They Don’t Care About Us, or Do They?

This documentary was produced by gunshot survivor Oronde McClain while participating as a community reporter in the Credible Messenger Reporting Project at the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting. The professional reporting parter was Cherri Gregg and the video producer was Brett Williams. Above: Photograph of Semaj Obranty and Oronde McClain by Cherri Gregg.

“They Don’t Care About Us” or Do They?

By Oronde McClain
Edited by Cherri Gregg

The title of this documentary is “They Don’t Care About Us.”  The journey to do this film began earlier this year when I got the email informing I had been selected to participate as a community reporter in the Credible Messenger Reporting Project at the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting. I was so happy that I would finally be able to tell the world how angry I am and have been since I got shot 22 years ago.  

Since the beginning, my rage has been directed at everyone outside of me — the city of Philadelphia, the state, the system and the politicians, as well as the people holding the gun. In my mind the fury is justified: There were over 560 murders last year in my city — that is outrageous — but there were nearly 2000 shootings where the victims survived.  It angers me that no one mentions the survivors or our pain and trauma.  That is why I wanted to do this film to highlight the journey of gun violence victims. 

Listen: Cherri Gregg of WHYY interviewed Oronde McClain about his experience.

Where it began

The seed of my anger was planted on Monday, April 3rd, 2000. I was 10 years old. That day I stood waiting in a Chinese store in Mount Airy at the corner of Chew and Sharpnack.  My stepmom was supposed to arrive there on the bus at 8:34pm that evening. But SEPTA was not on time so I went outside to check on the bus and didn’t see anything. As I turned around to go back into the store I heard gunshots. I ran back towards the Chinese store, but the owner shut the door suddenly leaving me trapped outside.  In that moment my life changed forever.

The trauma. The recovery.  Becoming empowered.

Bullets pierced the back of my head and I fell to the ground. I lay in a pool of my own blood on that Northwest Philadelphia corner, unable to move as the life drained out of me. Luckily, two Philadelphia police officers picked me up and drove me to the hospital in what seemed like 90 seconds.  As doctors worked to save my life, I was told that I flatlined for two minutes and 17 seconds.  The 10-year-old boy who existed on April 3rd died that day — and a new version of me was born.

The next time I remember being awake was seven weeks later.  I had been in a coma.  Reality soon hit — I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t talk, or do anything on my own. This new version of me spent the next three years confined to a wheelchair until I could finally put one foot in front of the other and walk on my own.  That day was a good day.

Getting shot was traumatic.  I mean — it hurt my body, my mind and put me in a very dark place.  The physical recovery was the most difficult thing I had experienced in my young life. But the emotional and psychological toll was unexplainable.  People laughed at me, they teased and gawked at me throughout my healing process. I could not bear the embarrassment.  I was depressed. I wanted to die.  

I hate to say this — but I tried to take my life more than 20 times. I will spare you the details, but during my days and years of despair — at no time did I receive assistance from the state, or the city. I did not die so to them, I guess, I was just a number or a file on some bureaucrat’s  desk. 

The detectives would tell my mom and family that they should be “happy” that they did not have to mourn the death of me.  The politicians would say “thank God you’re alive and not six feet under.” 

But I thought I was dead.  In fact, I wanted death — preferred it — because the pain I felt was unbearable.  Why? Because on April 2, 2000 I was a cool ten year old that could walk, talk, and do everything on my own. The next day everything changed. The new version of me had to be fed by others.  The right side of my body was paralyzed.  When I slept, I would dream of getting revenge on the people that teased, laughed and looked at me funny every day. In my mind, I’d ask the person that shot me — why not finish the job? 

At the same time, alongside the anguish was determination.  I wanted to become someone with enough power to change the policies and procedures on victims and survivors. Why are we looked at so differently than homicide victims? Why are we treated so unfairly? I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and got motivated. I pushed hard in therapy to make sure that I could be the so-called victim to change the laws and policies that would help “us” get better. I was going to make sure that the next person who got shot wouldn’t leave the hospital thinking they are alone, suicidal, and empty.  Part of that effort is this project.

The Survivors: Samaj, Free and Leon

I had a chance to work with great people during this documentary. I hand-picked the victims based on my personal conversations with them.

Semaj was a cool kid who never got in trouble. He  loved life and when I met him I immediately broke down with tears.  Samaj, like me, was 10 years old when he was shot in the head. He reminded me of my younger self.  He is humble, loves his mom, his twin sister and is in love with his pets.  But he — like me — is a survivor still bearing the scars of gun violence.

Oronde McClain interviews Uhura “Free” Russ: Photograph by Cherri Gregg

I met Uhura Russ also known as “Free” more than 10 years ago.  At the time, she had everything going for herself, including a bright career as a nurse. Free is loving, caring and humble. But she would always put herself last. I noticed all of this while working with her at a special needs daycare. Then I heard her heartbreaking story.  She — like me — is a survivor of horrible gun violence and still bears her scars. 

Leon Harris and his daughter Noel: Photograph by Cherri Gregg

Leon Harris a hard-working guy who grew up living in a single parent home. He was a church boy who worked two jobs and went to school to help out his mom. When I met Leon he was so open and cared about my story — like his story wasn’t even more amazing. Leon managed to create a beautiful family with his wife and daughter.  His  wife  cares so much about his well being and everyone knows his plan of care.  Even though Leon is confined to a wheelchair — a constant reminder of the single bullet that changed his life — he, like Samaj and Free, is pushing forward.

On the Front Lines

During this documentary I met inspirational politicians, doctors, and others who lead the way for victims.

G. Lamar Stewart at left, working with community leaders: Photo courtesy of G. Lamar Stewart

Like G. Lamar Stewart, Senior Pastor at Taylor Memorial Baptist Church. He’s also founder and executive director of Taylor Made Opportunities and Chief of the Community Engagement Unit of Love Ministry Training. All three of his jobs connect — and he uses the platforms as a way to respond to many of the shootings that happen across Philadelphia.

G. Lamar Stewart second to doing nighttime outreach alongside community members: Photo courtesy of G. Lamar Stewart

He just loves to bring comfort and support to not only the family of the victim and the victim of a shooting, but he also brings comfort and support to the communities around the city.  He cares— and has experienced that pain of gun violence having lost family members as well.

I also had a chance to meet and speak with Philadelphia’s very first Victims Advocate Adara Combs. With her deep knowledge of the impact of crime on victims I knew she would give me the truth that victims like me are looking for.  Adara advocates for gun violence victims, victims of homicide and of other crimes and advocates to shift policies, legislation, and systemic issues to better serve victims of crime. She wants to meet survivors and victims. She wants to partner with them to change Philadelphia. And she too was impacted by gun violence.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Pa. Rep. Darisha Parker. She told me that survivors need to stick together and stay strong if they want to make a change.  She said she has an open door policy and will discuss anything and try to get a law passed. At the same time, Rep. Parker noted that she cannot pass legislation alone — she said  survivors need to step up and make their voices heard.  Rep. Parker believes that survivors must create a plan to do demonstrations, lobby legislators and make things happen.

Finally, I sat down with Dr. Michelle Joy, Director of Behavioral Health Emergency Services at the Veterans Affairs hospital. She’s also Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry Perelman School of Medicine. Michelle explained in great detail how a victim’s trauma can be transferred to the families, and how doctors really don’t recognize how significant the impact of gun violence is on communities.

What I learned about the ‘They vs Us’

After spending time talking to survivors and some of the people working on the front lines to save lives, offer support and to shift police, it hit me: Every single person I spoke to cares about gun violence victims. They all do.  Each person I spoke to was personally impacted by gun violence and the experience is one of the biggest reasons they do this work. They also have families in this violent city and want to protect them and do right by the victims. 

During this journey I realized the title, “They Don’t Care About Us,” has shifted meaning. In the beginning the “they” was the politicians, police, lawmakers and anyone who was not a victim. In my mind, the so-called “they” were against me and my fellow victims. Even homicide victims — in some ways, I thought they took the easy way out and left “us” — the survivors behind. I was mad at the “they’s” of the world. 

But during the course of this documentary, I learned that many people care. And what’s more— they didn’t shoot me. Instead, I was so self-centered that I didn’t let anyone in. I didn’t give them the chance to show me they cared. Most of the politicians I interviewed ran for office because someone in their family was a victim and they wanted to change the way the system was for the people they love. 

In the beginning — the “us” was the victims who were actually shot by the gun.  But as I went through this process, I learned that we are all victims in some shape or form. There are so many co-victims, survivors, and others traumatized by the events of violence that we all suffer a great loss. If we all stick together and form one team we can help one another. 

So while I would still title the documentary “They Don’t Care About Us,” I realize now that the “they” could be “us” and the “us” is also “us” because we all have to care about ourselves before anyone else can care about us.

Behind the scenes with Oronde McClain

Our Community Engagement Manager Maxayn Gooden interviewed Oronde McClain.

If you or someone you know is suicidal, in crisis, or in need of general mental health support, please know help is available. You can contact your physician, local hospital emergency room, or any of the hotlines, text lines, web chats, and support groups listed below. Most are free and confidential resources. Many are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)
Crisis Text Line: 741741
• Lifeline Chat web chat service 
Samaritans’ Helpline: (877) 870-4673 (available in 240+ languages) 

Journalists: Take this online course on Responsible Reporting on Suicide. (You can audit for free or pay to get certified.)