Escaping the Trap of Youth Violence

Born and raised in Chicago, John McCullough, submerged in a culture of youth violence, was shot and incarcerated on numerous occasions.
By John McCullough as told to Stefanie Jackson-Haskin
March 2014
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“My biggest fear is getting shot down and just being laid out in the middle of the street somewhere. I don’t want to die like that: getting shot down, beaten to death or stabbed to death, just being laid out on the sidewalk, period.”
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How Long Will I Cry (Big Shoulders Books, 2013) is a compilation of stories from people whose lives have been changed by violence in the streets and bloodshed in the Chicago area. Interviewed by DePaul University creative-writing students and edited by Miles Harvey, the result is an extraordinary and eye-opening work of oral history. The following excerpt is from “Four Bullets” with John McCullough.

I remember it was the summertime that my dad got shot and killed. I don’t really know the reason. He was in Michigan. I don’t know why he was out there. I think it was one of them white girls he was messing with that stayed out there.

My mama told me to come into the crib. I was, like, 13. She told me and my sister that my dad had just got killed. Everything went blank. I remember that day like yesterday. Everything went blank and I couldn’t cry. I didn’t know what to do. It was hard to take it all in. I just remember thinking, like, “He’s gone.”

I think my mama took it worse than me. Even though they weren’t together for a while, she took it harder. While she was telling me, she was crying. My grandma was crying. My sister started crying and I’m just sitting there, the only one not crying. Just sitting there, like I’m retarded, puzzled. The day of the funeral, my little brothers see my daddy in the casket. They was saying, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.” They was crying for their daddy. That’s all I could hear.

My Uncle Delvin, he took care of us when my father got killed. He made sure I was straight and didn’t need nothing. He would go to my football games and all that. He took care of his family; he took care of everybody. He was about the only male influence that I was getting. He was a Chicago police officer. He was there for me, so I’ll say he was my biggest role model.

He killed himself. I don’t know why, but he killed himself. I think he shot his wife, like, seven times, then killed himself. Somehow he snapped, because that wasn’t him. He wasn’t a killer and wasn’t the type of person to harm a female. He just lost it.

When he was alive, I was on football teams, basketball teams and softball teams. I stayed in school. All that went down the drain when he left. I was 15, and I wasn’t getting that extra push or that guidance anymore. So, it went from kicking it with family to kicking it with the guys.

 

I’m soft. People who know me know that I am a sweetheart. But people who don’t know me, just based on how I look, they would think I’m a hardass, super tough. I’m hard on the outside and mushy on the inside. I’m the type of person that’s not gonna bother anybody, you feel me? But if somebody bothers me, I step up and give them what they’re looking for. Other than that, I’m a good person.

As a whole, it’s just me and my guys. We ain’t no big gang, not like how it was back in the day, like a big nation and all that. When you go to high school, you link with a lot of guys. So we started meeting with other guys in the neighborhood, which made us bigger and bigger. These are my close guys. We don’t hang in the area where all this gangbanging is happening. I mean, when we go out, we have fun, we party and we get out of the neighborhood so we don’t have to look over our shoulder and stuff. We’ll probably go downtown to restaurants or something, like to Dave and Buster’s or the Cheesecake Factory. We don’t go looking for trouble.

The most recent time I was shot, it was gang affiliation. Over the years, we never liked each other. The guys that shot me, we went to high school together. Ever since then, it just escalated, bigger and bigger. I got locked up and everything came right back and haunted me. It beat me in the ass. It built up over the years. The beefing, all that, and not liking each other. We all Gangster Disciples, but they call they self something else, and we call ourselves something else. It’s not a big organization. So when people say gangs, it’s not no gangs out here. It’s just individuals who claiming something. We’re Creep Town Gangstas. I don’t know what they call themselves. Everybody got their own little cliques and their own little names, but at the end of the day, they all Gangstas, GDs.

 

Nov. 4, 2008. That’s the day I got locked up for selling drugs. I was 20, locked in Pinckneyville Correctional Center. At the time, I was working, but I didn’t have a high school diploma, so I didn’t have a decent job. There’s a lot of stuff I like, and there’s a lot of stuff I be needing, and my people and my family be needing. It’s not going to come to us, you know. So I was working in a furniture store, delivering furniture, and selling drugs at the same time. I ain’t going to say I had to, but I wanted that little extra money. That’s one thing I hate, is to struggle. I hate struggling.

Jail is what you make it. I mean, it’s going to have some challenges, and there’s going to be some guys that are going to try and test you. But at the same time, to me, jail is like college, like going away to college somewhere. The only thing on your mind is your people, or what’s going on outside of the jail walls.

I came home Jan. 4, 2010. I was supposed to have come home earlier, but I messed up in jail. I was fighting my cellmate and I put him in the hospital. They took three months from me, so I had to stay. Finally, I came home. When I was in jail, I said I was going to change. I said I was going to do everything different. But I mean, that’s just jail, period. It’s going to change your mind state, because you’re not going to like what you’re seeing in there.

 

I was shot on two different occasions. The first time, I was on 79th and just got off the bus. I’m walking to my grandma’s crib and, as soon as I get up the alleyway, two guys come up. I had a pocketful of money and these guys tried to rob me. All I could do was run, because they weren’t about to take my money. So that was probably why they shot at me.

I got shot in the back of my leg. I didn’t know I was shot at first until I got like two blocks away, and my leg went out. I couldn’t even walk no more. I was scared. I went to the hospital the next day. It wasn’t internal bleeding or none of that. I could see the bullet in my leg. It was throbbing, but that’s about it. When I got to the hospital, the nurse told me that it would come out on its own. So, I just signed myself out and left. I took that one out myself.

That was in November 2007, and then I got out of jail in 2010. The summer of 2010, I got shot again, three times. I had just come from my grandma’s house. The guys who I was into it with, they were close by, on 69th and Ashland. Me being me, I get off the bus at 69th and Ashland. I always look around. You know, just the neighborhood that we stay in, you gotta look around and pay attention to your surroundings. That’s what I was doing, and at the same time, somebody was sitting there watching me. As soon as I get to my grandma’s crib, somebody popped up from behind and shot me.

Man, I was scared that time. When he shot me in my chest, I seen my blood splash in my face. I turned around and I ran and he kept on shooting. He shot me in my back; that’s when I felt everything get numb. My back, my side and my chest, everything got numb. I jumped my grandma’s gate, then I went in my neighbor’s backyard. I was scared, super scared, because I didn’t know how many times I got shot. I couldn’t breathe, so that really made me panic. The bullet that went in my chest came out my back. The bullet that went in my back got stuck in my lungs; it messed my lungs up. When I got shot in my butt, it came out my hip. So two of them came in and went out, but one of them was stuck.

The first week, I don’t remember nothing. I don’t remember talking to nobody because I was so drugged up. When everything started calming down, though, I couldn’t think about nothing. My mind was just going everywhere. I didn’t know who shot me; I didn’t know what was coming up next. I was just glad I was here, though. That first shot was supposed to kill me. It was like literally two inches away from my heart. I just gave thanks every morning. I did that anyway, every morning I wake up. I made it my business to acknowledge God. He was most definitely with me that whole time. It slowed me down, gave me an eye-opener.

 

The police tried to find the guys that shot me, but they couldn’t, as usual. There was a police camera right there where I got shot and the police say they don’t know who shot me. Basically, I say them cameras up there are for nothing, because there was no footage of what happened to me. So, we take all that up in our own actions. We protect ourselves instead of being quick to call the police. They come on their time; they gonna do the job on their time.

It’s a lot of police out here that’s dirty. I’ll say they’re the biggest gang out here, the Chicago police officers. They can do whatever they want to do. If you don’t have nothing on you and they don’t like you, they’re going to put something on you and send you to jail. They can beat you and leave you right there. Or they can beat you, and then take you to jail and say you swung on them.

You got some that do their job. Some police officers got a lot of respect out here, because they respect the guys on these streets. We got a lot of people out here, like myself, that don’t be looking for no trouble, but we try to get some money to try and better ourselves and our family. Some of these police out here see that and won’t bother us, and some of them out here just want to make our lives miserable. Make our lives worse than what it already is.

 

My proudest achievement: I’ve been out of jail for a whole year! And, I mean, it’s shocking. Since I was 17, I’ve been going back and forth to jail every year; every year, I was in jail at least once. But I just broke my record. I went a whole year without getting locked up. I’m proud of myself. Mainly, I’m just sitting back right now. I ain’t got to sell drugs because my people don’t want me to go back to jail, so they’re going to make sure I don’t need for nothing.

What motivates me? Today? To get up? My family motivates me—my Granny Bertha, my mom, my sisters and brothers. I just want to do something better for them. Because, since I turned 17, everything started going downhill. I want to show them that I ain’t just a bad person. I wouldn’t want to be in a new environment because I would have to start all over again. This is where I feel comfortable. I know everybody around here. I can’t go nowhere yet anyway, until I get off parole.

Violence has affected me mentally, though. You gonna always have to look over your shoulder. Violence, that’s every day. We see that every day. It’s gonna be something petty, and it’s gonna end in violence. But we adapt to our environments, we’re just so used to it. You’ll hear some gunshots, but all you gonna do is look around and see if they coming towards you. Unless it’s right there, and you’re in harm’s way, you don’t go in no house. It’s just normal. It’s normal. A lot of young males don’t have any type of guidance, so we go by what we see every day and that’s all we know. That’s all we know.

My biggest fear is getting shot down and just being laid out in the middle of the street somewhere. I don’t want to die like that: getting shot down, beaten to death or stabbed to death, just being laid out on the sidewalk, period. I want to die in my sleep, that’s all.

Being stretched out in the street, you gotta wait for the police to come. You’ll be out there for hours. Just out there. Too many of my guys got killed around us, so I see that. Too many times. I don’t want to go out like that. Everybody standing around, looking at my dead body.

—Interviewed by Stefanie Jackson-Haskin

Adapted with permission from How Long Will I Cry: Voices of Youth Violence, edited by Miles Harvey and published by Big Shoulders Books, an innovative new entity at DePaul University. The goal of Big Shoulders Books is to publish, free of charge, anthologies of writing by and about people whose voices might otherwise not be heard. For more information: Big Shoulders Books.


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