Ismail Watkins Views Life from Wheelchair
Ismail Watkins was on his way to see his son when he was shot in the neck.
He was walking down the front porch steps of a house near Lincoln Road in Northeast Washington, D.C., when a guy came up behind him and said, “Give it up.”
Watkins, who thought it was a cousin or friend joking with him, started to turn around but did not get very far before he heard and felt the gunshot. His whole back locked up.
“I felt like I was in the matrix,” Watkins said. “And I got real numb.”
He remembers everything that happened as he was laid on the ground. A friend’s father took off his shirt and pressed it tightly against his skin to stop the blood gushing from Watkin’s neck. His cousin, who was with him, kept telling him “you gon’ be alright.”
Watkins remembers thinking “let me just get to the hospital.”
He was taken to Washington Hospital Center, where he remained for 18 days before he was transferred to MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital. He was paralyzed. “I was messed up,” Watkins said.
He will never forget that day. It was March 6, 1998. Just two days earlier, Watkins had been set to start a new job working in the stockroom at Hank’s Warehouse.
“Why did this happen when I’m about to be on the right path?” he recalls thinking at the time.
The National Rehabilitation Hospital where Watkins was sent hosts a weekly support group, called the Urban Re-Entry Group where gun violence victims can share their experiences and support each other as they transition back to their lives.
Even though he now seeks therapy at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Watkins has been attending the support group for 15 years and is still a regular attendee. The group includes patients who have been disabled for over a decade, and those who have been hospitalized for months. With the current national debate on gun control and gun violence, members of the group say that survivors of gun violence are often not considered.
“They really forgot about the people that survived,” said one member who goes by the nickname Uni. Uni has been in a wheelchair for 13 years. “If you don’t advocate for yourself, they don’t give a f—,” said Uni. “People don’t know what we gotta go through when we wake up in the morning.”
The group members discuss the difficulties they go through daily like bathing, using the bathroom and transportation. They gripe about D.C. sidewalks without ramps for wheelchairs.
“When you want something, that’s when it will hit you. When you want a drink of water or want to get some food,” said Earl Council. “But I try everything before I call my wife or my kids.”
Several of the members say that they are regularly in pain. Watkins said he dreams about walking again.
Alfonzo Moore, who has been in a wheelchair for one year, still has a hard time accepting his situation. “Sometimes,” he said. “I wish I was gone.”
The group members who have been in the wheelchair longer, including Watkins, tend to have a different perspective.
“It gets stressful sometimes but you gotta keep going,” Watkins said. “Keep smiling. I don’t even get mad anymore.”
Said Uni: “I don’t use the word can’t. I know I can do it. I’mma try.”
One thing all of the group members do agree about is the uselessness of current debates on new gun control laws. Since the December school shooting in Newtown, Conn., gun control has been at the top of the White House agenda and at the center of media discussions, including a proposed ban on military-style assault weapons and universal background checks for firearms purchases.
“Gun violence ain’t gon stop,” Moore said. “Criminals will get guns regardless. People who carry guns don’t care about no license.”
There is bitterness and anger among some in the group, a feeling that the toll of gun violence did not matter in the United States when the bodies suffering where largely those of black males.
“None of this was going on when we were getting shot,” Uni said. “They didn’t say anything until these white kids got shot.”
Watkins said that gun violence has been a problem his whole life. He estimates that between 200 and 300 people were killed by guns in his Northeast neighborhood off of North Capital Street and Rhode Island Avenue when he was growing up.
“On New Year’s people used to be like, who’s the first one getting killed?” he said.
Watkins said one of the hardest things about being a gun violence survivor is the stereotypes people attach to him. People automatically think that he is a thug or involved with the drug world. Watkins was shot during a robbery by someone he knew. The gunman was identified by a woman who lived in a house next to the one where Watkins was shot. Watkins said the shooter’s family visited him in the hospital in the days following the shooting, but he never revealed to them that their relative was responsible for him being there. According to Watkins, the shooter was eventually killed while in prison for another offense. However, before his death Watkins had his cousin-who was serving time at the same prison as the shooter-show him pictures of Watkins taking a few steps with his walker.
“That was my revenge,” Watkins said. “I wanted to let him know, you can’t hold me down.”