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‘Tragedy’ to triumph. How a shooting at a back-to-school giveaway became a cause for song and hope

The West Side attack wounded a 14-year-old girl and almost killed a close family friend at an event organized by the teen’s father. All three say their resolve is only stronger.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Ayonna Fleming smiles, defiant, as she taps out the beat of the song she wrote just hours after she, her brother and a close friend were shot at a back-to-school giveaway organized by her father.

“It was a tragedy. I couldn’t think of anyone who would be mad at me. But I am a GOAT and Imma bounce back because I got to be who I got to be.”

The song is titled “Tragedy,” but it tells of triumph, the 14-year-old’s voice upbeat even as she recounts the day of the shooting in East Garfield Park in September.

“Car pulled up and started shooting on the scene. Got hit twice, I knew what it mean. It was life or death but death wasn’t gonna be me.”

It’s hard not to feel hopeful watching the young teen sing her lyrics with an occasional sly smile.

Her attitude is infectious as she describes the song: “You don’t know how strong or tough you are until you’ve been put into a predicament where you have to be strong or tough. Just don’t let the small things get to you as much as you do, look at the positive outlook on it. I might have got this, but I’m still alive.”

That same courage is found in her friend Davonte Watkins who nearly lost his life, and in her father, Lamar Peterson, who is more determined than ever to “give back” in some of the city’s more violent neighborhoods.

Watkins, who goes by the stage name Badboy VT, was performing at the East Garfield Park event when he was hit six times by bullets. He can’t believe he’s still alive and talks about friends who suffered far less serious wounds and died.

His 7-year-old son wants him to carry a gun for protection, and Watkins himself says he is troubled by thoughts of retaliation. But he seems to have reached a truce.

“God didn’t keep me here to go get revenge,” he said. “He got me here to keep doing what I’m doing.”

And that will likely include providing the music for future giveaways staged by Peterson, a soft-spoken truck driver and DJ himself who firmly believes neighborhoods are safer when they come together.

“I was told, who cares about that community, who cares about that part of town, why even try to help those people,” Peterson said. “It hurt my heart and I was already hurting. It made it hard to argue with some of those people about why I care about this, why I give back, but I’m going to push through.”

Police say no one has been arrested for the shooting.

‘I didn’t let violence take me’

Ayonna remembers hearing gunfire near her elementary school years ago and taking cover under her desk. Her brothers were almost shot while walking in the neighborhood. There was even a shooting in her grandmother’s front yard.

“It was normal, and it really wasn’t,” she says. “I heard shots, but it never really startled me. ... It’s, like, surrounded by violence, but I didn’t let violence take me.”

Then, Sept. 4 happened. The back-to-school event that Saturday at a gas station at Sacramento Boulevard and Fulton Street seemed a great success. Kids were running around, playing up and down the streets, squealing and sliding down the bounce houses.

They were having so much fun, it was decided to keep things going longer than scheduled. Soon a red truck drove up Sacramento and suddenly there were shots, rapid-fire. Laughter turned to screams. Ayonna, in a go-kart with her younger brother, was hit in both legs. One of the shots struck her 12-year-old brother’s cellphone in his pocket.

She was released from the hospital the next day. Over the next few hours, she wrote, recorded, mixed and edited the song “Tragedy.”

“I can’t move around, so I’m on bed rest and I just started writing lyrics, writing lyrics, writing lyrics,” Ayonna said. “And my brothers, we freestyle a lot — they’ll drop beats — that never changed.

“We’re still in there freestyling, and you know what, I’m using this beat, and I’m going to make something.”

Ayonna sings the song at her father’s dining room table. When she gets to the part where she’s leaving the hospital — “You’re looking at a legend right here” — she stops and explains: “Hey, I went home the same day, on crutches, like I am a legend.”

The Monday after the shooting, Ayonna tried going back to class at the Art in Motion high school on the South Side. She had planned to go to Simeon Career Academy in Chatham in the fall with most of her friends, but her grandmother urged her to try the creative arts high school.

Ayonna could not make it up the two flights of stairs at school on her crutches, and waiting for elevators made her late for classes. Forced to stay home for two weeks, she turned to her music as she recovered.

“Everybody in my life does music, listens to music, so I just have a space,” she said. “I’m already embedded into music. I know who can help me with my music, so it’s just wonderful.

“I chose not to look negatively on things. After I got shot, I was so positive. Everyone said, ‘You’re so positive about the situation, you’re so positive about the situation.’ I was, like, because I am alive and I have music.”

Her mom introduced her to Nicki Minaj’s “Pink Friday,” inspiring her to start rapping. Ayonna’s brothers and uncles taught her how to freestyle, training her on rhymes and pronunciation.

But she says much of her love of music comes from her father. “Every time I’m with my dad, he has music on,” she said. “I’m, like, yes, I’m loving it.”

‘Trying to find forgiveness’

There’s an easy closeness between Ayonna and her father. One morning at his house, they take playful jabs at one another as they discuss — what else? — music.

It begins when Ayonna says, “My dad was a DJ.”

“Was? Oh, God,” says Peterson, sitting behind her on a couch.

He gently mocks her. “My daddy named my song for me, my dad arranged for me to go to the studio for the first time. My dad hooked me up with my cousins who are producers. My dad got me a computer so I can record songs. Oh, oh, oh, but he was a DJ.”

“OK, wait, wait, wait,” Ayonna jumps in, laughing. “Because I did forget you named the song, I forgot all about that.”

“Throw me something over here,” Peterson says.

“Overall, of everybody with my music, my dad’s helped me the most,” Ayonna says, smiling. “OK, we’re gonna be honest here, if I didn’t have my dad, the phone I have, I wouldn’t be able to record on. The laptop I have — wouldn’t be able to edit on.”

“My dad used to be a DJ,” Peterson says, shaking his head.

“No,” Ayonna shouts back. “My dad is a DJ. And when Imma make an album it’s gonna be called, ‘My dad helped me.’ ”

Peterson stands tall with a stern face, but he shares his daughter’s light-heartedness. He says family has always been important for him and that he found his passion in hosting events that draw neighborhoods together.

He grew up in South Shore and still lives there. As he walks down a strip of Oglesby Avenue lined with bungalows, he points out a house that used to have a day care center and the house where he met his first wife.

Peterson went to Chicago Vocational High School, a few blocks away. He walked out with a journeyman’s card and a major in carpentry. He also took welding classes during his four years and even learned how to fly a plane.

Peterson works full-time now as a truck driver and was recently licensed to pull three trailers, “a huge, huge deal as a trucker,” he said.

On weekends, he turns his attention to staging community events, an idea that came to him during the pandemic when schools and parks were closed. Peterson said he wanted to create spaces for children and families to have some fun. He supplies bounce houses, go-karts, sound equipment for musicians and cameras to document the whole thing.

Over the past year, Peterson has held four of these events, giving away hot dogs, hamburgers, cotton candy and school supplies to “bring joy.”

“I’m just a kid-friendly person,” he says. “If it’s a single mom out here that’s struggling, I’ll step in and help them, and then their child becomes my child. I mean, family is family. They say that 90% of being a father is just to show up. So I show up for a lot of kids.”

Some people have blamed Peterson for holding the giveaway in one of the most violent neighborhoods in Chicago.

“We were helping kids, homeless people, just anybody, just coming together to support a community that was hurting,” he said. “I realize it could have played out a thousand different ways, where I wouldn’t have been as blessed as I am, to walk away with what I have.

“It definitely requires some soul searching,” he added. “The No. 1 thing you want to do on this planet is protect your kids.”

In the future, Peterson plans to ask the police to be on hand, “not just to keep the environment safe but to help with police-community relations. ... If we can start communicating with the police more about what’s going on, maybe we can have better results — that’s the goal moving forward.”

‘I pray for the city’

It was Watkins who brought Peterson to Sacramento and Fulton for the giveaway in September. He grew up in the neighborhood and has never really left the West Side.

Yet a month after the shooting, Watkins still didn’t want to be seen anywhere near there for fear he was the target of the attack. Two months later, he cautiously returned, his head constantly turning, his eyes watching the streets.

“I’ll be thinking about the people behind me,” Watkins explained. “Nobody be behind me. I be I’m seeing things, you know, shadows and stuff.

“Living on the West Side of Chicago, being Black, the odds are really hard to be successful, that’s for sure,” he says. “Only the strong survive.”

Watkins keeps his hood up, phone nearby and always has someone with him. He shares Peterson’s dedication to helping others and tells you even sharing something as simple as a conversation is a way of giving back.

He says he buys meals for people without homes and takes kids in need out on shopping trips. “You know, if I’m on Facebook, I find a family that needs something. I don’t got much, but … it don’t take much to help others.”

Over the summer, Watkins had the idea to host a back-to-school event in his neighborhood, so he reached out to the gas station owners and his friend Peterson.

Video footage from that day shows him walking into the street, handing out backpacks to passing cars, then rapping with Ayonna. He remembers sitting next to pump No. 4, watching his son play, when the shooting began.

At first, he thought it was fireworks. Then he was hit. Watkins said he grabbed his son and dove into a car, but they couldn’t find the keys and someone else drove them to the hospital.

“It’s so unbelievable that I was shot, my lungs, my kidney, my liver, and I’m still here able to talk,” he says. “Recently, I know someone that got shot in the leg and passed away. I thank God.”

It wasn’t the first time his family had been impacted by gun violence. Watkins’ cousin, professional boxer Ed “Bad Boy” Brown, was shot to death within half a mile of his home in East Garfield Park in 2016. Now, Watkins uses the “Bad Boy” name in his honor.

Another cousin also was shot and killed, the one who introduced Watkins to rapping. He had just graduated from high school and was a month from leaving for college when he was gunned down.

This past June, a friend was fatally shot and, in July, another.

“Every time I see my family or some of my peers doing good, they always take them away,” he said. “You got a certain backpack on, not colors or not gang. But just because you got a backpack that they could have, you are a target. Just because you got an iPhone that they don’t, you are a target.”

“Some days, I walk out of the house, and I don’t know if I’ll make it back in.”

Watkins says he is in more pain now — physically and mentally — than in the days immediately after the shooting. “Every time I scratch or rub my body or something, I feel scars. So it always puts me back in a mess.”

Watkins said his trauma is worsened by what the shooting has done to his 7-year-old, who witnessed the whole thing. “Just yesterday, he said, ‘I wish I could take the bullets for you.’ And I told him, ‘No, I’m your protector.’

“He wants me to purchase a gun and keep the gun on me and don’t ever put it down,” Watkins said. “He knows having a gun don’t necessarily mean bad. ... Since it happened, he prayed a lot. He said he talked to God in his head.”

Watkins said he has struggled with his impulse to find out who shot him. “I just stay focused because I can run after one bad guy, and then that’s gonna make two bad guys, me and a bad guy,” he said. “And I could be jeopardizing my freedom. I could be jeopardizing my kids having a father.”

Watkins says his family keeps him tied to the West Side, despite his fears.

“It’s a rough road, for sure,” he says. “I pray for the city, for sure. I pray for the city. I pray for the families that’s losing kids, for the families that’s losing their sons, their daughters, brothers, sisters, aunties, grandmas.

“I’m trying to stay positive,” he says. “Two years from now, maybe four or five years, maybe even sooner than that, I’ll have at least 10 properties on the West Side. You know, I might even buy the gas station that I was shot at.

“My heart is still there. And they ain’t gonna take my heart away from me.”

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