October 31, 2016; Chicago Tribune
To the nation, the numbers are the news. This past weekend in Chicago, 17 people were fatally shot. Another 42 people were wounded. A woman and a 16-year-old boy were killed yesterday. Homicides in Chicago have passed 600 for the first time since 2003. This year marks the most violent for Chicago since the 1990s. There are 3,715 shooting victims to date this year.
To family members, friends and neighbors, faith communities, teachers, pastors, and members of advocacy, housing, and youth development organizations, the names of the shooting victims make the news agonizingly personal. Seven of the 17 people killed this past weekend were younger than 20. The youngest was 14-year-old Demarco Webster Jr., and “17-year-old twins Edward and Edwin Bryant were killed in an apparent drive-by shooting.”
The people living in the most traumatized Chicago neighborhoods are anything but complacent. Chicago Survivors provides crisis intervention services that can range from candlelight vigils to grieving workshops. After the police leave the scene of the crime, these crisis responders help distraught and grieving families and try to build better relationships between the community and law enforcement. Its vision is to create a “network of concern and care” to “reframe violence prevention.”
Last September, following the violent Labor Day weekend, the Washington Post reported how the community rose up and funded positive activities and events themselves in order to reframe narrative.
Over the weekend, a group of 75 organizations, block clubs and churches staged pop-up events in the areas of the city most impacted by the violence—the southern and western neighborhoods that have been home to most of the increase in killings, police say. The surge in violence has given an urgency to the block parties, cookouts, chess matches, gospel concerts, stage plays and pickup basketball games.
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Mothers Against Senseless Killings, volunteers dressed in pink shirts, patrol their neighborhoods, gathering at places where shootings have occurred. Other initiatives abound, each with their own story and grassroots support. Here are just a few: Youth Guidance, Build Chicago, Cure Violence, Chicago Area Project, Chicago Safe Start, and UCAN Chicago.
For years, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has worked with his team to create or reassert crime-fighting strategies. All these initiatives taken together have not prevented the violence. However, communities of concerned citizens are not deterred. They are asserting their own largely volunteer initiatives to reach both the victims and perpetrators of the violence.
According to Alex Kotlowitz, writing for the New Yorker on September 26th, “The situation has become so severe that, earlier this month, one alderman proposed that all police be required to carry military-quality first-aid gear.” The point of Kotlowitz’s penetrating analysis is that city’s inability to find and charge perpetrators (less than half the national average of 64 percent) is contributing to the mayhem. Kotlowitz relates this chilling story about the endemic distrust in the city.
One woman I interviewed has a job supporting victims who have been asked to testify in criminal cases, and yet when her teen-age son was shot five times she urged him not to work with the police. She worried that he’d be shot again if he did. “Sometimes,” she told me, “I go home feeling guilty” for urging victims to testify.
One primary challenge Chicago faces is gang violence, or more specifically the more than 150,000 active gang members in some 70 different factions. The mayor, the police, and the justice system cannot solve this problem alone. The lack of opportunity and resources for people growing up in impoverished neighborhoods is what these gangs thrive on.
When the last thing a kid has is his or her humanity, and the gangs appear to be the best last option, then the violence will continue—until Chicago can offer each and every young person a competing and life-affirming vision for the future. The afflicted communities are not waiting for city government and the police to solve the problem. These citizens are doing what they can where they live to assert a life-affirming narrative for their communities.—James Schaffer