Serenity Capers, 37, walked the few blocks from her North Portland home to Woodlawn High School. It was two weeks into Oregon’s statewide coronavirus lockdown, and Capers had recently bought herself a new pair of roller skates. She was taking her son Rashard Johnson Jr., 16, to the schoolyard to try them out.
She was determined to celebrate. It was the 16th anniversary of a shooting that almost killed her, her boyfriend and Rashard Jr., their then-unborn son.
Early that morning in 2003, Capers' boyfriend was dropping her off at home after studying at his house.
“It happened so fast,” she said. “Rashard Sr. didn’t even have enough time to put the car in park. He pulled over to the side behind my sister’s car in front of our house, and they pulled up on the side of us and they just started shooting.”
Rashard Johnson Sr. was shot multiple times but survived. Serenity Capers, five months pregnant, was shot in the stomach. Her first memory after the shooting was waking up in the hospital, seeing her mom asleep in a chair next to the bed, and then talking to the doctors.
“The first thing they did tell me is, ‘Hey, you’re still pregnant, your baby survived,’” she said. “I was so happy. I think it was the most remarkable moment outside of giving birth.”
In early 2003, the year Capers was shot, shootings in Portland were trending up. By March of that year, according to the Portland Tribune, the city was on pace to eclipse the previous year’s 241 shootings, itself a dramatic increase from 2001′s 15-year low of 188 shootings.
Today, gun violence is increasing nationwide. In July and August, shootings increased more than 180% in Portland compared to the same time last year. In Chicago, they’ve gone up about 50%. And by July, Kansas City had the same amount of shootings as all of last year.
Most gun violence in the U.S. isn’t in mass shootings. It’s in isolated incidents like Capers' case, which taken together form a catastrophic picture. Shootings are nearly always perpetrated by men and target men, often leaving widows and moms to absorb the ramifications. Whether a shooting results in a death, an injury, or traumatized survivors and witnesses, each of these data points represents lives changed forever.
Gallery: The aftermath of gun violence
In Capers' case, being pregnant saved her life. The baby had pushed her vital organs higher up in her body, out of the bullet’s path. But in the coming weeks, Rashard Jr. wasn’t moving as much as he should have been. Doctors said that he had stopped growing and told her they saw hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid in the baby’s brain.
Doctors told Serenity her baby would have brain damage and suggested she consider terminating the pregnancy. She was only 20. Doctors urged she could get pregnant again in a few months.
“I was like, ‘This is my baby, we’re rocking with it,’” Capers said. “I had lost a baby before him, so he was my third pregnancy. And so I was just like ... this one’s gonna survive. We’re having this baby.”
Life after gun violence
On that April afternoon at Woodlawn High School, Serenity put on her new roller skates, grabbed hold of Rashard Jr.'s wheelchair, and raced around the schoolyard with him, laughing.
Rashard Jr., whose friends and family call Pooh, was born with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy.
“Imagine a charley horse in your leg, that’s his entire body the whole time,” Capers said. “And the older he gets, the tighter he gets.”
Pooh can’t talk and requires a wheelchair to get around, but his limitations are physical. He understands everything, can answer yes or no questions, and in school, he has adaptive technology for more complex communication. He’s also a boisterous, mischievous and perpetually happy teenager.
“He’s into cologne. He loves bowties and ties. He’s a fashionista. Everything that’s dapper is him. He’s like a boy me,” Capers said. “It’s so funny, but it’s cool cause it brings me back to: He’s still a boy. He’s still a normal child.”
Of U.S. cities with a population of over 500,000, Portland is the whitest, with 71% of its residents identifying as such, according to census data. Being Black in such a white city only compounds the already formidable challenges of finding community as a gun violence survivor and having a child with special needs.
“When you do find another parent that’s Black with a special needs child, we’re so busy because a lot of times we don’t have spouses,” Capers said, adding she often feels isolated. “I’m a part of a Facebook group of parents with special needs. Even getting them to socialize [is hard] because they have spouses, they have help, they have resources, homes. I’m grinding to put food on the table, to go to work every day, to manage his appointments, to be a business owner.”
And, Capers said, she has experienced shocking racism.
Because of the shooting, she only gained two pounds during her pregnancy. A couple of months before Pooh was born, a white woman approached her in the grocery store and expressed concern that she wasn’t taking care of herself and was too frail to be pregnant. Later in life at a seminar for parents with special needs children, someone expressed surprise she was there and told her they thought Black people “just throw y’all’s kids away.”
“Would that be said to somebody else?” Capers asked.
Capers also points to a lack of resources and opportunity in the Black community. She is part of a long line of Black women who grind against systemic hurdles to feed their families. This month, she got a promotion at work and plans to move out of her mom’s house where she and Pooh have lived for years. Pooh will turn 18 soon and has big dreams. He wants a job and to wear a suit every day, she said.
Capers said she wants to make that happen for him. She wants to be able to take care of her mom and to make sure Pooh never has to worry about taking care of her.
“That’s what we do,” she said. “Who would I be if I didn’t step up?”
More than a statistic
Capers and Pooh spent this past Christmas with an ex-boyfriend who helped co-parent Pooh. Multiple generations wore their pajamas and came together in his Gresham apartment for an enormous home-cooked meal.
Wearing an even bigger smile than normal, Pooh sat in his chair, the tray piled high with presents. One by one, he opened astronaut pajamas, Bluetooth headphones and — ever the fashionista — two pairs of sneakers.
“I have so many wonderful moments in my day to day life,” Capers said. “I never want somebody to look at me and be like, ‘Oh, she’s just a girl from the hood who got hit who lives in poverty every day.’ It’s bigger than that.”
As shootings surge in Portland, the trauma of gun violence continues to weave itself into the community and reverberate across generations. Capers' biological father was shot and killed when she was a child. Two years ago, her cousin and her cousin’s young son were both shot. Her son lost an eye in that shooting. And this summer, that same ex-boyfriend who helped raise Pooh, Deron Crain, was shot and killed.
After 16 years of grappling with the trauma of gun violence, Capers said she thinks addressing mental health is the key to stopping shootings in her community.
“Trauma rewires your brain and you wonder why you got all these people flipping out,” she said. “It’s the result of trauma and mental health. So if we address the mental health piece, we could see healing within the community.”
Statistics for gun violence may be up in Portland and other places across the country, but Capers is well aware those numbers are a flattened picture of a persistent problem. As city and law enforcement officials try to find ways to interrupt cycles of violence, each day more people are set on a path like Capers' — or worse.
“That could have gone way different,” Capers said, thinking back to the night she was shot. “My whole family made it. That’s not everybody’s story.”