My mother’s hands interlocked and trembled. “I don’t know if I can talk about it,” she says, unable to look me in the eye, shifting between shades of anger and shame.
She rarely discusses Mario and Jermaine, my cousins. Truthfully, she barely mentions them. When she does, it is always brief: “Oh, this song reminds me of Jermaine!”
But my mother never delves deeper into the lives they once lived or the people they could have been. She never speaks of how they died, cut down years ago by the gun violence that continues to hold Cleveland in its grip.
My aunt, her sister-in-law, is the same. She carries the deaths of her sons silently, written on her body. I can see grief in her eyes; her smiles seem forced. She is not the aunt of my childhood. How could she be? She lost both of her children. Her lineage, her bloodline, was erased in mere minutes. I cannot fathom the pain she carries in her heart.
I wanted to speak to her about it, but my mom suggested against it. “Those wounds are just too fresh for her,” she tells me. More than 15 years have passed since Mario and Jermaine were shot and killed in public spaces, surrounded by witnesses.
Their deaths were linked to their involvement in drug trafficking. Mario was killed at a community basketball court. Jermaine was shot while walking down the street. Even with time’s passage, my family carries their memories without speaking, manifested in anxiety and depression. Our vitality seemed to flicker away with them. We emerged damaged, disillusioned and silent.
Their deaths have never been discussed or dissected. The collected weight of my family’s sorrow is almost tangible. It has volume and heft, leaden and above all, wordless.
It shouldn’t be this way. I don’t know the answer to Cleveland’s gun violence, but I do know that we survivors must openly confront our grief. We don’t have to be alone anymore.
We don’t have to be haunted by self-imposed speechlessness. We cannot be silent.
My 36-year-old half sister Marie Watkins was attending East Technical High School when our cousin Mario, Jermaine’s younger brother, was murdered.
“They actually thought it was our cousin Sam that was killed, because Jermaine’s brother was wearing Sam’s jacket,” she tells me. “The jacket had Sam’s ID inside of it.”
I remember my mother trying to decipher the news. I was just 11, not entirely capable of understanding everything going on. It wasn’t until my cousins arrived at the morgue that the corpse was identified as Mario.
Until now, my sister and I hadn’t talked about Mario’s death since his funeral. “Cleveland gotta do better — this violence has to stop,” my sister says. “Too many people are hurting.”
Because silence cuts both ways. Last August, Mayor Frank Jackson announced that only 47 percent of the then-70 homicides in the city during 2017 were solved, well below the 2015 national average of 61 percent. Police set up a phone bank, asking the public for tips.
But speaking out is difficult. Thomas, a family friend, asked that I change his name. His best friend was shot in the head. The friend knew the shooter. They grew up together, but got into an argument at a party.
“The coward drew a gun on my friend,” Thomas says. “No one helped him. The neighborhood dough boys decided to try to sell dope over his body, while his body laid in the middle of the street.”
The person that murdered Thomas’ friend is still out there somewhere, which is why he asked me to change his name. There is a zero-tolerance policy toward snitching in Cleveland. The code of silence is powerful, which is why Thomas feels he cannot reveal specifics about the murder of someone he loved, of his best friend.
Kianna Person, 26, a classmate from Cuyahoga Community College, recalls what happened to a family friend, someone she saw at church: “He was trying to save someone else from the fire and winded up getting hit in the chest.
“I would see him every Thursday and Sunday back when I was a Jehovah’s Witness,” Person says. “It affected my family tremendously, because we all knew and loved him.”
Antonio, 21, a close friend, also asked that I change his name. “I’ve had friends who’ve died on their birthdays,” he says. “They were just going out to celebrate.”
He described the double-edge of violence. “Those murders make you feel like your time could come any day, at any moment,” Antonio says. “When you see people that were so close to you taken away at such a young age, it makes you want to live the way you feel your life should be lived.”
I now live on the Case Western Reserve University campus. It is the closest I have been to inner-city Cleveland since my childhood, growing up near East 40th Street and Woodland Avenue. When I was young, we moved to the suburbs, between Chagrin Falls and Solon. I graduated from Kenston High School in 2009, but didn’t pursue higher education until I was 24 years old.
City life was never far away. After a friend was arrested for murder in 2011, I forced myself to find some stability. I sought therapy, graduated from Cuyahoga Community College and now attend CWRU.
When I lived in the suburbs, I was able to deflect the deaths of my cousins. Now that distance is gone. The CWRU campus is only a few miles from where they were killed. I have been forced to reinterpret how gun violence warped my psyche.
It is obvious to me now how gang subculture operates in Cleveland. My family was well aware of the circumstances and participants that caused the deaths of my cousins, but they were reluctant to come forward. The politics of the street, enforced by the constant threat of relentless violence, silenced them like it does so many others.
This is our omerta. Snitching, even if you aren’t involved in anything illegal, is a taboo inarguably punishable by death. If there are even rumors you provided information to police, you risk not only your own life, but the well-being of your loved ones.
You want to talk to cops? Someone might catch your best friend walking out of church. Someone might run up in your mom’s house with a pistol. What would you do?
Silence is a way of life, a brief and uncertain guarantee of survival.
So I am forced to ask myself: Who will be murdered this year? Who have we lost? Will they ever receive justice? How many more will die?
I don’t have any answers, but I do know that survivors must find ways to confront our grief. We have to speak our truths, even if clouded by death and trauma.
If we never face the immense weight of our suffering, then how can we move forward as a community?
Our muteness is a prison, perpetuating emotional and psychological damage. We deserve better, not only for ourselves, but for generations yet to come.
These men and women did not die in vain. Their lives had value.
We have to speak up.