Chicago’s deadly summer: guns, gangs and the legacy of racial inequality

In a city torn by gun violence, many say the crisis is inseparable from a history of segregation and systemic neglect

By  David Taylor in Chicago | The Guardian | August 12, 2018

A young black woman in shorts and a cropped white top decorated with a purple sequined dollar sign spins and pouts for her own camera as a rapper sings “you ain’t gonna see me fall”. Then the shooting starts.

More than 30 shots rattle from what sounds like at least one semi-automatic gun as the video degenerates into blurred images of grass and concrete while the woman holding the camera phone runs for her life. Within a minute she is inside an apartment – she has a leg injury and a distressed cry can be heard: “My babe has been shot!”

The video captures the chaotic moments of a hot summer night when 17-year-old Jahnae Patterson was shot and killed last Sunday at an early hours block party on the West side of Chicago during the city’s worst outbreak of gun violence for two years. The Chicago police department recorded 70 shootings and 16 murders across the city from Monday 30 July to Sunday 5 August, reaching a terrifying crescendo as 40 people were shot during seven hours last Sunday.

Chicago has become synonymous with gun violence in recent years. Last month, thousands of Chicagoprotesters shut down a major highway to call for stronger gun laws. And last year, President Donald Trump exploited the city’s woes to condemn Democrats and declared last year he was “sending in Federal help” to tackle the problem, which in practice meant sending a team of 20 agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) who had been already requested by the city during the last months of the Obama administration.

Though murders have actually fallen by 20% year on year, Chicago – where gun sales are banned, but weapons still flow in from surrounding states – is out of step with safer cities like New York and Los Angeles. And while shootings are down 17% compared to this point in 2017, they are 22% up on 2014.

Police have so far announced no arrests after last week’s violence, but have responded with an extra 600 officers on duty in five neighbourhoods and a warning that for the next month, police will break up unsanctioned street parties.

Superintendent Eddie Johnson, who said people would be given the chance to leave before they are arrested, told a press conference: “A lot of those gatherings probably had a gang nexus to it and rival gangs saw them out there … and unfortunately, in a lot of instances they don’t care who they shoot.”

Jahnae Patterson was shot in the face and pronounced dead in hospital within an hour. “Pray for our city, my baby is gone,” her mother, Tanika Humphries, wrote on Facebook about the loss of her eldest daughter.

Standing at a stretch of wire fencing amongst the forlorn remnants of a candlelit vigil for Jahnae, her cousin Meka Dixon played the video on her phone, which had been sent to her on social media by another girl who was at the party.

Paying tribute to the girl everyone called Nae Nae, she said: “She was everybody’s favourite cousin, a respectful little girl. She was always around kids, she wanted to be a nurse. It was devastating for our family, we never had no one in our family hit by a killing. She was only 17 and still had so much life to live.”

Jahnae Patterson was only 17 when she died.

Jahnae Patterson was only 17 when she died. Photograph: Twitter

In a phone interview, Tanika Humphries said she was just trying to work out how to pay for a funeral for her daughter after she said initial offers of help from politicians had turned to silence. “If my daughter was white, if she had blonde hair and blue eyes, there would be a cheque at every funeral home,” she said. “My baby is stuck in the morgue. Nobody has reached out to me.”

Asked if her church might help, she said: “I have nine children, I work and take care of my children and haven’t really had time to go to a church in years. My church is wherever I land on my knees.”

Her feeling of abandonment extends across the neglected black neighbourhoods of the West Wide and the South Side where gun violence is concentrated.

Schools have been closed, mental health programmes shuttered in budget fights between the city and the state of Illinois. But the degradation of these neighbourhoods goes back so much further.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr lived for a time in the 1960s on the West Side, half a mile from the spot where Jahnae Patterson was killed last Sunday. When he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, large swathes of the West Side burned as Chicago and more than 100 US cities were convulsed by rioting.

Incredibly, 50 years later, the scars are still visible. Once thriving commercial corridors like West Madison Street and Roosevelt Road are still marked by scores of litter-strewn vacant lots at the spots where burned out buildings were bulldozed. There are more liquor stores than food markets.

In residential streets like South Millard Avenue, where Jahnae was killed, there are vacant lots everywhere – some overgrown with an incongruous explosion of wild flowers, others decorated with hand-painted signs with sorrowful phrases such as: “Somebody better do something … before it’s too late” and “How long must we cry?”

In the North Lawndale area where she died, and where some of the worst gun violence prevails, there are still thousands of the handsome greystone three-storey homes built in the 1890s through the 1930s decorated with columns, arches and front steps all in elegant grey limestone. Many are boarded up, or sit in streets full of gaps like a broken-toothed smile.

Many lots have been bought up by developers who have failed to act on their investment, and the city has turned some over to community groups to plant as vegetable gardens.

But there has been an ongoing draining away of the population in the area which started with white flight to the suburbs through the 1950s and 60s as new black residents moved in search of jobs and respite from racism in the segregated south.

Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood has a one of the highest rates of gun violence.

Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood has one of the highest rates of gun violence. Photograph: Joshua Lott for the Guardian

‘Worse than a war zone’

Census analysis shows the population of North Lawndale and neighbouring East Garfield Park is 89% black, and has fallen to 55,000, 70% lower than in 1960, while almost half of households live below the poverty line.

Five miles from the glittering glass and steel of Chicago’s waterside downtown, the people who stay are hanging on in a city segregated on colour and economic lines.

Amongst activists and church leaders there is scathing criticism for Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago mayor of seven years, who was once Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff. Common themes are a preoccupation with showy downtown developments, and using tax dollars for pet projects while ruined neighbourhoods are ignored.

At a press conference this week, the mayor critiqued communities who he said had a “moral responsibility” to “do something” and co-operate with police in the hunt for gunmen who act with no apparent fear of being caught.

Rev Gregory Livingston, interim pastor at the New Hope Baptist Church and president of the Coalition for a New Chicago, derided the mayor, accusin