Mourners attend the funeral of 16-year-old Joseph Briggs, who was killed in a drive-by shooting while standing on his front porch in Chicago on June 9, 2012. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)
For Chicago, to say this summer has been hot is an understatement.
Soaring temperatures aside, the city’s already simmering cauldron of unemployment, poor education and cultural legacy of violence has grown into a rolling boil of gunplay that has left a dizzying number of young people dead or wounded since the beginning of the season.
Over the Fourth of July holiday, a 10-year-old girl was among the 15 shot across the city during a 24-hour span. The weekend of June 16 was deadlier — seven people were killed and 35 wounded in shootings or stabbings around the city. And just one week ago, 7-year-old Heaven Sutton was gunned down on June 27 as she sold snow cones in her neighborhood with her mother.
Sutton’s death drove Mayor Rahm Emanuel to speak out passionately about the epidemic of violence, hinting that the city’s problem goes deeper than merely a gun control issue.
“This is not about crime. This is about values,” Emanuel said the day after Sutton’s shooting. “Take your gang conflict away from a 7-year-old. Who raised you? You have a 7-year-old selling lemonade. You’re a member of a gang coming to get lemonade and another gang member is driving by. Where were you raised and who raised you? Stay away from the kids.”
Although Emanuel’s observation about morals may have begun to scratch the surface of the city’s homicide surge, the simple message about “stop the gangs” doesn’t seem to go far enough, say community activists.
“They definitely don’t have an ear to the ground,” Diane Latiker, founder of Chicago nonprofit Kids Off the Block, told BET.com about the city’s elected officials.
She says officials are willing to talk about the violence in broad terms, but what’s being ignored is the issue of race.
“Its like our little dirty secret. But the secret keeps coming out because so many of them [Blacks] are being murdered and sent to jail,” Latiker said. “When you talk to these young people and you see they’re so disconnected from society and the mainstream … even regarding morals and respect and discipline. And to me, it’s a matter of poverty.”
Latiker's organization provides a safe-haven for youth in need of anything from help with homework to winter clothes. She says that in addition to an overall lack of job opportunities among young Blacks, she deals with many who are woefully unprepared to enter the workforce.
As if economic issues aren’t difficult enough to contend with, there are cliques.
Gone are the organized crime groups of the past. Now young people run in cliques of just a few in number but deadly in ways to incite violence over the pettiest of run-ins.
“What you have going on now is the emergence of a lot of cliques,” Tio Hardiman, director for CeaseFire Illinois, told BET.com. “And you have more interpersonal violence taking place ... petty disputes between individuals turn into clique and organizational incidents.”
To illustrate his point, Hardiman recounted the recent mediation of a dispute that began with a fight between a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old. The conflict began to escalate into a deadly situation after adults affiliated with certain cliques became involved in the spat, but the situation diffused after Hardiman and his team stepped in.
Hardiman created the Violence Interrupters, which consists of a team of community mediators that fan out across some of the city’s most violent corners and work face-to-face with people in efforts to stop conflicts before they turn into homicides.
He says this practical, homegrown approach to cutting down gun violence is the best way to stop what he describes as a generational epidemic of violent behavior.
“Everybody has to do a little bit more now. The police can only do so much. Now it's time for the community residents to step up,” Hardiman said, stating that 80 percent of Chicago’s homicides are Black-on-Black incidents.
He envisions a Chicago where each block has a designated house where young people know that’s where they can retreat to settle a conflict, and where elders are ready and willing to do the hard work of working out even the smallest tiffs for the good of the entire community.
“Family members know if their sons are going to go out an do something crazy," Hardiman said. "It’s a tragedy if people don’t step up. Cause you’re just as guilty if you don’t do anything.”
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