Beyond Bullets Justice Neighbors

‘I want justice. That’s what I need.’

A mother whose daughter was killed by gunfire as a bystander wants answers and action. In grief, she has to be realistic not optimistic.

Lea Braxton knows.

She knows people know who killed her teenage daughter, Suniya “NyNy” Brooks, in a drive-by shooting nearly five months ago at a Kalamazoo Township apartment complex.

She knows authorities are overmatched by the increasing lethality of gun violence and the speed with which social media helps it fester and evolve.

She knows people who are in positions of power to do something aren’t doing it.

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She knows what she needs. Braxton, 36, is disheartened that she hasn’t gotten it, which is a lonely place to be after months of being confused, angry, and overcome at times with grief.

“I don’t need no candlelight vigil, no balloon release,” she says. “I want justice. That’s what I need.”  

On Braxton’s right arm is a tattoo that says “Family Is Everything,” a mantra for raising children, a reminder to persevere when you lose one. Another tattoo on the arm is also reality, what should be a splash of ice cold water on the face of a system that has let her down: “What Good Is My Voice Without the Ear?”

“They Got Away With Murder”

It was early morning on July 25 when Braxton’s phone rang. As soon as she could say “hello,” the frantic voice of her 13-year-old niece on the other end of the call screamed out: “T.T., Suniya’s dead!” 

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NyNy, 16, was spending the night at her grandmother’s house off of Gull Road. In disbelief, Braxton hung up the phone and then she called her mother. She answered but could barely breath, and could scarcely make words she was so overcome with emotion, sadness, and grief. 

It was very rare that Braxton would allow NyNy to stay the night anywhere else than at home. It’s a decision that still haunts her.

A mother of three, Braxton is the kind of parent who is unapologetically involved in her children’s lives. She opens cell phones without permission. Opens doors without knocking. Rifles through notebooks. She wants to be absolutely sure that her kids are safe, not getting into trouble, and keeping up on their school work. 

“You have to be mindful of your choices. Suniya unfortunately made the choice to be out. Nobody forced her to be out there,” she adds. “Even when you try to do everything right, this can still happen. I have asked ‘Why? Why did this happen?’ But that just leads to another why and another why. It’s not long before you have more questions than answers.”

NyNy was a good kid, she didn’t know the streets, didn’t know what to do when someone shoots in your direction. NyNy was a student at Gull Lake High School, and from there Braxton thought she was shielded from the often harsh realities of life on rougher streets. Braxton was from Chicago, knew how to carry herself, has street smarts, and a level head if something goes down. 

Sometime during the night, NyNy snuck out and joined friends at Big Bend Apartments nearby. While outside, a vehicle drove by and sprayed bullets at those gathered. NyNy, an unintended target, was shot, and died immediately. A 16-year-old boy was also seriously injured. 

Those in the vehicle sped away, and have not been caught, Braxton says. 

Witnesses were tight lipped. “Snitches” have always been targeted and punished. But now there are more ways to impose fear on them, and fewer consequences for killers to fear.

“They got away with murder,” Braxton says. “At this point it’s the people shooting people who are the ones being protected.”  

The brazenness of those who wield guns out in the open, shooting indiscriminately, having little if any regard for the consequences of what happens when a trigger is pulled, shocks her. It’s an ongoing trend that people involved in countering youth violence have said is a growing phenomenon: violence will become normalized in a society that protects and invests in its youth less and less. 

And the youth without supervision or consequence become empowered by the desensitization, act more quickly and publicly, play more of a role in gun culture than earlier generations would have. Likewise, the reasons to call the police have decreased, compounded by a legacy of harm and inaction.

Meanwhile, social media has spurred a hyperconnectivity on the street that flies way below the police radar. 

She knows of minors posting videos of themselves on various social media holding assault rifles. There are young people armed and making threats using social media to deliver the message. Violence is pervasive now, she says. 

What in the past might have been a beef in a neighborhood that moves slow enough for the rage to peter out or provide time for intervention is now happening in real time, digitally escalating from words to hands to guns.

“You can’t even beat nobody up now, ’cause they’re going to come back and kill you,” she says. “It’s not gonna stop.”

“What’s the use?”

Braxton says what’s needed is less talk, and more bold action. What if Kalamazoo had a special, anonymous tip line, she suggests, where people can call, text, message authorities to alert them of gun violence prior to it taking place or while it is unfolding. 

Then public safety can take action with as much speed as such plans move on social media, she says. If the police are unprepared, if people in positions of power won’t meet this well-known phenomenon head on, then talk and public meetings are nothing but cheap theatrics. 

She talks to other mothers who have been victims of gun violence in Kalamazoo, parents of children wounded or killed in a city that seems unable to stem the deadly trajectory that has seen such crimes rise significantly in recent years.  

She says she sees value in creating an organization of mothers who could speak together and with authority about the need to end the killings, stem the violence. 

But that will be time wasted if no one listens. “What’s the use?” she asks herself, until elected and appointed officials listen to people from the neighborhoods touched the most by gun violence and spend the resources necessary to ameliorate the problem.

In the midst of the still-fresh pain of losing her daughter, Braxton dispassionately looks at the growing problem of gun violence in a way that most people who have not been touched so closely by it can’t. 

At the moment, gun violence in the Kalamazoo area is sequestered in poorer, minority neighborhoods, places many white people do not visit, do not know much about. And that ignorance, Braxton says, leads to ambivalence.  

“I hope your innocent child doesn’t get murdered,” she says, bluntly. “Nothing is gonna change until this arrives at your front door. That’s when people start to talk, that’s when folks who don’t have to think about this have to start thinking about this, when folks who haven’t been listening begin to listen.”

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