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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, accusing him of covering up police brutality to win his last election in February 2015.

Livingston was referring to the October 2014 case of Laquan McDonald, shot 16 times by a Chicago cop who is due to go on trial for murder next month. The city delayed the release of a dashboard camera video of the shooting for more than a year, until a court ordered it be made public. The police chief resigned, prosecutors brought a murder charge, but Emanuel had been re-elected.

Black people do not trust the Chicago police to protect them and believe the city has chosen to ignore them, Livingston said.

Rev Gregory Livingston inside the New Hope Baptist Church.

Rev Gregory Livingston inside the New Hope Baptist Church. Photograph: Joshua Lott for the Guardian

What should the world understand about Chicago’s violence? “It’s gone from Al Capone to Chi-Raq,” Livingston said. “The weekend was like a boil bursting. This orgy of killing and shootings, it’s worse than a war zone in many ways, but there are root causes.”

Charlene Carruthers, Chicago-based activist and national director of BYP100, a black youth radical activist organisation, said: “What you saw this past weekend was an example of what happens when you crowd people into a space where there is little to no resources, where there have been decades of divestment, where there is hyper-policing but not hyper-education or access to mental health care.

“The things that manifest from that situation include violence, include depression, include environmental degradation, violence that involves guns, violence that doesn’t involve guns, all of those things.

“That doesn’t mean if I were to meet someone who pulled the trigger that I would say ‘you have no responsibility in that’, the point is for us to broaden the many places of responsibility for what happened this past weekend.”

Police talk about gangs, but those who live here describe something less organised and more fractured – factions who control a block or two, caught in a spiral of petty rivalry where an insult on social media can escalate into a shooting.

Hot summer weather is a cliche people fall back upon as an explanation for violence, but Livingston says people in bad housing with nowhere to cool off become irritated and edgy.

Anti-violence protest on Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, in August.

Anti-violence protest on lake Shore Drive, Chicago, in August.  Photograph: Joshua Lott/EPA

“They hang out outside because it’s too hot inside; gangs form. Chicago has been intentionally segregated. Those harmed by segregation become desperate and often it finds expression in violence.”

Rev Livingston has taken a tactic from Dr King’s playbook and in July staged a protest march in a white neighbourhood, shutting down the Lakeshore Drive freeway and leading marchers to Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, on game day. He called it “redistributing the pain” and he has plans for more marches to inconvenience Chicagoans who have the luxury of turning away from the violence in poorer black neighbourhoods.

“But we are not only redistributing the pain and anguish, but the dormant hope that things can change. We are trying to desegregate Chicago, end the tale of two cities and bring justice for all of Chicago.”

After we spoke, he pledged to work to get help for Tanika Humphries with her daughter’s funeral costs.

‘There are no unsolvable problems’

Amara Enyia, a black woman of 35, who lives on the West side, will run as an outsider candidate against Rahm Emanuel in February 2019 as he tries for a third term.

A public policy consultant and community organiser, she is brimming with ideas to rebuild the fabric of the communities and build wealth for people who live there.

She wants to make Chicago the co-operative capital of the US, giving communities a stake in businesses. She wants to kickstart change by creating a public bank for Chicago to get the city away from high fees and unimaginative distribution of loans. She demands economic justice and an end to the way the city uses parking tickets and traffic violations to plug the budget, hitting the poorest hardest.

We meet in a converted warehouse which has been turned into Inspiration Kitchen, which trains local people for jobs in catering and provides healthy, affordable meals for local people.

Amara Enyia, a public policy consultant, in Chicago.

Amara Enyia, a public policy consultant, in Chicago.  Photograph: Joshua Lott for the Guardian

“There are no unsolvable problems,” she says, “you need the will or the persistence to solve them or the vision to create new solutions.”

She describes a pattern to the way Chicago greets a new wave of shootings.

“What happens every time there is a flash of public outrage, the mayor will get on TV, there will be a press conference where people will spout platitudes about violence, someone will call for more police… and then a couple days later it will die down, the mayor will wipe his brow, glad he lives to fight another day and things will go back to normal until the next tragic weekend. That is the cycle of Chicago.

Violence is not a policing issue, it is the manifestation of our public policy failings across the board  – Amara Enyia

“It stems from a fundamental inability to actually understand what violence is. Violence is not a policing issue, it is the manifestation of our public policy failings across the board. Everything from education to economic investment, to our housing policy, to how we treat those who need mental health and behavioural health services, to how we treat our young people, to the disinvested and vacant commercial corridors, to the inequitable allocation of resources from top to bottom, all of that manifests in violence.”

She too denounces the audacity of the mayor criticising communities, when he has closed schools and health clinics, has the power to direct investment toward them, or ensure police are acting under the law.

“To put the focus on the community and say the community needs to step up, I think it’s wrong-headed, I think it is tone deaf, I think he lacks the standing to make any such statement.

“Now after a tragic weekend he calls for the community to step up? He needs to step up – in fact, he needs to step down, because you’ve been here for eight years now and this is the result of your leadership.”

The aunt of Jahnae Patterson kisses a picture of her niece during a vigil.

The aunt of Jahnae Patterson kisses a picture of her niece during a vigil. Photograph: Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

Uplifting talk quickly turns to depressing reality on the West Side. We leave and are soon at a scene nearby where two young men were killed after shots were fired into their car at around 3.40am. A shrine of 40 votive candles, two bottles of Smirnoff Ice and some plastic red and purple roses has been built where the car slammed into the concrete and iron leg of an elevated railway line. A fragment of police tape remains on a rusty nail.

Then news comes through of a drive-by shooting, at 12.30pm on a weekday. A 19-year-old woman has been shot in the neck and is critical, two 16-year-old boys were also shot. At the scene, detectives are looking for forensic clues as some young boys and a couple of older women look on with a matter of factness that tells its own story. People heard shots, one saw the car speed away, no-one is too surprised.

Another hot weekend looms, with short term and long-term solutions as elusive as ever. As Enyia puts it: “We have to change the way the city runs. There is a gilded image of the city, go one layer down, it’s rotting.”

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