According to Washtenaw County’s latest firearm death report, released just this summer, firearm homicide rates doubled–from 16 to 38 per year, on average–between 2012 and 2021. A number of these shootings are the result of street violence, which has claimed the lives of many young men and women.
Who are these victims?
In general, they reside in Ypsilanti and Superior Township, particularly in the 48197 and 48198 zip codes. They’re also, in general, young (average age: 29), male (77%) and Black (77%).
Those numbers tell a story about growing community violence–untenable violence that is cutting short the lives of our young Black men, tearing up their families and communities, and perpetuating further violence.
In this story, you’ll meet two of the victims, and victors, who survived.
Twenty years ago, Roger Roper was at a store in his neighborhood. He had a pile of cash, and was trying to get a money order to pay his rent. But the money order machine was down, so Roper left the store trying to decide what to do next.
At that moment, a young man approached and demanded Roper give him the cash. Roper didn’t know the guy, didn’t trust him, and really needed to pay his rent, so he said no.
The guy shot Roper in the chest two times.
In the hospital after surgery, doctors told Roper he’d never walk again. Roper was, understandably, full of rage at the man who’d shot him.
This is the point when many victims of violent crime start planning to retaliate. It’s much more common than you think. A victim is hurt, angry, frightened, and retaliates, perpetuating the cycle of violence.
You can see it in the Corner Health Center parking lot, where a memorial mural has been painted to honor the young men and women lost to street violence in the last 14 years. There are 52 names on the wall.
What you can’t see unless you know the young men and women, know the chain of relationships between them, is that many of the victims on the wall are intertwined in a complex and tragic web of love, loss, and retaliation.
For Roper, back in the hospital and stewing in rage, plans of retaliation simmered, but were interrupted when someone from the community stopped by to see him in the hospital. “He said, ’you have so much to live for,’” Roper recalls.
To be honest, Roper says, he didn’t really buy it. He cooled his rage, but Roper didn’t see anything good, he says, coming out of the situation he was in.
Maybe, just maybe, he was wrong.
Today, Roger Roper is a middle aged man with a graying beard, an infectious smile, and a wheelchair. Roper wears a navy blue shirt, provided by the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office, with the words “outreach worker” on the breast pocket.
As an outreach worker with the sheriff’s office, Roper visits gun violence survivors in the hospital, right after a shooting or stabbing–about three dozen in the last year–and offers help.
To be fair, anyone could do that job, and many do it more regularly than they’d like. But Roper has a few qualifications most don’t.
Roper grew up in Ypsilanti, where many have died from street violence. He’s a gun violence survivor, himself. And he relates to the grief and anger these young men are feeling. As such, he’s the perfect employee for WeLIVE, a new program that provides support to victims of community violence.
K’antonio Lewis-Gardner is one of the young Black men Roper has visited in the hospital. He’s the father of three, and clearly very proud of the fact. He brings up his kids a half dozen times during our one-hour interview. He was thinking about them, in fact, when a young man shot him in the fall of 2021.
K’antonio never saw it coming, he says, thinking back to the day.
He was at the barbershop with his son, and when they walked out, their hair perfect, two young men ran out from behind the trees. He knew them, he says, as other people who lived in the city. But he didn’t know them personally.
Twelve shots, and K’antonio was down. He felt like he was being electrocuted, and saw one of the perpetrators standing over him.
His life was flashing before his eyes, but the only images that stuck were images of his kids.
Then the feelings of electrocution stopped. K’antonio prayed to God, “please don’t take me from my kids.”
And after that, everything faded out.
K’antonio woke from a coma two weeks later and, soon after, three outreach workers from the sheriff’s office came to the hospital. One of them was Roper.
Roper was in a wheelchair, which hit home since K’antonio didn’t know if he’d be able to walk again. He says Roper inspired him.
“A person that could get up out of bed, get around, talk, do everything that I wanted to do,” says K’antonio. “He’s telling me ‘it’s gonna be alright to go forward. Don’t let this beat you.’”
K’antonio says that what he needed right then, and what he thinks all victims of violence need, was safety, support, and empowerment.
Beginning with safety, it wouldn’t have been safe to return to his home and put his kids in danger. So the WeLIVE outreach team put him up in a hotel.
In terms of support, K’antonio remembers Roper calling every day, and K’antonio’s whole family being there for him.
The empowerment? K’antonio had to find that for himself.
K’antonio’s sense of security was gone. He didn’t trust anything, he says. But he didn’t want to feel that way.
He recalls thinking, “In no way, shape, form, or fashion is that drama gonna help me live my life positively.”
So K’antonio found a counselor to talk through it, and it helped.
“I ain’t a victim,” says K’antonio, thinking about the shooting.
“This isn’t something that’s holding me back. This is something that I won. I beat this. I made it through. And look at me now.”
I wish the story could stop here, on this note, the win. But unfortunately, the story goes on and on.
Roper says three shootings happened in the week before our interview. K’antonio brings the shootings up as well.
Both Roper and K’antonio can’t understand why the papers haven’t mentioned it, can’t understand why the whole county isn’t outraged.
Three shootings. Three young men. Maybe angry. Maybe scared. Maybe in need of support. But three survivors, like Roper, like K’antonio, looking for safety, support, and empowerment.
WeLIVE is one of several programs and endeavors inspired by Washtenaw County’s Community Violence Intervention Team.
The team, which includes violent crime victims, community organization representatives, and officials from Ypsilanti and Washtenaw County, has developed a list of 14 policy recommendations, urging local governments and community groups to adopt and invest in them.
While the recommendations were formalized by the CVIT, the ideas are not new. According to the recommendation report, they “come from the years of lived experience members have in navigating, surviving, and in some cases perpetuating violence in our community.”
Of the 14 recommendations, a number have been achieved or are in process. The county has set a clear goal of saving lives by stopping violence (Goal 1). Outreach workers like Roper and others with lived experience are engaging in the places where violence is all too common (Goals 2 and 3). And both victims and perpetrators are being engaged with empathy and accountability (Goal 4).
Washtenaw County has committed funds to develop a new community center in Eastern Washtenaw County (Goal 11). And the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office, public health department, and community mental health agency have formed a group to explore funding opportunities for additional anti-violence strategies (9). A $1 million grant to advance the work was recently secured by the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office.
To learn about all other 14 recommendations, visit the CVIT’s website here.
And to learn how you and your organization can help in this work, review Adopt Policy Recommendations to Save Lives by Interrupting Violence.