Three-year-old Mekhi James had just gotten his first barbershop haircut when he became one of 104 people shot in Chicago on Father’s Day weekend.
“It hurts! It hurts!” Mekhi cried out after a bullet struck him in the back.
The gunfire had come from another car as the boy’s stepfather was driving him home on Saturday. The stepfather sped instead to Western Suburban Medical Center. Mekhi proved to be beyond saving and became one of 14 gunshot victims in the city who died, four of them juveniles.
On Father’s Day, Mekhi appeared with his fresh haircut on the viewing screen at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office. The stepfather had been grazed in the abdomen, but managed to be there, along with the boy’s mother and father. They were assisted by 60-year-old Andrew Holmes of Chicago Survivors, a nonprofit that attends to the needs of families who have lost loved ones to violence.
Holmes has spent the past decade responding to murder after murder, heading to the crime scene if the body is still there, otherwise to the hospital. He had been on the way to another homicide on Saturday evening when he was notified about Mekhi.
“I just turned around,” he later told The Daily Beast. “This was a 3-year-old.”
He had responded to the hospital that night. He now joined Mekhi’s family for the formal identification of the body. He himself lost a daughter to a stray bullet in 2015. He knew from his own experience what the boy’s family was feeling when the digital image of Mekhi’s lifeless face appeared before them.
“Now’s the time you want to touch them,” Holmes later told The Daily Beast. “The families want to pick them up and hug them and hold them. They want them to wake up.”
The mother was the most manifestly distraught.
“That mother wanted her baby,” Holmes said. “All she wanted was that baby to come home, to be back home with them.”
Holmes had also responded when 13-year-old Amaria Jones was fatally wounded two hours and six minutes after Mekhi was shot. A man in the street outside the girl’s home had realized he was being targeted by a red laser sight. Gunfire had erupted, but the bullets missed him and struck two teens, 15 and 16, on Amaria’s porch. A stray round tore into the house, striking Amaria in the neck as she watched television. She died at the hospital.
On Sunday, the faces on the screen at the medical examiner’s office proceeded from little Mekhi to Amaria, who loved to dance and had just finished the seventh grade and hoped to get a summer job. The smiles in photos of Amaria tell you she was thrilled to be among the living. This last image of her on the screen was of a girl who had been forever robbed of all her brightness. Here was proof of how much life a bullet can take.
A relative told Holmes that Amaria’s 20 year-old cousin Derrick Burns had been shot to death in September. Holmes checked the Chicago Survivors database and saw that one of his colleagues had attended to the family at the time of that loss.
Now Amaria was followed on the screen by 17-year-old Jasean Francis, who had been shot to death along with 16-year-old Charles Riley as they walked through an alley on Saturday afternoon. Holmes had responded to that scene and now did what he could for Francis’ family. Riley’s family had yet to make the identification on Monday.
The faces that flashed out in news media and on social media were those of little Mekhi and smiling Amaria. Some people used the images to question the Black Lives Matter movement, asking why protesters were not filling the streets in the wake of these deaths. One reason is that the killers of Mekhi and Amaria were not likely sworn guardians of the law and the safety of the public that pays their salaries. And people have often marched at other times against gun violence, notably in Chicago and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the same country that heard both Eric Garner and George Floyd cry, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” is also a place where little Mekhi cries, “It hurts! It hurts!”
And Chicago was not the only city torn by gun violence in recent days. Minneapolis has seen two multiple shootings. So has New York, where shootings are up 42 percent over last year. A block party in Charlotte, North Carolina, ended with 14 people shot, three fatally. Three people have been shot, one fatally, in the cop-free Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone the protesters established in Seattle.
On Father’s Day in Detroit, a dad was in front of his house with his 10-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old friend, setting off fireworks such as has people across the country complaining and even imagining conspiracies. The sound of the fireworks was then joined by gunfire, which too many people have come to accept as just part of the American way of life and death.
A man had appeared with a gun from between two houses. He shot the dad and the two girls. The dad and his daughter were listed in critical condition in the hospital, but are expected to live. The friend was treated and released.
On Monday afternoon in Chicago, Holmes was notified of a double homicide. He arrived to learn that three women had been shot inside a house. The luckiest of them had been hit in the shoulder and taken to the hospital. The two others had staggered out and collapsed, mortally wounded.
“One of them on the lawn, one of them on the sidewalk,” Holmes reported.
Holmes watched the bodies being removed and prepared to assist the surviving loved ones, an effort that could continue as long as a year, involving liaison with the police and counseling and special attention to kids in school, and anything else that might help. He would as always start out by giving them what he terms “room to grieve.” He would be back down at the medical examiner’s office, where face after face appears on that screen.
“I just thank the Lord I’m there to help these families and give them support, but nothing can take away the pain,” he said.
That is especially so when a parent loses a child.
“A mother and father looking at a child and knowing the child is gone, that their heart is not beating,” he said.
He also said what we should all be saying.
“This has to stop.”