Youth violence in Chicago

Alex Kotlowitz on why our city’s children deserve our attention—and help.

Illustration: Oivind Hovland

The numbers are unimaginable.

During this century’s first decade, 5,352 people were killed in Chicago and, according to an estimate from the University of Chicago Crime Lab, another 24,392 were wounded by gunfire. So many that the violence has spawned its own language: To “change” someone is to kill them; a “black cat” refers to a woman who has children fathered by at least two men who have been murdered. So many that funeral homes have rules about burying the murdered: only during the day. No hats. Police present. So many that during the spring and summer, makeshift street-side memorials—consisting of balloons and flowers and liquor bottles—pop up like perennials in full bloom. So many that people arm themselves in self-defense, and so the police pull anywhere from 7,000 to 8,000 guns off the street each year. So many that RIP is commonly scrawled on walls, embroidered on shirts and hats, and tattooed on bodies. So many that should you walk into a classroom in any of these communities, virtually every child will tell you he or she has seen someone shot. Indeed, the vast majority of murders—82 percent of them in 2011—occur in outdoor spaces such as parks and streets and alleyways.

I recently met one high-school student, Thomas, who rattled off for his social worker the people he’s seen shot. The first was at a birthday party for a friend who was turning 11. She was shot and killed when a stray bullet struck her in the head. Then Thomas saw his brother shot, on two occasions, the second time paralyzing him. He saw a friend shot while waiting at the bus stop. And then this past summer as Thomas chatted on a porch with a fellow student, a boy with a gun approached. Thomas begged him not to shoot, but he ignored the pleas, and Thomas’s 16-year-old friend was shot three times in her torso. She died on the porch. After this last incident (incident seems completely inadequate for such bloodshed), Thomas retreated into himself, pulling inward, unwilling, unable to acknowledge his grief. He could only manage to tell his social worker, “I want to hurt someone. I want to hurt someone.” It was the only way he could articulate the pain.

We think that somehow people get hardened to the violence, that they get accustomed to the shootings. I’ve made that mistake myself. When I first met Lafeyette, one of the two boys whose lives I chronicled in 1991’s There Are No Children Here, he recounted the time a teenaged neighbor had been shot in a gang war and stumbled into the stairwell outside his apartment. There, the boy died. I remember that as Lafeyette recounted this moment, he showed virtually no emotion, and I thought to myself, He didn’t care. Over time I came to realize that the problem wasn’t that Lafeyette didn’t have feelings. It was that he felt too much, and the one thing he could do to protect himself was to try to compartmentalize his life, to push the dark stuff into a corner where he hoped it wouldn’t haunt him.

But the violence festers. It tears at one’s soul. I’ve met kids who experience flashbacks, kids who have night terrors, kids—like Thomas—who become filled with rage, kids who self-medicate, kids who have physical ailments (Lafeyette would get stomachaches whenever there were shootings), kids whose very being is defined by the thunderous deaths around them. For many, it’s a single act of violence around which the rest of a childhood will revolve. And then there are parents who must bury a child, who swim under a sea of what-ifs and regrets. One mother and father I knew visited their 15-year-old son’s gravesite every day for nearly a year, even grilling meals there. A mother whose 14-year-old boy was executed by a gang member grieved so deeply that for a time she only had a taste for sand. Another mother so mourned the loss of her son she kept his bedroom just as he’d left it as a kind of memorial: his slippers by the end of his bed, his basketball balanced precariously on his dresser and his collection of M&Ms dispensers lined up on a closet shelf.

In a forthcoming book, How Long Will I Cry? Voices of Youth Violence, edited by DePaul’s Miles Harvey, you’ll meet a number of parents who have lost children to the city’s violence. One of them, Pamela Hester-Jones, says of her son Lazarus, “He loved art and loved to dance. He liked jazz music, and he loved to draw. He loved to swim, he loved going to play golf, he loved going to the movies, he loved Hot Pockets and vanilla ice cream…. I let my Lazarus go outside. I would never do it again.” Is that what we’ve come to? That the world is such a threatening place it’s best not to let your children leave their houses?

These are parents and communities who have lost loved ones. They’ve lost ground. They’ve lost hope. They’ve lost trust. They’ve lost a part of themselves. Drive through the city’s West and South Sides and you’ll be greeted by an array of Block Club signs. On each of them, neighbors have listed not what they celebrate, but rather what they dread: no gambling (penny pitching or dice playing). no drug dealing. no alcohol drinking. no sitting in or on cars. These signs speak not to their dreams, but rather to their fears. These are communities, to borrow a term from the world of psychology, that are hypervigilant, that are back on their heels, trying, understandably, to keep the world at bay.

In How Long Will I Cry?, one former gang member says to his interviewer, “We’re telling each other, ‘You’re not alone in this.’ ” It’s something many need to remind themselves of because more than anything the violence pushes people away from each other like slivers of magnets of opposite poles. Neighbors come to distrust neighbors. Residents come to distrust the police, and the police come to distrust the residents. The police decry the no-snitching maxim, and think it’s solely because residents don’t respect the police. There is, indeed, a history there, most notably the torture committed by Commander Jon Burge and his underlings—though what really had people incensed was not so much that it had occurred but that for so many years those in positions of power, from Mayor Daley on down, refused to concede it happened. But people also don’t snitch because they don’t trust each other, because they no longer feel a part of something, because they no longer feel safe.

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