Urban Battlefield Survivors Bear Witness to Legacy of Violence
Seven wheelchairs roll into the Rikers Island prison gym, the whirring of the motorized machines echoing in the silence that follows them inside.
Seven people--all unable to walk, some unable to talk--are here to give the inmates a reality check.
There’s Maria, who could suffocate if the tube in her throat is not suctioned at least 10 times a day.
There’s David, whose left leg is so atrophied it’s no bigger than a twig.
There’s Eduardo, a quadriplegic who pushes the joystick on his wheelchair using his chin.
Wilson still has a hollow-point bullet in his brain, a parting shot from a drug dealer who thought he wasn’t bleeding enough. Mohammed carries his in his chest. Freddie spent 2 1/2-years on life support. George talks through a computerized typewriter after overdosing on heroin.
They are the volunteer members of POWER--People Opening the World’s Eyes to Reality.
They are the faces of violence, living reminders that when it comes to drugs and guns and violence, sometimes dying is the easy part.
“How many of you facing a lot of time?” group leader Wilson Murphy asks. Half a dozen hands go up from the three-dozen inmates scattered throughout the bleachers.
“Yeah, well you ain’t facing nothing like we’re facing,” he barks into a microphone. “We’re the ones doing life sentences here.
“When you pull the trigger and then run, this is what you’re leaving behind.”
The in-your-face image is powerful--and meant to be.
Between 1980 and 1990, 4,450 young people--ages 15 to 24--were killed in New York City. Seventy percent of those deaths were caused by guns and 90% of those killed were males.
A group of private and public doctors banded together in April to declare that violence is reaching epidemic proportions in New York City.
The seven people in the wheelchairs already know that.
Like the Scared Straight prison program of the ‘70s, the idea behind POWER is to graphically show inmates, school kids, community and religious groups the aftermath of violence.
“You continue strapping those guns on outside, pretty soon the only thing you’re gonna be strapping on is a urine bag,” POWER director Bobby Cooper tells the stone-faced inmates sitting before him.
“Know what this is?” he asks, holding up a long red tube. “It’s a catheter,” he said, not waiting for a reply. “Know where they have to stick it so you can go to the bathroom?”
“It’s true, we want to leave nothing to the imagination. We want them to know what really happens,” Cooper said after the presentation. “So we talk about bed sores and wearing diapers and not being able to have sex.”
If it makes them uncomfortable, he says, all the better.
“All too often, thanks to TV and movies, people think that if you get shot you either walk out or you die,” Cooper said. “We’re here to show them you don’t always walk out and you don’t always die.”
The wheelchair-using volunteers are live-in patients at the city-run Goldwater Memorial Hospital in Manhattan. They travel around the city speaking on the value of education and the human cost of violence.
Though the message is clear without a word being uttered, each takes a turn telling their story, except George Schuetter.
“George fried his brain with heroin,” Cooper explains. “His mind is fully functioning but he’s destroyed the portion that controls speech and coordination.” The typewriter that spits out tickertape-like paper containing his thoughts is George’s communication lifeline now.
But the others, some speaking through interpreters, speak pointedly of the event that changed their lives.
Murphy got caught in the cross-fire between drug dealers outside a Brooklyn housing project. They knew he didn’t mess with drugs, he says, and when one realized he was hit, he walked over and pumped another shot directly into his neck.
“I was already face down on the ground, shot four times, but he decided I needed one more,” Murphy told the inmates.
Mohammed El Sayed, 31, was shot four times during a bodega robbery. “The guy who shot me needed money for drugs,” he said. “I came here to make money for my family. Now my wife has to take care of me.”
The volunteers don’t pretend to be saints. Some were active participants in crime, like Eduardo Pinieda, 30, who was shot three times in the back for refusing to move from another drug dealer’s corner.
“I’d been dealing with drugs since I was 12 and look what it’s left me,” he said.
Freddie Sanchez, 30, refused his sister’s plea to stop hanging around with his drug-dealing friends. “I know what I’m doing,” he remembers telling her. Then one night, a bullet severed his spinal cord in a drug deal gone sour.
“When you leave here,” he said, “I hope you’re able to change your life and choose your friends well.”
David Gwynn looks out at the steely faces staring at him and tells them, “I know exactly where you’re at. I did nine years in the system for dealing. Then I got a second chance and I got me a job.”
He changed but his environment did not. On his 26th birthday, Gwynn says a fight between dealers broke out and “one guy just began spraying everything in sight.” Gwynn jumped in front of a 16-year-old standing next to him and ended up with a bullet in the back.
“I’ve done wrong and now I’m paying for it,” he tells the inmates. “But this is not where it ends. . . . You got to lay a new path.”
There will never be a new path for Maria Witherspoon, who will live the rest of her life at Goldwater because she cannot function on her own.
Maria, 44, was shot at a party in 1981 by a friend “who was just fooling around.”
The friend took her .38-caliber gun from her pocketbook, removed the bullets and said, “I’m going to shoot you. Look Maria, I’m going to shoot.”
He did. But he had only removed five of the six bullets. The remaining one left Maria a quadriplegic.
As they told their stories, the faces of the three dozen or so inmates who voluntarily came to hear the group never changed. They appeared unmoved.
But Cooper knows better.
“In any group we speak to there are three types of people: The already converted, the fence-sitters and those on a mountain who can’t be moved no matter what. Our job is to get the fence-sitters to come down and join us.”
It appeared to work for Anthony McNeil, 34, who is awaiting transfer to a state prison for armed robbery.
“It scares me,” he admitted after the lecture. “I could be one of them, especially the life I was living, you know.”
McNeil was one of those who got shot and thought, “It was no big deal. All it made me do was carry a bigger gun.” But after seeing the POWER members he says he’ll use his prison time--12 to life--to improve himself.
He also said he planned to call his teen-age nephew and tell him, “Put down the gun. That ain’t the way.”
“It probably won’t do no good because a kid without a gun is nothing but a sucker, a mark for everyone else,” he said.
Inmate Charles Cunning, 24, in for parole violation, also appeared moved and went from wheelchair to wheelchair to thank each volunteer.
“It touched me deeply,” he said, putting his hand to his heart. “I myself have been shot four times, but I’m not gonna tell you no lies. It don’t change the way I’m gonna get down when I get out on the streets.
“I wouldn’t want to end up like that, but I’m not gonna cop out to sweeping nobody’s tables for minimum wages. . . . I’m used to getting a lot of money, holding down crack spots, shooting cracks, getting shot and that’s the way I live.
“That’s the reality of MY life.”