Neviah Lewis, 18, and David Williams, 12, talk about how crime in their Detroit neighborhood and schools has affected them, while taking a break from the S.A.Y. Detroit activity center.
Ask David Williams about his dreams and he gushes optimism: “I want to be the best NBA player in the world.”
When discussing his reality, the 12-year-old paints a gloomier picture.
“(This isn’t) how it should be right now,” said David, who lives on the city’s east side. “You should be able to walk around the neighborhood without worrying about getting shot, or getting jumped, or fighting, or getting jumped by other kids.”
Thousands of Detroit children like David grow up in a culture of violence that’s been entrenched for generations. According to a 2013 study by the Detroit Youth Violence Prevention Initiative, 87 percent of 1,311 Detroit Public Schools students surveyed knew someone who had been killed, wounded or disabled by gun violence.
“Many kids in Detroit are traumatized,” said Sheryl Jones, director of the Youth Violence Prevention Initiative, a nonprofit agency that provides programs to help kids avoid crime.
“We’ll do an assembly and ask ‘how many of you know someone who’s been shot?’ And you’d be surprised how many hands go up,” Jones said. “They’re witnessing a lot of the crime we hear about on the news. They see the dead bodies. It’s just how life is for them, and it shouldn’t be that way.”
FBI data released in September show violent crime in Detroit increased 15.7 percent last year, ranking it as the nation’s most violent big city. Detroit police officials dispute the numbers, blaming an antiquated software system and insist violent crime fell by 5 percent in 2016 — but even with that correction, Detroit still ranks as the most violent big city in the U.S.
David said the threat of violence recently followed him into his school, the Marion Law Academy.
“Everybody was wondering what was the delay of letting us go (after the school bell rang), and finally our principal told us there was an intruder in the building,” David said. “My friend was downstairs at the time; he told me he seen that person with a gun. They made us lock the doors and hide.
“I didn’t feel very safe in that environment. You don’t know what these criminals are capable of — he could have shot out the window, climbed through the window, shot all of us.”
Officials with the Detroit Public Schools Community District did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Neviah Lewis, 18, said she and many of her former classmates at Osborn High School tried to stay away from crime, but the pressure to break the law can be relentless, especially for boys.
“Not everybody from the violent neighborhood is violent,” said Lewis, a 2017 graduate of the east-side school. “Not everybody from a ghetto neighborhood is raised that way.
“Living in it every day, it’s (difficult) when you’re a different person than everybody else you’re around. When everybody else is doing one thing and you’re not raised like that, or you don’t have interest in what they’re doing, they’ll talk about you. You’ll probably get bullied.”
Lewis said her block is made up mostly of close-knit families who steer clear of crime — “but then you have days,” she said. “Something could happen; it might not even necessarily be something bad having to do with anybody particular, but stuff happens. So being in a neighborhood like that, it does take a toll on you.”
Osborn star football player Allantae Powell was also trying to stay away from crime, according to his relatives, when he was gunned down as he stood on a street corner while visiting a friend in northwest Detroit.
A few weeks before his death on Aug. 24, 2011, Powell tweeted about the violence that was rampant among his classmates.
On July 11, Powell posted: “Dang, three people died from Osborn.” The following day, he added: “People dropping like flies. (It’s) summertime. I’ve known three people that has been killed in the last two weeks. SMH (shaking my head).”
Days after Powell was killed, Osborn coach George Coker, who died of a heart attack in 2014, told The Detroit News: “We’re in a spiritual warfare. Kids just keep getting killed. This has to stop.”
It hasn’t stopped.
Detroit Parent Network program director Theresa Mitchell talks about her own experience with crime in Detroit and how her group's workshops help children and parents cope with crime or incarcerated loved ones.
‘Detroit is not for him’
Juana Torres, former assistant dean of discipline at Southeastern High School on the east side, said she has seen “way too many kids” get killed.
“Over the course of the years that I was at Southeastern, I encountered a lot of children that were murdered,” said Torres, whose 20-year-old son, LaRonn Walker, was killed in 2013 by an unknown gunman.
“I had the opportunity to console parents, and I attended a plethora of funerals over the course of the years.”
Torres, now a preschool teacher, said she’s particularly haunted by the shooting death of Gregory Moore, who graduated with her son in 2011.
“He came to my office and said, ‘Miss Torres, I just feel like I’m not going to live through the summer ... I’ve just been through so much,’” she said. “I called his uncle and said, ‘You guys got to get him out of here. Detroit is not for him.’
“About a month after later, I got a phone call about 4 a.m. When I looked at my phone and saw it was his uncle calling me, I just knew it was a bad phone call. I didn’t want to answer, but I answered. He said, ‘Ms. Torres, I just wanted to tell you that Greg got killed.’
“That still bothers me to this day. He knew the streets were going to get him, and they did.”
Witnesses to violence
In addition to children who are victims of violence, countless more have seen family members killed.
Jillie Mitchell said her two boys, ages 7 and 4, constantly ask about their father, Carrington Friday, who was killed in a March 2015 drive-by shooting outside a party store on Detroit’s east side.
“The 4-year-old still asks questions about him, so I tell him what he wants to know and show him pictures,” Mitchell said. “But the 7-year-old is not dealing with it. He’s kind of acting out, asking about his father, asking ‘what if he was here?’ We’re working. It’s still a process.”
Mitchell wept as she discussed how she’s struggling to raise her children without their father, to whom she was engaged.
“It affects me a lot,” she said. “(I feel) kind of alone, really … as I watch other people raise their kids with a mother and a father, it’s kind of hurtful.”
Mitchell and her children have received help from the Detroit Parent Network, where her sister, Theresa Mitchell, serves as east-side program director.
“Her youngest son participated in our Pathway to Literacy Program and play groups,” Theresa Mitchell said. “It gives her some time to just sit back and relax while we’re seeing to the children.”
Theresa Mitchell said she sees many children whose fathers are either in prison or out of the picture — which, she said, adds to the crime problem.
“It’s extremely important for a dad to be in the home ... to teach them those things that dad is supposed to teach them,” she said. “Who teaches them how to protect themselves? The protection of a father is very important to a child. They help with so many things that a mom can’t give.”
Torres said her children’s father helped raise them, and all of her surviving kids attended college and were able to avoid crime while growing up in a dangerous neighborhood — but, she said, it took a lot of work.
“I kept them close,” she said. “They weren’t allowed to go to any parties outside school, or any festivities without me being there. The good thing is, I was so involved in the school ... they didn’t miss out on anything. When we got home, I didn’t allow them to go to different people’s houses, or any type of outside parties.”
David said he tries to avoid problems by focusing on his dream of becoming an NBA point guard. He plays regularly at S.A.Y. Detroit, a nonprofit activity center that offers sports, music and other programs.
“I watch my my surroundings and watch the people I’m hanging around with,” he said. “I just mind my business ... and put some work in on my basketball game.”