It was what they call an “Angelversary” – the day Maurice Purnell became an angel, the date he was killed, June 24th.
Just six weeks earlier there had been another, that one in honor of Trevon Jeffries, shot down on May 12th.
Yet another came six weeks before that, for Tanisha Jackson, killed on March 26th.
To mark the days, the Mothers On A Mission 28 left their homes and ventured across the city to what, for them, have become Chicago landmarks: the spots where their children were killed. Nondescript locations forever marked in the mothers’ minds.
It’s an exclusive club, since you must have a murdered child to join. And this year for the first time it is honoring the Angelversary of each victim whose mother chooses to have one.
On the streets they marched, carried signs and waved flyers, shouting out the names.
“Justice for Tanisha!” the mothers yelled from the 900 block of West 76th Street.
“Justice for Trevon!” they shouted weeks later from the corner of 75th Street and Coles.
“Put the guns down!” they chanted weeks after that from Laramie and Division.
They called for an end to violence and – in unsolved cases – spread flyers asking for tips or witnesses.
Maybe some young man would read their messages, like “Stop Killing Your Brothers.” Maybe he’d see the heart-break on the women’s faces and make a decision to put a gun away. Or maybe a hidden witness would step forward and an unsolved case would finally be solved.
Maybe, or maybe not. Either way, these women feel compelled to do something. They can’t stay home and let their sons and daughters disappear without consequences, leaving the same lurking dangers in the neighborhoods they call home.
Mothers On A Mission 28 rally where member Tracy Lyons’ son was fatally shot.
Founding A Exclusive Club
Bertha Purnell, Maurice’s mother, founded Mothers On A Mission 28 in 2018, the year after Maurice was fatally shot. She tacked “28” at the end because that was his age at the time.
Chicago, she says, has too many eligible women for her to keep track of, but Purnell gives it a try and first focused on the Austin neighborhood where she lives, one of the city’s most violent and the site of Maurice’s death.
“It was right there by the barber shop,” Purnell said last Thursday, pointing across Division Street after about 30 people finished a Walk for Peace on Maurice’s Angelversary.
Purnell differs from most of the mothers because a suspect was charged with her son’s murder. After four years she’s still waiting for trial. But she said almost all the other mothers are waiting for Chicago Police to make an arrest – a reflection of the department’s extremely low homicide clearance rates.
A Murderer In Our Midst
On May 12th, Purnell addressed those gathered at the Angelversary for Trevon Jeffries, who was killed in 2018 at the age of 21. No one was ever charged, Purnell said, and “everybody in the community suffers because now we know there’s a murderer in our midst.”
Trevon’s mother Tracy Lyons was there, wearing a mask – owing to the COVID-19 pandemic – with a photo of her son on it. She stood by a vacant lot next to Nadia’s restaurant, where Trevon was shot.
Lyons said the area, by 75th Street and Coles, has seen repeated shootings and now bears the ominous nickname of “Terror Town.”
At the start of the event two male Chicago Police officers sat in a squad car with the windows rolled up, watching. But they drove away before it ended and Lyons asked participants to leave after several young men strolled by, eyeing them.
“The block is hot. The boys are watching,” she said. “I don’t want to overstay my welcome in Terror Town.”
The First Angelversary
On March 26th, the group’s first Angelversary brought them to a three-story red brick apartment building at 909 W. 76th Street, where Tanisha Jackson celebrated her 30th birthday in 2017. Celebrated, that is, until unruly guests who’d been told to leave returned to the party and gunfire exploded and Tanisha was hit.
One of the women marking the anniversary was Tanisha’s mother, Rochelle Jackson, who – like Trevon’s mother – wore a mask with her child’s picture on it. Hers also bore the words: “Say Her Name. Tanisha Jackson.”
That day many passing drivers seemed to understand; some honked in support as they cruised past and occasionally a hand reached from a car window to take one of the mothers’ flyers.
Tanisha’s aunt Cassandra Jackson joined in and so did a young woman who lived across the street, though “she didn’t know us from a can of paint,” Cassandra Jackson said. “She said, ‘I’m just tired of all the senseless killing.”
Rochelle Jackson at the Angelversary honoring her daughter, Tanisha Jackson.
“I love them to death”
Along with the anniversaries, Mothers On A Mission 28 also holds support group sessions and Rochelle Jackson said the other mothers have been a great comfort to her since her daughter’s shocking end. “I love them to death,” she said.
Tara Campbell, who facilitates the support group, explained that members initially met in person but when the pandemic raged, “we masked up and met in the park” and later turned to Zoom.
When Purnell first formed the group, it was disconcertingly simple to find eligible members. “Somebody would tell me somebody’s son was killed,” she said.
For instance, a woman Purnell worked with called her about a mother she knew, and then that mother told her about another woman whose child had been killed, and then that woman knew someone else . . . and so it went.
Only in a city like ours, with concentrated pockets of intense neighborhood violence, could you move so seamlessly from murder to murder to murder.
By now some 30 women have joined, Purnell said, and 11 regularly attend the support group. She said she keeps in touch with others who can’t handle the emotionally intense sessions but share the goal of “healthy healing, without going to drink or drugs, or acting out violently.”
The mothers ask Chicagoans to try to feel the searing pain that violence brings to our city, though each of their children’s deaths might’ve flashed only briefly on a day’s news cycle.
Maybe the passive acceptance some of us have gained would disappear if we could walk in their shoes for a time, though Purnell conceded that “the shoes we wear are a horrible fit. We didn’t choose these shoes, but we don’t take them off. We’re stuck in them.”
Tracy Lyons, the mother of murder victim Trevon Jeffries, at his Angelversary.