The cool days of summer pale to the continued climate of violence in Chicago. The unnecessary bloodshed has worn the hairlines down to the root of many residents and businesses. We are faced with so many questions yet the answers are clearly there—do we want to face them? Since the start of 2015, there have been a reported 225 murders. This past 4th of July holiday weekend included 55 shootings and 9 killings alone. Although the statistics are down from 82 shot with16 fatally wounded during this same time last year, the tragedy left families without loved ones during a time when most families come together to celebrate.
A student and aspiring musician, Vonzell Baker was gunned down in the same park that was named after slain student, Hadiya Pendleton. He was 17 and a member of the Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church where he was also the drummer in the church choir. This week he was to start a new job at McDonalds on King Drive.
On Sunday night, the nephews of Illinois State Senator Mattie Hunter (3rd District), John Hunter (25) and Willie Hunter (31) were gunned down in a vehicle crash. They had recently relocated to St. Louis two years ago and were visiting family back home when they were fatally shot in the Auburn Gresham community.
A statement was released by Senator Hunter’s office. “My family would like to thank everyone for the prayers and support we’ve received. We are heartbroken and saddened by this tragic and senseless loss of life. My family is no different than any other family, and far too many of us have lost family members to the violence that continues to plague our communities. I would ask everyone to join me in praying for an end to this violence and the gun epidemic that is killing our families and friends. It has to end.”
One of the most difficult to accept was the death of 7-year old, Amari Brown who was fatally shot while playing with other children in front of his father’s home in the Humboldt Park neighborhood Saturday night. The young victim’s father, Antonio Brown was briefly held and released in police custody due to his multiple arrest history and gang affiliation. The CPD believed the bullet was intended for him but there is speculation that a close associate of Brown’s was the target—not him.
Community activists and some long standing residents believe a great deal of these shootings are not random—they are intended for a specific target but are taking innocent lives. Although, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department Garry McCarthy believe illegal guns on the streets is a major contributor, it is not the root of the problem. Community leader, Pastor Jedidiah Brown believe over the years, the decay of the Black family has lead to many of the problems we are facing today with young people. It’s not just a gang problem, it’s a societal epidemic.
“You have to be willing to build a relationship because this label of ‘gang’ causes the community that could actually change this to ignore them, and box them in. Now we have the cycle of violence, and it’s a continual decay in society, because they have children who watch their children who are still kids ‘playing’ grown,” he said.
There was a time that gangs were as organized as any other blue collar union in Chicago—each group had a role and known territory. Every tier in the organization answered to a higher ranking member who earned their position to oversee agreed pockets of territories throughout the city and people residing in these areas were very clear who dominated, which area by the tags on the buildings. The game has changed and over time, many of the known leaders are either six-feet under or incarcerated; leaving a new generation of fractions without the same code or discipline.
What seemed like a way to rid the problem by the feds and the Daley administration is now a plague that the current Emanuel administration and Superintendent McCarthy can’t find a serum to annihilate.
Ameena Matthews has made it her life’s mission to tackle this head-on. She’s known nationally and lauded for her work as well as respected among many on each side of the fence to help defuse problems before they escalate between gang fractions and sometimes preventing further conflict between them and the Chicago Police Department. A former facilitator of Cease Fire, she started “Pause for Peace” with the mantra she relays to young people–‘Don’t let 30 seconds of rage change your life forever.’
One of these situations occurred a couple of weeks ago with a South Shore man, Alfontus Cockingham known to neighbors as Nunu was shot and killed by a Chicago Police officer off of 71st and Merrill. The police said a gun was found on the same corner but conflicting stories tell another side of the incident. The 23-year old victim was deaf in one ear and had earphones in the other ear. He was told the police were behind him, upon knowing this, bystanders said the young man immediately held his hands up, still holding his iPod. Nunu paused, held up his hands—the “Don’t Shoot,” signal. He was fatally shot several times.
“Four days ago (from 7.6.15), his family had to make a decision to take him off of life support because Northwestern Hospital said his organs were about to shut down. He wanted to be an organ donor. His mother died at 32, he died at 23,” Matthews said. “How can I as an advocate – a strong peace advocate make sure the young guys don’t cross the line? Ask for peace when there is no justice. Give them the police report. The police never gave the family a hard copy.”
We reached out to the Chicago Police Department for an interview and received no response.
The ongoing violence that has fueled the city has been reported as the residual of Black and Hispanic youth who ‘gang bang’ and war with one another. Matthews disputes this stereo type because the gang culture has changed—beyond the old school structure.
“Stones (Black P. Stone Rangers) are still Stones, GDs (Gangster Disciplines) are still GDs and so on. What is different now is that they are clicking together. They are all rolling together. Our young guys are not ‘gang banging’ and when you really get into the nitty-gritty of the conflict, it’s because often somebody’s girl got into it with somebody else’s girl and they called their guy to beat down that somebody. When this happens, the Chicago Police is called. Of course, to them it’s a ‘gang’ thing.” explains Matthews.
As people enjoyed 4th of July festivities from the peaceful outings of the Chosen Few House Picnic in Jackson Park attended by multiple thousands peacefully, and the African Festival of Life in Union Park along with various neighborhood festivals throughout the city—summer is not over. We are reminded that we are a peaceful people on the whole. Yet tensions are still high and there are several variables to finding a solution.
Social activist Afrika Porter explains, “I think it’s time out for the big ‘I’s’ and the little ‘you’s’. People are mad about the word ‘Chi Raq’? Unfortunately, we have a history here (that conjures it up) and it’s time to deal with it – there have been people dealing with it. As a mother, I have to consider the fact that my youngest son is 13. He doesn’t go to the park without me. Even when he’s with his father, I still call to check in with them to make sure he’s okay.” she said.
On Monday, there were several vigils and demonstrations as a result of the deaths of Amari Brown and Vonzell Banks. Mayor Emanuel attended the press conference on the front steps of Metropolitan Apostolic Church of God along with Reverend Leon Finney and young students calling for peace. Finney vowed to help and assist young people in the community to have a safe haven with or without financial assistance—it is his mission.
Afraid of not being able to assist those in need, Afrika Porter started her own company Afrika Enterprises to have more flexibility in her work schedule. She currently mentors eight young girls, whom she placed in summer jobs.
Porter said, “The village is not what it once was either. I see the same people when I go to these community meetings. We have to do some things differently to get more people involved. If I’m seeing the same activists all the time – then we’re talking to each other. It’s the same circle and we need to expand out.”
One thing is for sure, it’s our community, our children, our family, our people. So we have to make the change.