Mahlina Shoats Is A Survivor


I was at a concert when Jonathan Facka called me. Of course, I did not hear my phone ring, so he immediately followed up with a text message. “I wanna pitch you something,” was all that he would let on. The next morning, completely oblivious to whatever he was going to ask of me, I called him and listened to him give me the footnotes to a harrowing story. I was only at the beginning of understanding.

Fast forward to a week later, and I’m sitting in a basement on 7th Street in downtown Richmond, across from Mahlina Shoats—a prime example of a kevlar human being. Next to me is Facka, giving me sideways glances while Mahlina relays the uncondensed version of her story to see if I’m as engaged as he is. I was, and still am, fascinated and heartbroken by the societal failings that led Shoats to be sitting across from me in that dark coffee shop cellar.

I must admit, I initially lacked faith in my ability to tackle a story like Shoats’. However, sometimes a situation presents itself in such a way, and at such a time, that one simply must seize the opportunity and dive head-first into an unfamiliar world to explore its depths. And so I did:

Mahlina Shoats, 23, grew up in the Newport News, Virginia area. Though she is the only child of her mother, she is one of seven children from her father. She spent most of her formative years on the end of the peninsula until she was 17 years old, whereupon she moved to Richmond in her senior year of high school. Shoats is of mixed race, with her father being black, and her mother white, and she noted how this was reflected in her living situation. “[I was] living in Yorktown and only having the kids be mostly white, and then moving here and finding it to be completely the opposite,” said Shoats. She describes her early childhood as traumatic, and to avoid graphic details, the phrase she used to sum it all up was, “[I saw] my mom being abused, broken noses, blood everywhere.” Shoats remained the only child at her mother’s house, and was often left to fend for herself. The toll on her emotional well-being was severe, leading Shoats to overlook anything beyond her physical safety as a significant concern. She remarked, “I never thought mental health was a thing when I was little. I was always told, ‘shut up and be quiet.'”

Mahlina Shoats 2023 by Daniel Jones @danieljonesfoto
Mahlina Shoats by Daniel Jones @danieljonesfoto

As Shoats grew older, she gained wisdom about her relationships with the people who abused her and her mother. She said of them, “just cause they’re blood doesn’t mean they’re for you.” Specifically, regarding her father, she hasn’t given up on the relationship as a whole. In fact, she admitted that she would like to, “ask him what he’s gone through in his life as well so that we can try to build a relationship.”

Though her relationship with her father has been troubled, she had nothing but good things to say about her relationship with her mother: “She has never NOT had clothes on my back, food on the table, and a roof over my head.” However, she admitted that she wants to provide a better life for her future children than what her mother was able to give her.

But all of this is only the backstory. The actual story begins after Shoats moved to Richmond when events really took a drastic turn.

On August 31, 2021, Shoats was days away from her 22nd birthday on September 3. She decided to spend the day at Broad Rock Park on the south side of the river. Instead of attempting to describe the events, I’ll step aside so that Shoats can describe the timeline in her own words, as she relayed the events to me.

“I was with two friends… I was there for a good hour, kids playing, older people grilling out, I’m comfortable. I hear a shot, and I look back, and then they keep shooting… Suddenly, I felt something stun me and I fell, and they continued to keep shooting while I was on the ground… I continued to run, and I dove into some thorn bushes because I didn’t know if anyone was chasing me or what was going on… An older gentleman came and got me out of the bushes, I’m very thankful for that. An off-duty nurse was at the park at the time, so I’m blessed for that as well. She ripped her shirt off and wrapped it around my leg.” Shoats was the victim of a completely unrelated drive-by shooting incident, in which she was shot in the leg. Shoats has never been involved in any gang activity, remains a model citizen, and lives with her mother.

Immediately after the event, Shoats was taken to a local hospital. She described the following few hours like this: “I went to Chippenham. I was treated like crap. I feel like I was stereotyped because I have sleeves, I have tattoos, I’m mixed… I didn’t get bandaged or cleaned up or anything until I got discharged. I wasn’t told what to do at home, I wasn’t told to follow up with a physical therapist.”

The bullet remains in Shoats’ leg to this day. She is walking fine for the time being, but multiple physicians have advised her that removing the bullet from her leg would lead to a 50% chance of her having a limp for the rest of her life. The alternative to having it taken out is to live with it in her body for the rest of her life, or it could push itself out, a future traumatic event that Shoats does not look forward to. The shooter was never caught.

The human instinct in response to such horrific traumatic events can often be to shut down, collapse within oneself, and, in a fit of paranoia, hide away from the world. How did Shoats answer to these absolutely traumatic events in her life? She became a model.

After spending a considerable amount of time recovering and slowly edging back into everyday life, since December of 2022, Shoats has been asked by independent fashion brands Two to One and Incognito to pose in their clothing. Rather than dwell on the experiences of her past and let them hold power over her, Shoats has chosen to move on and allow her life to continue despite the unfortunate circumstances. Although she has not made her way to a basketball court since that day, Shoats desperately hopes to return to athletics soon.

Mahlina Shoats 2023 by Daniel Jones @danieljonesfoto
Mahlina Shoats by Daniel Jones @danieljonesfoto

Although she chooses not to dwell on her past tragedies, Shoats does have plans to help people just like herself and spoke repeatedly about starting a support group for victims of gun violence. “I would like to talk to more victims to see where we can connect, and see what we could do better as a community,” said Shoats. Her hope is that someday she can provide a safe space for those just like her who have been victimized by a system and society that seems to be against them for no reason other than numerous biases. “I am in the LGBTQ community, I am biracial, and I am a woman. It’s hard, so sometimes I try to be a voice to these women, or people who are my color, or people in the community to let them know, ‘please stay safe,’” continued Shoats, “I believe there’s going to be positivity out of this somewhere someday.” Whoever shot Mahlina Shoats was never caught, or at least not for the horrid crime they committed that day. Regardless of this, she hopes to keep pushing forward. “I’ve been through a lot of things in my life that have made me the person that I am today, and I’d rather let go than keep all the bad energy in me.”

On the afternoon of Thursday, April 27th, I sat down to begin writing this piece, and felt wholly unsure of the narrative. I struggled for hours, writing detailed notes from my interview with Shoats to ensure that I didn’t mince her words and conveyed her message as truthfully as possible. While doing research, a headline popped up across my screen from Richmond’s Channel 6: “Students Shot Outside George Wythe High School.”

This was not some far-off land, some mall seven states over that I had never been to and would never see. This was a location I frequently pass on one of my commutes to work. It shouldn’t take tragedy happening on the front doorstep for Americans to engage with the realities of this hole that has been dug. But if one were to grapple with every mass shooting that happens in the United States of America, they would be in a constant state of grieving.

As of May 7th, RVA Magazine identified 185 mass shootings in the United States in 2023 so far. The very next day, I had the opportunity to watch House Representative Jamie Raskin give a speech in which he identified 207 as of May 8th. Later on the day of the shooting, as I drove past George Wythe, I saw dozens of police cars, followed by a line of anxious parents in their cars, waiting to pick up their kids. Each time I’ve driven by since, I can’t help but hurt inside in a way that I can’t describe besides pure tragedy. As of writing this piece, thankfully, neither of the students injured in the incident have passed, but that bar is shockingly low. “Where does it end?” You should ask yourself the same question: where does it end?

Give Mahlina Shoats a follow at @lord.liinaa
Main image by Daniel Jones @danieljonesfoto

Andrew Bonieskie

Andrew Bonieskie

But you may call me Bones. I'm the Associate Editor of RVA Mag, and a writer and musician living in Richmond, Virginia. After graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2020 with a Bachelor of Arts in music and a minor in creative writing I have gone on to score feature and short films, released a book of poetry, an album of original music, and perform lead vocals with the band Pebbles Palace.

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