The Silent War: Taking on guns and gangs with positive alternatives

CHICAGO — Growing up on this city’s Southwest Side, I could never get used to street gangs, shootings and witnessing neighborhood friends die from violence. Why do so many youth join street gangs? How can someone just pull a trigger and take the life of another human being?

I’ve lived in the same city neighborhood for 30 years, and I’m proud of my predominantly Mexican American community’s rich culture. But I remain troubled by many of the political, social and economic disparities that stop any real progress for change here.

Since school started last year, 34 Chicago public school kids have been killed, most of them by shootings.

The violence that lurks in the corners of poor and working-class communities is a constant threat, and it is the children who pay its deadly price.

A loving son

2223.jpgBlair Holt was an African American 16-year-old honors student at Percy Julian High School located on the far South Side. He planned to major in business administration in college.

Blair, known as “Busy B,” enjoyed making music and writing hip-hop lyrics. He loved Air Jordan gym shoes and often recorded his songs at a local studio. He would pass out his demo CDs to friends at school.

He was adored by both his teachers and his peers. He was a loving son.

On May 10, Blair was riding a city bus on his way home from school when a gunman got on the bus and opened fire. Blair threw his body in front of a bullet to save a friend. He died the next day.

Police said the gunfire was gang-related, and that neither Blair nor his friend were the intended targets.

I visited his school last week and spoke with some summer students. Several said gangs are a deadly problem and something has to change, including getting guns off the street.

“He was a funny guy,” said Nelsonmandela Jackson, an 18-year-old senior at Julian. “A ladies man, just like me, a positive guy.”

“It shouldn’t have happened,” he said. “Stuff always happens to innocent people.”

Death sits over Little Village

Roberto Duran, 14, would usually walk his mother to the door every morning as she headed off to work, kissing her and telling her that he loved her. Roberto’s family lives in the mostly Mexican American Little Village neighborhood on the city’s Southwest Side.

His friends called him “BTB” after the PBS cartoon character “Bob the Builder,” because of his big cheesy smile. He loved soccer and swimming. His family described him as a very bright, gentle, sweet and caring young boy.

It was about 8:40 p.m. on June 11 when Roberto was walking with his friends not far from his home. A car stopped nearby. A young man got out and aimed a gun toward the group and shots were fired.

Sammy Garcia, 23, a violence prevention coordinator in the trauma center at Stroger Hospital, was driving home from work with a friend when they heard the gunshots.

“We paused,” he said, not sure if what they were hearing were firecrackers. But neighbors in the street quickly flagged them down.

“People were frozen, stunned with cold faces, in shock and couldn’t move. Everybody was still,” he said.

Roberto had been hit and was laid out on the concrete. His eyes were open and rolling back. Garcia said Roberto had a pulse but was unconscious.

“Blood was all over the place,” he said. “We wrapped his head with a T-shirt and put him in our car.” Garcia rushed Roberto to the nearest hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Roberto Duran was murdered, police say, in retaliation for the slaying of a rival gang member earlier that day. Roberto’s family says he was not in a gang.

Rudy Sosa, 34, works as an outreach worker for CeaseFire, a citywide gang prevention group. Sosa said Roberto was not a gang member but his friends were.

“He couldn’t cut his ties with them,” he said.

Sosa said gang retaliation has become a normal reflex. “I’ve seen violence go from fist-fighting to pipes to knives, and now it’s guns.”

Garcia knew Roberto. He encouraged him to stay in school and stay out of trouble. “We need to build a movement of unity among our youth,” said Garcia. “Little Village is a great, vibrant and family-oriented community, but it suffers the plague of gang violence. It’s like death sits over us.”

Another bullet, another child

Schanna Gayden, 13, was an honors student and a gifted basketball player for her Northwest Side middle school. She loved math, the Chicago Cubs and riding her bike.

Schanna’s family lives near the Funston Elementary School playground in the predominantly African American and Latino working-class section of the Logan Square community.

Schanna was buying some fruit from a vendor on June 25 when a stray bullet hit her in the head, the result of rival gangs clashing on opposite sides of the street. Schanna died the next morning.

I recently visited the playground where Schanna was gunned down. It now includes a neighborhood memorial with colorful teddy bears, candles, flowers and pictures.

A woman who works at the school spoke to me during one of her breaks on the condition that I not use her name.

“Schanna was different than all the rest,” she said. “She was a wonderful, very respectful, real smart and loving child.” She said the neighborhood is scared of the gangs, but since Schanna’s death things have been quiet.

A fellow student also knew Schanna. “She was a good student and liked going to school,” said the young girl, who also did not want to reveal her name. “She was real nice and liked hanging out with friends. I’m scared because of what happened to her.”

A young African American couple from the area approached the memorial to pay their respects. Connie, the young woman, said she remembers watching Schanna play basketball.

In the wake of Schanna’s death, she said, “you don’t want to let your kids outside, because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

She said parents need to talk to their children and that they need positive role models. “We need more youth and after-school programs.”

Connie’s husband, himself a former gang member, said, “We have to get the gangs out and turn the guns in, and give these guys a job.” If more youth had jobs, he said, the situation would improve.

Stop the gun flow

The Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Church on the South Side said easy access to deadly weapons is a serious problem. Pfleger, who is white, said that in 2002 and 2003, when the Chicago Police Department recovered guns used to commit crimes, 800 weapons were traced back to Chuck’s Gun Shop in Riverdale, just south of the city.

According to the Americans for Gun Safety Foundation, Chuck’s Gun Shop sells more guns than any other dealer in the nation. Pfleger, along with Rainbow/PUSH leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson, are conducting a campaign to stop the flow of guns from the shop.

I visited Pfleger at his church. He told me he was with the family of Blair Holt the night he died. Holt’s mother is a member of St. Sabina’s parish.

Pfleger pointed out that each year more children die from gun violence in the United States than U.S. soldiers die in Iraq.

The death toll of U.S. soldiers in the Iraq war is over 3,600 since the war began in 2003.

According to a Children’s Defense Fund report titled “Protect Children, Not Guns 2007,” 101,413 children and teens in America have died from gun violence since 1979. This is more than the total number of American fatalities in all wars since World War II, including in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.

“We live in a time where guns have become part of America’s wardrobe,” Pfleger said. “Kids have always been angry and enraged, but now they have a gun on them. We have to stop the easy access to guns.”

Needed: jobs and opportunities

Pfleger said the job market lacks opportunities for poor communities, which causes other problems, including unaffordable housing and failing educational institutions. Daily life for families in these communities, particularly for single-parent households, becomes very difficult, he said.

Many gangs offer youth false alternatives such as a quick money fix or a place of belonging, he said.

“When you have broken families, communities that struggle with economic disparities, then those areas are vulnerable for gangs to grow. Communities have to rise up and say we are not going to tolerate shootings on our corners.”

Communities are beginning to do just that. In the days following the killing of Holt, students at Julian High School marched out of school to protest the violence.

But political action is also needed, Pfleger indicated. “We have an administration that supports guns in America and the NRA.” The National Rifle Association is a powerful lobbying organization and chief proponent of lax rules for gun ownership.

Pfleger pointed out that too much money is being spent on incarcerating and criminalizing young people and too little is being used on prevention measures to keep them from going to jail.

Plus, as many others have observed, the billions of dollars wasted on the Iraq war could go toward creating opportunities for young people.

More policing doesn’t work

A new study titled “Gang Wars: The Failure of Enforcement Tactics and the Need for Effective Public Safety Strategies” was released last July by the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. It found that heavy-handed suppression efforts have a poor track record when it comes to reducing crime, and can actually increase gang cohesion.

More police, more prisons and more punishments don’t work, the study indicates.

Gang members account for a relatively small share of crime in most jurisdictions, it says. And street gangs do not dominate or drive the drug trade. The public face of the gang problem may seem Black and Latino only, yet it is whites that make up the largest group of adolescent gang members and the majority of gun victims.

Job training, mentoring, after-school activities, and recreational programs make significant dents in gang violence, according to the report. Its authors urge legislators to allocate more money to social programs and less for large-scale arrest and prison initiatives that often show short-term gains, but make gang problems worse.

Never forget

I had a roundtable discussion with activists from the Alliance of Logan Square Organizations and the Logan Square chapter of CeaseFire.

Maggie Pagan, a director with the violence prevention initiative of ALSO, was with Schanna’s family the night she was shot. She accompanied Schanna’s sister as they rushed to the hospital. “I remember her saying, ‘I can’t lose my sister, she’s my best friend.’”

Several participants, some of them former gang members, said a caring community and an atmosphere of love and support is critical, along with jobs.

David Cassel, executive director of ALSO, said a lot of youth who join a gang do so when they don’t have someone to look after them and when they lack economic opportunity. “Unemployment puts a major strain on the family,” he said.

“It’s a fight every year for more funding” for youth programs, he said. “We need more city, county and state money.”

When it comes to race, Cassel, who is white, said, “On the community level, young people of color are not shooting each other because of race, but institutional racism has put people of color into situations and environments that lead to violence.”

Pagan sighed and said, “After all this happens, our work does not die down, it picks up. We never forget what happened.”