Everything Evanston: Reflecting on gun violence in the 8th Ward

KALEN LUCIANO: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Kalen Luciano. Welcome to another episode of Everything Evanston. This week we spoke with Daily Digital Managing Editor Christopher Vazquez about his reporting on gun violence in Evanston. Thanks for tuning in.

LUCIANO: Last week, Chris shared the second episode of his documentary series Toppling the Trigger, where he takes a look into how gun violence has affected residents of Evanston’s 8th Ward. Because of the nature of his reporting, we want to warn listeners that this episode contains some graphic descriptions of gun violence. After five years without any gun violence, the ward has experienced three gun homicides since 2016.

CHRISTOPHER VAZQUEZ: But the goal of the story wasn’t to sort of examine any sort of crime patterns in any specific area of the city. It was just to kind of focus in on one community and see how gun violence has impacted it, especially residents who are directly impacted by it.

LUCIANO: In the years since 2016, Evanston has lost three young residents to gun violence: 19-year-old Star Paramore, 25-year-old Hamza Hammouis and 25-year-old Shane Colombo. Each passing has left the community struggling to reconcile the violence and loss of loved ones.

VAZQUEZ: Star Paramore was planning to move out to California. He wanted to be a truck driver, but he was too young to take the class to actually be able to do that. And in 2016, he was found in the basement of his apartment building on Harvard Terrace. His mother, (Janet McEwan) didn’t know that he was dead for a few days. She found out when she walked into her apartment one Friday afternoon coming home from work. And there were police in her apartment that management had let in.

JANET MCEWAN: They asked me, “do I live here.” I said “sure.” They said, “What’s your son’s name?”. I said, “Star.” They said to me he’s deceased. I was like, “What?” I was still standing at the door. I said,” Deceased?” They said, “Yes.”

VAZQUEZ: Hamza Hammouis, the following year, was fatally shot in a parking lot on Howard Street, the Evanston side of Howard Street, which serves as the border between Evanston in Chicago. I was not able to get in touch with any of his loved ones.

In September 2018, Shane Colombo was preparing to begin a doctoral program at Northwestern. He was living in his apartment for just a few hours before he headed out to go buy hangers, and he was fatally shot also sort of a block off of Howard street on the Chicago side. He was engaged to his longtime partner, Vincent Perez, who heard the news by checking Shane’s location on his phone, and he saw that he was at the hospital.

VINCENT PEREZ: And then I remember calling and saying, “Hey, is there a Shane Colombo here?” The nurse is just like, “One moment please.” And it’s the doctor, and he’s like, “I’m sorry, your partner just passed away like five minutes ago.” And I was like, “You’re lying.” And that was hard and effectively now I have PTSD about those days. There are moments where something will play and I go back to that day, or I’ll eat something and I just think about those days.

LUCIANO: Evanston is seen by many as a quiet suburb north of Chicago. But gun violence is a pervasive issue that can touch anyone.

VAZQUEZ: One thing Vincent Perez told me is that there’s this perception of areas that are further north, or that are more gentrified or that are more suburban, to be safer, to be kind of insulated from the issue of gun violence, and it’s definitely the case that there are systems and inequities in place that fuel gun violence in more disadvantaged communities. Gun violence is a pervasive issue. Regardless of where you are, how north you go, and if one person is affected by gun violence, you really feel the effects of that sort of throughout the whole town. You feel the ripples of that.

VAZQUEZ: Reporting these stories are never easy. You can get through the first couple interviews without breaking down. By the time I interviewed Vincent Perez, he was asking me if I needed to take a pause. Sometimes, the gravity of what you’re talking about, what you’re reporting on doesn’t hit you right away. You always are aware of it. You always know it. But the emotional weight of it didn’t really start affecting me until a bit later on. I remember when I was transcribing interviews for the first episode. I was transcribing an interview that I did with Carolyn Murray, who’s an Evanston gun sense activist who lost her son Justin to gun violence in 2012. And I had to stop in the middle of that and just call my mom in the middle of the night because I was about to break down.

LUCIANO: Chris originally intended to publish the second part of his documentary in the spring, but he decided to postpone its release until this fall because of the emotional weight of these stories.

VAZQUEZ: And it also comes with a sense of guilt, because who am I to be so emotionally affected by this that I’m delaying sharing the story that these people were so generous to share with me? It also comes with this knowledge that a lot of times, especially for these more local cases of gun violence, the stories haven’t always been told, and someone owes it to these people, these survivors, to tell these stories.

VAZQUEZ: It really is a story about how a mother could find it in herself to forgive the person who killed her son.

MCEWAN: I forgive the person who killed Star. I just want him to turn himself in to face whatever he did, but I don’t have an ounce of hate in my heart. I pray for whoever did that to Star. I can’t go around with hate in my heart.

VAZQUEZ: This is how a man could bring himself to live in the apartment that he and his late fiance were supposed to live in together.

PEREZ: The thing that I can do to honor him the most is live my life the way he lived his, curious and playful and always learning. If there’s any piece of advice I can give anybody it’s like don’t be afraid to tell someone that you need something.

VAZQUEZ: I think that’s what it is at the end of the day. It’s just a story about how you move on from being impacted by something as deadly, as sudden, as traumatic as losing a loved one to gun violence.

MCEWAN: Forgiveness is not so easy. It’s a hard thing to do, but you gotta think about yourself because if you don’t do that for you, nobody is going to do that for you.