, no, the neighbor shot me. I say, shot you? He was like, yeah, with a BB gun. And he knew who did it.

MITCHELL: An older kid, 18. Williams went right to his mother.

WILLIAMS: She tried to say, what you going to do, beat my ass? And I looked at her, and she said, you're blowing my high right now.

MITCHELL: Williams tells me she seriously considered doing something she counsels others against.

WILLIAMS: Maybe I should grab my protection, my gun.

MITCHELL: Then she says she thought about the example that would set for her son.

WILLIAMS: All I can do - walk away.

MITCHELL: Walk away. But she still has that gun.

What do you say to people who might see inconsistency with your advocacy and carrying a weapon?

WILLIAMS: The people that will probably say that live in safe communities, never experienced the losses that I've experienced. To me, it's like, I'm not going to die. I'm mentally messed up over this.

MITCHELL: Williams is 29 now. She's raising her son in a relatively safe suburb. She's closing in on her master's degree. She's still a trustee at that community college. If she's OK with carrying a gun, think about the people back in her old neighborhood who have to worry about violence up close every day. For NPR News, I'm Chip Mitchell in Chicago.

SHAPIRO: Tomorrow - why girls join gangs.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: Their making me hold one of their guns. It just felt like an honor I guess.

SHAPIRO: A teenager talks about the role she had in a gang, how it made her feel and why it's so hard to quit.

CHANG: These stories are part of a larger look at gun violence in Chicago by member station WBEZ. It's called Every Other Hour. You can find more about this project at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chip Mitchell