Emotional scars run deep for those affected by gun violence

Memorial tattoo
Jessie McDaniel displays a tattoo he had done honoring his brother who was killed by gun violence in 2010.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

On her worst nights, Princess Titus cleans.

Titus will sort and sweep until 4 a.m., as if looking for something lost. Her long braids dangle to her waist as she picks up paper wads and old toys from the creaky wood floors.

Titus' son, Anthony, was killed last Fourth of July, when gang members fired into a backyard of a home in the Jordan neighborhood of north Minneapolis. He was 16.

"After my son was shot and killed, I packed up everything in my house and I wanted to move," she said. "My therapist says it was just because I just wanted things close, and I didn't want to lose anything else."

Guns are fueling a street war in Minneapolis -- and there's no bigger battleground than the north side. Last year, 18 of the city's 30 gun-related homicides took place in north Minneapolis. The majority of the victims were black men, and so were most of the perpetrators.

On lonely nights, Titus dumps her boxes out onto the floor and tries to carve out a sense of order for herself.

This wasn't how it was supposed to be.

NO ESCAPE

In 1995, when Titus was 20 and pregnant, she took the train from Chicago to Minnesota. It was the dead of winter. Titus had her toddler son, Jessie, and was several months pregnant with Anthony.

Titus thought she had finally escaped the rough streets of Chicago's south side when she arrived in the Twin Cities.

Gun violence victims
Anthony Titus' mother, Princess Titus, said her son always had a smile on his face. Anthony Titus was killed by gun violence in 2010.
Courtesy of Princess Titus

"Not knowing that when you go somewhere, you take you with you, and all your bad habits," she said. "I remember there were 60 murders in Chicago that month. I didn't want either one of my kids to be one of those statistics down the line. Oh, God."

She eventually settled in the heart of north Minneapolis. It's a place where community leaders say boys are essentially born into a gun culture. For years, Titus tried to fend off the clusters of young men gathering in front of her house on Thomas Avenue, or what the boys on the street call T-Block — a name that evokes a prison yard.

"I remember chasing those kids down the block," she said. I walked up to them and said, 'Y'all can't just gangbang right here. If y'all want to gangbang, go in front of your mama's house and gangbang.' My words were: 'I'll be damned if one of my kids is hit by a bullet that's meant for one of you.'"

But despite these efforts, the warfare that led Titus to flee Chicago seemed to surround her family's new home in Minneapolis. Her oldest child, Jessie McDaniel, couldn't escape the lure of the streets, and in his early teens he joined a gang. McDaniel said he carried a gun like everyone he knew, and that it wasn't hard to find one from older guys in the neighborhood.

"This was when they was hittin' up the gun stores, robbing the gun stores," McDaniel said. "It was coming to the 'hood. And we was just buying them. Everybody had a gun. I'd buy that gun off your hip, when you right there. 'Aw, you got a little .45? Let me buy that from you right now, wassup? Two hundred right now, wassup?'"

FOURTH OF JULY

McDaniel just turned 18. He's skinny, with a quick smile. After his brother was killed, McDaniel got a tattoo scrawled across his chest. It reads: "Long live Prince Charming." That was Anthony's nickname.

McDaniel still has a hard time processing the idea that his brother is gone, instead of him. After all, it was Anthony, the middle child, who stepped up to fill the role of oldest sibling. He was the one who took care of his little sister, cooked and cleaned.

McDaniel said his younger brother was not in a gang, but before his death he began to veer closer to the streets after taking cues from him.

Applauding his peers
Jessie McDaniel, 18, applauds during a support group meeting at Oak Park Center in Minneapolis, Minn. Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011. After his brother, Anthony Titus, was killed in 2010, McDaniel has been transitioning from a life on the streets to working with youth in his community.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Police don't think Anthony was the intended target when he was killed. Gang members ambushed him and his friends while they were walking to a graduation party for one of the girls in the neighborhood.

Anthony's brother, grandmother and mother were with other relatives at Minnehaha Park for a Fourth of July picnic.

"The fireworks were about to start, and I got a phone call," Titus said. "They said, 'Anthony's been shot.' And my first response was, 'He's gone.'"

Then she screamed and said, "Mama Netta, we gotta go."

"I turned around and said, 'Go where?'" recalled Arnetta Phillips, Anthony's grandmother. "She said, 'They're saying Anthony is dead, Anthony is dead!'"

Phillips remembers racing through red lights with Titus until they reached a house on Fremont Avenue, 15 blocks from Titus' home. At first, police wouldn't let the two women see the body. Phillips said Titus was desperate to know if the dead boy lying in the backyard was wearing a watch she had given her son for his birthday.

"When the coroners lifted his body up to put him in the body bag, that's when we saw the watch, and that's when she saw his clothing and new shoes he had on," Phillips said. "And she just cried, 'That's my baby, that's my baby. Why? That's my baby.' That's when we knew it was actually him."

Anthony died from a single gunshot wound to the back. The medical examiner found a .38-caliber bullet that pierced his back, passed through several organs and became lodged in his chest.

Yet after Anthony's death, Titus said, the gunfire around her house didn't stop, even as mourners gathered in front of the house.

Gun violence victims
Jessie McDaniel, 18, reads a letter he found in his brother's bedroom as his mother, Princess Titus, listens in Minneapolis, Minn. Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"They shot him on the Fourth of July. And on the fifth, they shot down the block from my house," she said. "And on the sixth, they shot into my yard. It was like these kids were still trying to kill somebody."

In the days that followed, Anthony's brother thought about revenge.

"The whole 'hood was mad. Everybody was all ready to riot," McDaniel said. "I could have asked somebody easily to whack one of them dudes, but two days later, they got bumped off. They got took to jail, so I couldn't do anything."

McDaniel said he didn't have to retaliate because police quickly arrested two young men and soon charged them in the shooting. They wore black bandanas to mask their faces. One fired a silver semi-automatic handgun with a brown grain handle. The other used a .22-caliber revolver. Witnesses told police it sounded like gunmen fired at least a dozen shots at the group.

Ryan Loyd, then 20, and Kenneth Johnson, then 16, belonged to the Young N Thuggin' gang, authorities said. This winter, a judge sentenced Loyd to 39 years in prison and Johnson to 34 years.

GANG TERRITORY

Investigators believe Loyd and Johnson shot at Anthony because one of the kids he was walking with, known as "Ray Ray," was in the rival T-BLOCC gang, named after Thomas Avenue.

A member of T-BLOCC walking in YNT territory is sending a sign of disrespect and issuing a "challenge," according to testimony provided by a gang expert with the Minneapolis police. Authorities believe the Young N Thuggin' and T-BLOCC gangs are involved in narcotics, shootings, robberies and weapons.

Anthony Titus was eulogized at Shiloh Temple, a large Pentecostal church on the north side, where the Rev. Richard Howell leads Sunday sermons. Howell has come to know of many of the young black men killed on his streets — but only after they're dead. He oversees a good number of funerals in the area.

Rev. Richard Howell
The Rev. Richard Howell of Shiloh Temple church in north Minneapolis takes a phone call in his office on March 1, 2011. Howell oversees many of the areaa€™s funerals of young black males killed on the north side.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"I don't even know who these young people are," Howell said. "And to see them laying in the casket -- little kids, as well as young teenagers -- it just makes you sick to your stomach. And you never want to get immune to it. You don't. But the more you see it, it seems like it's become the way of life."

Children growing up in some north-side neighborhoods are essentially born into gang-controlled territories, Howell said. When boys reach the age of about 10, he said, all but the strongest kids are pulled into the streets.

"Depending who or what gang controls that area, you are automatically part of that because you live there," he said. "I mean, that's the peer pressure now on these kids."

AN 'EPIDEMIC' OF VIOLENCE

Community leaders and pastors call the shootings an epidemic. But even scientists agree.

Epidemiologist Jon Roesler owes his job at the state health department to the violent crime wave of the 1990s that resulted in the city's nickname "Murderapolis."

Behind his desk in downtown St. Paul, Roesler analyzes data entered by hospital emergency rooms. He studies gun-related trauma as if it were a disease. But in these cases, the agent is not a bacteria; it's a bullet.

"We look at the impact of a bullet upon a person, and the unique environment in which that injury occurs," he said.

The numbers show that Minnesotans use guns to kill themselves much more often than to kill another person, Roesler said.

In most parts of Minnesota, the vast majority of firearm injuries are unintentional or self-inflicted. But the exception, Roesler said, is in the Twin Cities metro area, where assaults are the leading cause.

The victims often are young and black.

"The African-American population suffers a disproportionate amount of the burden of firearm injury in Minnesota," he said. "It just really stands out."

SEARCHING FOR AN ANSWER

The murder of Anthony Titus has sent his brother searching for his own purpose.

McDaniel said his brother's shooters were once his friends. Meanwhile, he's recently lost four good friends to gunfire, including 17-year old Alisha Neeley. LeLe, as she was known, was killed last year.

Support group
Jessie McDaniel, 18, jokes with other members of a support group at Oak Park Center in Minneapolis, Minn. Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"Why is everybody getting shot and going to jail? Why is this happening? That's the same question I keep asking myself," McDaniel said.

Once so hooked on street life that he lived out of his car, McDaniel has moved back home. He spends several nights a week mentoring younger kids through a youth program at the Oak Park community center. He tells himself that Anthony's murder was a sign for his older brother to change course.

McDaniel turned his bedroom into a recording studio, and he wrote a song about Anthony's death.

"I lost my brother on the Fourth of July. It's crazy," the song goes. "I'm thinking about my time and how to spend it on this earth and what it's all worth. 'Cause I could be gone, another picture on a shirt, another casket in the dirt, another black mother hurt, another hearse. So tell me what it's all worth?"

That's what he thinks about all the time.

"What am I supposed to do now?" McDaniel asks himself. "I'm doing music, should I be doing music? Something's supposed to be different."

It would be a fitting ending to this story to say that McDaniel has cut off all ties to the street life after his brother's death. But it's not so simple.

Shortly after Anthony died, McDaniel said, he was scared so he bought a new gun. He said he loaned it to a friend, and has no idea who has it now.

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