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Gun violence survivors speak out to change cycle of revenge shootings in Washtenaw County

Roger Roper - Gun violence survivor.
Photo by Derrick Jackson
Roger Roper - Gun violence survivor.

Cathy Shafran: This is 89.1 WEMU. I'm Cathy Shafran. Some sad statistics in the U.S. focus on gun deaths in the country. It turns out that by the time we get to the first week of February, the U.S. has already surpassed the number of gun deaths that most other countries experience in an entire year. And it's because of that timing that the first week of February has been designated as Gun Violence Survivors Week. This is the week that's designated for gun violence survivors to share their stories. It's in an effort to help be the change makers and hopefully open the eye of others involved in gun violence. So how is Gun Violence Survivors Week being observed in Washtenaw County? We pose that question to Derrick Jackson, Washtenaw County Sheriff Department's director of community engagement. Derrick, thanks for being with us.

Derrick Jackson: Thank you for having me.

Cathy Shafran: So, what is planned?

Derrick Jackson: Well, I'll just say that, you know, as a part of what the sheriff's office wants to do is to help elevate the voices of the people that we work with, those who are survivors. And so we have a series of interviews and videos so that people can see for themselves and hear the direct stories and the impacts of those who live with the fight for survival every single day. So, I'm sure there are other things around the county that are being done. But the work that we do around violence mitigation and retaliation prevention, we really want to highlight those individuals who have survived, who are doing good work and who are working in our community to make sure other people are on that same path.

Cathy Shafran: They're already recorded?

Derrick Jackson: So, right now, we're in the process of recording them. So, there are a couple I think I did four yesterday. We've got two more scheduled later today and then every day of the week since. The Awareness Week is really the first through the seventh, we're going to post another video and the person's story so in their own words. And we just want to provide a platform to elevate their words.

Cathy Shafran: And where could the public have a chance to view these?

Derrick Jackson: So, we're going to post them on social media. So, they'll be on the sheriff's office website, through the Facebook of the sheriff's office, and YouTube. And we're going to post them through the Internet.

Cathy Shafran: And what do you hope people glean from these stories?

Derrick Jackson: I think a couple of things. Number one, to call attention to this really important public health crisis. And that's what it is. It's a public health crisis. When you look at the number of people who have been harmed by gun violence, not only just in our country, but in our community, it's also about people can survive. We're talking about good people, good families, who are turning their pain into purpose. And there are specific steps that we can take in our community to limit the likelihood of this happening again. About 80 to 85% of the shootings in Washtenaw County are retaliatory in nature. And so, part of the work that we're trying to do is to really hone in on reducing the likelihood of someone retaliating.

Cathy Shafran: That's a huge number.

Derrick Jackson: It is a huge number. Absolutely.

Cathy Shafran: So, most crime, is it violent crime or deaths?

Derrick Jackson: Most of the gun shootings that are, like, the street level, violent crime in our community. That's not domestic violence related. Not to discount that at all. But the work that we've been doing primarily with the WeLIVE program is on the street level gang violence, and that is about 80 to 85% retaliatory.

Cathy Shafran: So, you believe there the importance of this week. And keeping this in mind is that if you could stop the circle of revenge?

Derrick Jackson: Absolutely.

Cathy Shafran: You would slow down the rate of revenge violence?

Derrick Jackson: What happens when we go into a hospital room, and we're working with someone who had just been shot or stabbed, and we start talking to them. They have very similar stories, and they wish they would have known some of the things while they're in that hospital room prior to doing whatever they were doing out on the streets and with one with being a victim and now a survivor. And so, what we want to do is use this week to elevate those things in the minds of people.

Cathy Shafran: Okay. Well, I know that much of the focus this week is on sharing the voices of gun violence survivors. And Roger Roper is one of the survivors locally. He was shot 20 years ago during a robbery. It's a shooting that paralyzed him from the waist down. Roger is joining us by phone. Thanks for being with us, Roger.

Roger Roper: Hi. How are you doing?

Cathy Shafran: You know, I understand that the purpose of sharing your story and others like it is to help change this cycle of retribution and revenge shootings that Derrick has just been talking about that typically happen after gun crime has killed or maimed a family member. I'm wondering if you remember back to your feelings 20 years ago after you were shot. Was there anger within you? Was there this desire for revenge in your mind?

Roger Roper: I would call it more rage. I was angry at everyone. No one could really talk to me. Even the people who were trying to help me, like the nurses, weren't able to talk to me. I was going off on everyone. I had a hard time for a couple years with dealing with the whole situation that I would never walk again. So,I would call it more of a rage in me than just plain anger.

Cathy Shafran: Do you think that you wanted to retaliate as result of that rage?

Roger Roper: Absolutely. That's all I thought about. I slept on it. I woke up thinking about it. It was just something that I thought about every day. Fortunately, the guy who did it was already in prison at the time, so I wasn't able to get any kind of revenge on him, but I firmly believe if he would have been out, I would have tried.

Cathy Shafran: That was the first emotion that your rage was. "I have to fight back." want them to know what it feels like. That's the first thing that goes through your mind.

Roger Roper: Yes, absolutely. It was. I wanted to get him back. It was I couldn't let him get away with it. Nobody would respect me if I didn't get him back. It was a lot of things. But the main thing was this guy did what he did to me, and I wanted revenge.

Cathy Shafran: You've changed since that time. What's happened to you over the years that that changed those feelings?

Roger Roper: Well, the first thing was I was when I was in the hospital, a guy who was in a wheelchair came in and talked to me about how my life wasn't over. And I can still make a difference in my life and in my family lives. So, I never really listened to him. It was still playing in my head, but, like I said, when I went home, I was still really, really angry about what had happened to me. And I was scared because I didn't know how I was going to take care of my family anymore as far as being in a wheelchair. So, after a while, I continue to think about what this guy was saying. And I finally went to school, and school and getting a job kind of made a big difference for me. This guy is not worth spending the rest of my life in prison.

Cathy Shafran: Coming to that realization for yourself, what do you now tell others that are now becoming the victims of gun violence?

Roger Roper: I tell them that you are a survivor, and there's a lot more that you can do with your life, besides being mad as someone and spending the rest of your life in prison. You will not be a winner that way. Your family will lose. You will lose. There's more than you can do with your life. And let us figure out where to go in life and start working on.

Cathy Shafran] And, Derrick, I'm assuming that it's stories like these and messages like these that you're trying to get out this week.

Derrick Jackson Absolutely. And those who are closest to the problem are always closest to the solution. And you can just tell by listening to Roger's story. You put him in in the hospital room with someone who's just been violently injured, and he can relate to them. He can talk to them, and he can help walk them through the path of recovery. We have great hospital systems in our county that can pat someone up physically, but oftentimes they leave that hospital mentally and emotionally traumatized looking for retaliation. Roger and the people like him are helping to save lives by stopping retaliation in Washtenaw County.

Cathy Shafran: And do you have it documented? Has he already had some impact?

Derrick Jackson: Absolutely. And you hear some of those stories, the stories that we're going to be releasing this week. The first four we did are all individuals that Roger has been able to work with. And I won't, you know, share all the story. I'll let them do it themselves. But you can see where they came from in the darkness that they were in. And now what they're doing with their lives. And it's pretty powerful to see.

Cathy Shafran: So, we have Roger to thank for perhaps reducing the crime that might be ahead?

Derrick Jackson: Roger and there are teams of people like Roger, we call them violence interventionists. Roger is one that works for we live. But there are several other organizations in our county that are doing this exact work alongside of us. And you can just see the stories and you'll be able to hear the power in that work.

Cathy Shafran: And how, if people are listening to this now and feel that they want to be a part of the solution and help, how can others get involved as a result of what they're hearing this week?

Derrick Jackson: The one thing I would really look at is here in Washtenaw County, we have the Community Violence Intervention Team. There is a report and recommendations, 14 things that we think if we do in Washtenaw County. We can really make an impact on gun violence. I would really encourage people to look at that. Those are saved on the Washtenaw My Brother's Keeper website. So, if you Google Washtenaw County Community Violence Intervention Team, you'll be able to find that. That's the first start. And there are things in those recommendations for individuals and organizations.

Cathy Shafran: Derrick Jackson, Washtenaw County Sheriff Department Director of Community Engagement and Gun Violence victim Roger Roper. We want to thank both of you very much today for joining us and highlighting the importance of Gun Violence Survivors Week. I'm Cathy Shafran; and this is 89.1 WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

Here are links to the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Department website, Facebook, and YouTube.

Here is a link to Washtenaw County WeL.I.V.E.

Here is a linkto the Washtenaw County Community Violence Intervention Team (CVIT).

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Cathy Shafran was WEMU's afternoon news anchor and local host during WEMU's broadcast of NPR's All Things Considered.
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