Three years after losing her granddaughter to gun violence, Bonnie Whittaker is finding her voice ⋆
Bonnie Whittaker will never be able to forget what the July 21, 2021, phone call from her son, Timothy, sounded like.
Out to dinner with her husband, Whittaker let a call from her son go to voicemail. When he texted a message that just read “911,” she picked up immediately.
“He just screamed into the phone, ‘They killed my baby,’ and I was thinking that one of his younger ones had darted into the street and got hit by a car or something,” Whittaker said. “I never, never imagined he was going to tell me that TiKiya had been shot.”
Whittaker’s granddaughter, TiKiya Allen, an Oakland University nursing student, had been shot and killed while riding her bicycle near a friend’s house on Detroit’s west side. In the instant that the shot was fired from a red Ford Taurus that, three years later, police are still unable to identify, the lives of Whittaker and her family changed forever.
“She was just enjoying a July afternoon at a friend’s house, riding down the street on her bicycle, and she was caught in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting,” Whittaker said. “And I never imagined that I would be walking this path in life. I didn’t get to choose.”
Bonnie Whittaker (seated, right) on Capitol Hill in May | Courtesy photo
In the years that have passed since losing TiKiya, Whittaker said she’s become her granddaughter’s voice. She became involved with Detroit’s chapter of the gun violence prevention organization Moms Demand Action, and is currently attending Everytown for Gun Safety’s Gun Sense University in Chicago.
Gun Sense University (GSU) is an annual gathering of activists and survivors focused on building relationships and furthering advocacy work. This year, for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, GSU is meeting in-person in Chicago.
Whittaker, a first-time attendee of the conference, said she hopes that the weekend will help her hone her ability to share TiKiya’s story and inspire others to make change.
“The hope is that when I tell my story and impact someone, that they are moved to join this fight,” Whittaker said. “Because it is a bottom-up fight to change our culture to get rid of this senseless killing.”
Gun violence has become the single largest killer of American youth, whether in mass shootings or all too common smaller events like the one that killed TiKiya. Whittaker recalled finding out about the death of Arielle Anderson, who was one of three killed in a February shooting at Michigan State University, and seeing similarities between her and the granddaughter Whittaker lost years prior.
“When I heard that [Arielle] was going to be a doctor, it really sent me into a tailspin,” Whittaker said. “TiKiya was going to be an anesthesiology nurse. And it just sent me into thinking, ‘Oh my god, they could have worked together.’”
Whittaker has been motivated in her activism by the idea of more young people like TiKiya and Arielle not being able to fulfill their dreams for the future.
Dawana Davis, mother of Arielle Anderson, looks on as DaCarla Strong, sister to Anderson, accepts a posthumous degree on Anderson’s behalf during the Michigan State University College of Natural Science commencement ceremony on May 6, 2023. Anderson was one of three students who died in the Feb. 13 mass shooting on campus. (Andrew Roth/)
Speaking at GSU on Friday, Vice President Kamala Harris echoed the same sentiment.
“Our children are supposed to be sitting in a classroom with their minds open to all of the beauty of the world, and half of their minds, because they are realists and they are paying attention, are concerned about where their chairs are situated as it relates to the door of the classroom,” Harris said.
Harris addressed the crowd at GSU just hours after the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the state’s assault weapons ban, where she emphasized the victory of President Joe Biden’s signing of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act that enhanced background checks for youth purchasing firearms and provided grant money to states to pursue further firearm safety legislation.
“It’s because of your activism that we then had momentum on the inside to pass this legislation,” Harris said to the crowd. “But the President would tell you if he were here, and I will tell you, it is historic and it is a drop in the bucket. Because we still have so much more to do.”
Whittaker said she was grateful to Harris for taking the time to listen to people impacted by gun violence and hopes that with the Biden administration’s support, more people will become aware of the wide-reaching effects of losing a loved one in a shooting and the support offered by groups like Moms Demand Action.
“I want people to know that there’s this group out here to help you,” Whittaker said. “I would not be able to do this if it weren’t for Moms Demand Action.”
In becoming a fellow of the Everytown Survivor Network, Whittaker said she’s been able to find meaning in her grief.
“It’s not something I would wish on anyone,” Whittaker said. “It’s not something that I can say I enjoy doing. But it’s almost like a ministry to me now, to do whatever I can to get people to realize that this is an epidemic and we are in fact losing our future.”
Harris stressed the idea of gun violence as a public health issue in her speech, and said that national steps to address mental healthcare and community-centered interventions are critical to preventing future deaths.
“We have to realize that throughout our country everyday, people are having this experience, and these so-called leaders hear these voices and act in a way that understands this really is about a public health issue,” Harris said. “We cannot let them get away with politicizing this or pretending that this is some intellectual, ideological debate. There is literally blood on the streets.”
For many attendees of the GSU conference, finding ways to cope with ongoing trauma goes hand-in-hand with fighting for government action. Whittaker said that the circle of impact around shooting victims is much wider than many people think.
“Something like 120 people a day are actually killed, let alone the ones that are affected by it,” Whittaker said. “Their extended family and even people that are shot but survive it. So I’m hoping to be able to meet with people from all over, wherever they come from, and listen to their stories and their ideas of how they advocate and take something back home with me.”
Vice President Kamala Harris in Ann Arbor, Jan. 12, 2023 | Laina G. Stebbins
Research done by Brady, a nonprofit organization dedicated to addressing the root causes of gun violence, estimates that 327 people are shot each day in the U.S. and 117 of those people are killed.
Harris said that throughout her career, meeting with families of shooting victims and survivors themselves has shown her firsthand the devastating impact that gun violence can have on people close to it. She said that going forward, one of her goals is to help ease the burden of survivors in healing.
“We are talking about a violent act,” Harris said. “I prosecuted homicide cases. I have seen autopsies. I know what this violence does to the human body. And so we have to take seriously the importance of helping communities heal and not requiring you to do it on your own.”
For Whittaker, healing has meant channeling TiKiya’s memory into action.
“I’m doing everything that I know how to do to keep her voice alive and to advocate so that other young people don’t go through this,” Whittaker said, “and that their families don’t suffer the same way that my family is suffering.”
authored by Lily Guiney
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