Micheail Ward was sentenced this week to 84 years in prison for killing Hadiya Pendleton. At Ward’s age of 24, that amounts to a lifetime.
Some would say that Ward, a gang member who was in and out of trouble with the law, had been working his way to this point for a long time. But his mother apparently never saw it coming. Maybe it’s because she would not open her eyes.
In an interview during the waning days of her son’s murder trial last summer, April Ward sat down with me to talk about the son she knew. She insisted, just as she did on the witness stand during the sentencing hearing Monday, that he was a good son. She told me he was never in a gang, and most certainly is not a murderer.
“I raised him spiritually, always in church,” Ward, 45, said during a lunch break in the courthouse cafeteria last year. “My son can quote Scripture. He knows it well. His grandma taught him that.”
The young man who confessed to police on video that he went to a South Side park one afternoon in 2013 and fired into a group of high school students, striking Hadiya, was not the child she had raised with her husband.
There was no need for any sort of retaliation against a rival gang because the young people her son hung out with were just innocent kids, she said. It was a tragedy that the 15-year-old honor student’s life was taken, but her son was not responsible.
“They say he’s a leader of the gang. I’m trying to understand how that is possible. He was 14 or 16, and he’s the leader of some gang that’s been around 20 years?
“That makes him look bad. It makes him look like an animal. My son is not an animal. He’s not a mad dog walking around crazy.”
It is understandable that a mother would not want to believe that her son is some sort of monster. No mother would.
Perhaps Ward isn’t evil. But he certainly isn’t the choirboy his mother has tried to make him out to be. And that’s a problem, not just with her, but also with many mothers of gang members.
Of course, they love their sons unconditionally, as most mothers do. When a son is shot down in the street, his mother grieves as you or I would. And when she realizes that he could spend the rest of his life in prison, she cries out that, like the victim’s mother, she, too, has lost a child in the tragedy.
By now, no one cares. Her son is just another gangbanger who has been taken off the streets, and most of us feel relieved.
Rather than deal with the truth, it is easier for a mother to look at the gang symbol tattooed on her son’s arm and convince herself that it’s just a fad. It is less disheartening to see his social media posts — pictures of him posing with wads of dollar bills and sometimes even a gun — and convince herself that he’s just playing around.
It is less painful to believe that every time her son is arrested for anything, police got the wrong kid. It requires less energy to decide that when her teenager walks out the door at 10 or 11 p.m., he’s just going for a bit of fresh air.
Most mothers, though, know the truth about their sons. They just don’t know what to do about it.
Along the way, they lost control as a parent. At some point, the young man figured out that there are no real consequences at home for his behavior. He saw that no one is paying attention, and in some cases, that no one cares.
Gang violence almost always is confined to neighborhoods rife with poverty. Even in a two-parent household like Ward’s, parents struggle to make ends meet. April Ward and her husband, Thaddeus Bridgeman, 45, hold respectable, low-paying jobs. But their home life is far from perfect.
Still, April Ward said she thought that she and Ward’s father, whom she has been with for 27 years, were doing as much as they could to raise their son and his three brothers right in a neighborhood filled with violence.
“When my boys were growing up, I talked to each one and said, ‘This is what you’re going to do once you graduate. You’re going to the Army, the Marines, trade school or college,’ ” she said. “Most of them gave it to me.”
But in neighborhoods like theirs, it takes a village to save a child.
In 2016, the National Science Foundation released a study looking at the factors associated with mass shootings and street violence. It concluded that parents play a significant role in either increasing or decreasing violence.
Though rampage shootings and street violence are different in many ways, the study found that children with lower risk of youth violence had “close attachment bonds with consistently supportive caregivers” and received “effective and developmentally sensitive parenting.”
But the study also revealed something else. When it comes to street violence, parents, schools, neighborhoods, and a wide range of other entities and support systems have to work together.
Even so, it is still up to young men to make their own choices. According to the prosecutor, no one else can be blamed for the decision Micheail Ward made.
“He made choices, he’s chosen to ignore his family and the opportunities,” Assistant State’s Attorney Brian Holmes said in court. “He chose to join a gang. He chose to pick up a gun.”
It is hard to argue with that.
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