From the family of a killed teenager, a call for reform

Terrence Neeley and Helena Neeley
Terrence Neeley, 22, and Helena Neeley, 20, who lost their 17-year-old sister Alisha to gun violence in north Minneapolis early last year.
MPR Photo/Steve Mullis

Alisha Neeley was just 17 when she was shot and killed a little more than a year ago.

She was leaving a party in north Minneapolis when a bullet struck her in the neck.

Alisha, as well as her sister Helena and her brother Terrence, had been associated with gang members. Terrence had done prison time.

A 19-year-old gang member has been indicted for the killing. But according to the complaint, ballistics tests don't tie his gun to the bullet that killed Neeley. Helena and Terrence don't believe he pulled the trigger.

However, they do believe the broader culture of gun violence led to their sister's death. And they say the night of Alisha's killing has changed their lives forever. The two siblings spoke with MPR's Tom Crann this week as part of MPR News' series on gun violence.

An edited transcript of the interview is below.

Tom Crann: What do you think, Terrence, can be done to stop this issue of gun violence, because you say that this is a fairly, it's not so much a wrong place at the wrong time, but it happens enough, too much.

Terrence Neeley: It's a simple fact of life around there.

Crann: What can be done to change it?

Terrence: I think what should be done to change it is the way that we deal with it. It isn't a simple fact, 'Oh, he's got a gun. Take him to jail,' or, 'He did this. Take him to jail, and this and that,' because you're taking these guys and you send them to jail, then you're leaving the streets wide open for the next ones that want to come up.

I think if you're going to take gang leaders and ... all that stuff out of play, then you've got to put something to replace that. You've got to put something to replace that structure that's missing now. You've got to replace that authority.

Crann: Like what?

Terrence: Like, let me see. It's a lot of community outreach and intervention programs and stuff like that. I just think it needs to be more hands on. You need to really come at it and deal with it like it's a real life issue because if you're going to take all the gangs from the streets, you need to put something else back there.

If you're going to take the gangs out, put some sports teams out there, put some more captains for the sports teams ... It's like all of it is disappearing. When I was little, it used be you used to go play football and all that at the parks ... The Little League teams are gone now. I haven't seen no tournaments or nothing like that in years and years and years and years.

Crann: And you think that would make a difference, Little League teams and basketball leagues.

Terrence: Yes, it'd have to make a difference. When you have nothing else to do, what do you do?

Helena Neeley: I agree. I think he's 100 percent right. I just feel like we have in our community resources that are available to youth. Every youth needs to be supported by a mentor, by some adult in the community. And if we as mentors or adults or ... parents hold ourselves accountable and do for youth, then our children won't be out here shooting. Our children won't be involved in negative perspectives in our community, and I just kind of feel like that's who we should hold accountable is our elders right now.

Crann: Terrence, what do you remember about, what stands out about the night your sister was shot?

Terrence: I wasn't home the night she got shot. I was still in prison. I didn't get released until two days afterwards, but I mean when I heard about it, it was just a lot of mixed emotions and mixed feelings. The first thing that came to my mind was evil doings and heartbreak. I wanted to make it right.

Crann: How?

Terrence: I'd have resorted back to what I knew best, back to gun violence and all that. You know when the first thing you think about that, it's like, damn, like a lost comrade.

Crann: But now that you're back out of prison, has that changed? Has that instinct of yours, it sounds like revenge, has it changed?

Terrence: No, it ain't changed. It's still in my heart. It's deeply embedded in me. I want to hurt people all the time behind my little sister's death, but what changes my mindset, I'm smarter now. I'm not 17. I'm not 16 no more where the first thing I'd do is run out and grab a gun and just start shooting.

It's just not a part of me no more because I know now either I could take the risk of going out there trying to seek revenge myself and end up back in prison for a long time and leave my last little sister out here all alone, or I could sit back and just play my part as smooth as I can and try to grow from it and just accept my loss as it come and try to make it one of my last losses to be taken and avoid the rest of them street gangs and stuff now.

Helena: You know he's the reason I have this perspective. I lost my brother to this. I lost my brother to the violence in Minneapolis and I lost my sister to the violence in Minneapolis and I feel that the best way to regain what I was missing was never to lose them again.

And I feel that the justice system in Minneapolis is horrible. And I feel there's no justice in the system. I've seen a friend of mine, he went to jail for murder in November of 2009. And I was with his son yesterday, and it hurt my heart because I could imagine him standing next to his son. They look identical and he's not gaining responsibility being in prison.

Yeah, he feels like he's done something wrong, but there is no justice because not only have we lost the person, that life that he's taken, we've lost him. What did we gain from that? We gain losing another black male, a father, a brother, a family member. We've lost two lives.

When you lose something, the only way you gain is to give back to share your experience, a testimony. He can't give that from prison. He can't help his son not make the same mistake. He can't help others not make the same mistake. And we learn from our elders and we learn from our mistakes.

Crann: Is it possible to look at this killing and say that there's been some change in the community or change even in yourself about the way you look at these things and something positive that's come out of it? I know that might be hard.

Helena: It's not difficult at all.

Crann: It isn't?

Helena: No. When something tragic hits you and it's unexpected, like when you don't plan something, you think a lot. You think about every outcome that could've happened, and you think about, and the reality is you get down to business, there's no changing it. So what do you do from this point to right that wrong, like he said.

You can't bring her back, and I know him, too, I know that I'm doing this because my sister's going to live on, and she's not going to die in vain. And I'm doing this for her, and I've been active in the community, and I've been speaking up against gun violence. And we're well on our way to make a very large statement, my own family.

Crann: And Terrence, what can you do to right this wrong, in the spirit your sister's talking about here?

Terrence: To come up with a real (program) to solve gang and gun violence. We need to sit down and get our community leaders together. We know the select individuals that we believe or we are suspecting to be involved in this type of behaviors. We need to intervene in it and make something better happen from it ... Because a lot of people have got potentials out here, a lot of people are leaders. A lot of people that the police want to put behind bars really should be, really got the potential to be leading this community and making it strong especially (for) the youth.

Crann: You yourself, you have done time behind bars, and now you're out. What can you do? What's your message? You have a credibility there in your community that a lot of people don't have. So, what's your message?

Terrence: Man, my message is take advantage of all those self-saving thoughts you have of yourself. When you sit back at night and you hear them thoughts in your mind, and you're telling yourself like, 'Man, it's not right,' and, 'It's something better,' and, 'I need to do this and this and that.' Man, listen to yourself and take them steps, take them steps and reach out to the people you know you need to reach out to save you, man. That's my best advice.

That's really what I live by now because really, to tell you the truth, I still live in fear of the police. I live in fear of going back to jail any day. When I come around my community, I be scared. I get pulled over just because the officers see my face sometime. So I constantly live in fear, even though I try my hardest to stay away from the things that I don't even have no business being around and the stuff that gets you back in jail. It's just once you're known for that, you're a target. You're a target in your community.

Helena: It's a system put in place to ... and I mean it is a good system, repeating sex offenders, you know, this is a good system. Repeating shooting offenders, it is a great system, but there needs to be an alternative, an intervention before prison. That's what we need, and that's what he's going to start doing.

Crann: Especially for younger offenders or first-time offenders?

Helena: We need to start early on. Not only are we going to start early on, it's my personal goal to not only jump in front of this before this gang life starts, but to intervene and stop the ones who are participating in the gang life and to help them give back and do what I'm doing so that no generations after this have to deal with what we have to deal with. And I would like to work with the police. A coalition would be great with the Minneapolis Police Department.

(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)

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