Quintella Watkins on Chicago youth violence
After her teen son was gunned down, Quintella Watkins discusses moving on and moving out of the city.
“Every time I hear of someone’s child getting killed, I break down because I know what the family is going through,” Quintella Watkins says. The 37-year-old is an unwilling member of a steadily growing fraternity in Chicago: parents who’ve lost a child to gun violence.
At her home in the Back of the Yards, the South Side neighborhood she’s lived in since she was four, Watkins clings to her cooing three-month-old son, Montee, as she recalls Kristopher Clark, her 17-year-old who was shot and killed. It was June 27, 2011, a Monday, clear and sunny. She picked up Kristopher from summer school at Kelly High, where he would soon enter senior year. “Kristopher always was a quiet boy, didn’t hang with a lot of people,” Watkins says. “He wanted to go to Dawson Technical Institute to be a line technician for ComEd.” Watkins had recently graduated from Washburne Culinary Institute.
Mother and son ate lunch together, then she dropped him off at his grandmother’s Gage Park home, where he spent summers. “He gave me a hug and kiss and said, ‘I love you, Ma.’ ”
Later that evening, as Clark was walking from his grandmother’s house to visit a nearby relative, someone started shooting from an alley. Clark tried to run, police told Watkins, and was hit. Kristopher’s father, Christopher Clark, called Watkins with the news. At the hospital, Watkins identified her son’s body. “They pulled back the curtain,” she says, “and I just dropped to my knees.” The coroner’s report said Kristopher died from a gunshot wound to his side.
“Because he was a young, African-American male who got shot, they probably assumed he was a gangbanger,” Watkins says. Police told her they had no suspects but that an older man, a resident in the area, witnessed the shooting and was scared to make a statement. Police News Affairs wouldn’t comment on the status of the investigation, but Watkins says there has been no progress in finding Kristopher’s killer. The detective, since promoted to sergeant, didn’t respond to calls. “It hurts,” she says, “because I want justice for my son.”
Watkins blamed herself for not protecting her son. A counselor prescribed antidepressants and assured her it was okay to grieve with her daughters, Lamaya, 10, and Ajia, 8. “They would draw the family at the zoo and Kristopher would be in the clouds in heaven,” Watkins says. “They ask, ‘Mom, why are the bad guys shooting people? We just want to play and grow up.’ I don’t know how to answer.” When her daughters ask to go outside, Watkins says she and her husband, Lamont, a BNSF Railway driver, take them to parks in safer neighborhoods.
A year after Kristopher’s murder, Watkins got some surprising news: She was five months pregnant, and she was going to have a boy. “I really had second thoughts about bringing another baby into this world,” she says. “Driving home, I saw a billboard off of I-55 that said, babies are god’s way of telling us that life must go on. Something clicked. I felt like God and Kristopher were giving me Montee as a way to help me understand I can be happy again.”
Next month, the family will move to Oak Lawn, where Watkins hopes to land a job as a pastry chef. She says she’s grateful to have the means to make a new start in a safer suburb but unhappy about being scared away from the only community she’s ever known. “I have to protect my family,” she says. “We have to leave.”