Pamela Wright and her son, Tyrone Lawson, had a ritual. Each time they parted ways, no matter the circumstances, the mother kissed her son on his forehead, told him she loved him and warned him to be careful.
Be careful. Those were the last two words Wright told her son as she dropped him off at a 2013 high school basketball game played between Simeon Career Academy and Morgan Park at Chicago State University, a neutral site that made Wright believe her son would be safe. The game, which was described as only slightly contentious, ended in an altercation as players shook hands following the final buzzer.
While it remains unclear whether the two were connected, a fight later broke out in the parking lot. Lawson was shot two times in the back as he ran away from the incident. He died of multiple gunshot wounds at the age of 17. Wright would never see her only child again. Two years have passed since her son's death, but Wright's struggles remain.
"I went to therapy and asked her if she could bring my son back, and she told me she’d teach me how to function," Wright says. "I haven’t found the words yet to describe what we’re going through. It’s a daily function. I might move on later, I won’t say that I will not. But what I found out is that if I can just make it through moments, and I see positive things happening in regard to gun violence, that helps you move on. But you don’t live again. To me, you just learn how to function. Eventually, I hope to live again.”
Although Chicago has become the face of gun violence in recent years, Wright's story is shared by families across the country, with mass shootings sweeping the nation and nearly 12,000 people dying from gun-related murders each year. With these figures in mind, Spike Lee created a "coalition," teaming up with the NBA, NBPA, ESPN and former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg's "Everytown For Gun Safety" to produce a series of commercials on gun violence that will run during the NBA's Christmas Day games.
For more on gun safety and Everytown For Gun Safety, click here.
Lee has been involved with multiple projects in the past that shine a light on gun violence in the U.S. He joined Joakim Noah's "Rock Your Drop" campaign and directed Chi-Raq, a movie about gang violence in Chicago, which came out on Dec. 4. He wants the new PSAs, which will be viewed by millions of basketball fans, to deliver a message similar to those past efforts.
“The beginning of Chi-Raq starts with this flashing card that says, ‘This is an emergency, this is an emergency,’” Lee said. “That applies to the United States of America, too. We have to do something as a country to stop this madness, this carnage, this devastation of families who never become whole again because their loved ones were shot down by suicide, by accident or by murder.”
Lee's central message is that gun violence touches everyone, as he can attest to. He witnessed tragedy firsthand prior to the filming of Chi-Raq when Brandon Jackson, one of his advisors on the film, was murdered in Chicago.
"This brother got murdered," Lee said. "The very first day of pre-production in Chicago I was at a funeral. Brother was murdered, shot down. I didn’t feel that just because Spike Lee was in Chicago brothers would stop shooting each other. I believe the movie will affect that, but we hadn’t even started filming.”
Wright echoed Lee's message. She lives in Chicago's Southside and has been surrounded by the heightened violence around the city. She hears about mass shootings through news broadcasts and newspaper headlines. But still, before her son's death, she didn't feel as though she would be directly impacted by the ongoing violence.
“Before I lost my son, you would hear about the gun violence, not that it didn’t matter, but it didn’t hit home," Wright said. "Now when I see parents who have had a child been killed or shot, I can feel their pain—it’s reality for me now.”
Lee has called on a team of familiar faces to speak in the new PSA, including Stephen Curry, Joakim Noah, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul, faces he and Wright believe can affect change and reach people who may feel that they live on the periphery of gun violence.
Noah has been particularly bullish. He told Lawson's story in a documentary called "You're Not Alone," created "Rock Your Drop," and did away with a gunslinger celebration he once used after made baskets. Wright believes players like Noah can reach a younger generation and change their approach on inner-city streets and beyond.
"You have so many kids looking up to (NBA players)," Wright said. "If they see where they’re saying this gun violence is causing issues, I think the kids, with them being their role models, might look at the gun violence different, too. It should stop. My life matters, too."
While Noah has taken a more active approach, others, like LeBron James, have used their voice and influence as a platform to springboard issues into the collective consciousness. As Lee mentioned, James wore an 'I Can't Breathe Shirt' after Eric Garner was killed and took a photo with a hoodie to honor Trayvon Martin.
"I think what LeBron’s done is made it easy for a lot of other brothers in the league to say what they want to say," Lee said, "because if nothing happened to LeBron, it’s OK for me. LeBron is definitely taking a leadership role in athletes speaking out today. He needs to be commended for that.”
Lee didn't stop at LeBron. Christmas is one of the NBA's most visible times of the year, and Lee realized the significance of the league using considerable ad time to take on such an issue.
“It shows great courage to have these anti-gun violence spots run during Christmas Day,” Lee said. “It is a very bold, bold statement. So I got nothing but love for them. This is revolutionary that ESPN, ABC and the NBA and the players got together to show these spots about the epidemic. Ninety Americans die every day due to gun violence, and this spot is going to air on Christmas Day? What? All puns intended, that’s a strong move to the basket.”