Youth violence in Chicago

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

Which brings us to the blunt, discomforting truth about the violence: Most of it occurs in deeply impoverished African-American and Latino neighborhoods, places where aspiration and ambition have withered and shrunk like, well, a raisin in the sun. Look at a map of the murders and shootings; they cut a swath through the South and West Sides, like a thunderstorm barreling through the city. How can there not be a link between a loss of hope and the ease with which spats explode into something more? When we were filming The Interrupters, Ameena Matthews, one of the three Violence Interrupters whose work we chronicled, reflected on what she calls “the 30 seconds of rage.” She described it like this: “I didn’t eat this morning. I’m wearing my niece’s clothes. I just was violated by my mom’s boyfriend. I go to school, and here comes someone that bumps into me and don’t say excuse me. You hit zero to rage within 30 seconds, and you act out.” In other words, these are young men and women who are burdened by fractured families, by lack of money, by a closing window of opportunity, by a sense that they don’t belong, by a feeling of low self-worth. And so when they feel disrespected or violated, they explode, often out of proportion with the moment, because so much other hurt has built up, surging, threatening to burst.

Then there’s the rest of us who hear of youngsters gunned down while riding their bike or walking down an alley or coming from a party, and think, They must have done something to deserve it, they must have been up to no good. Virtually every teen and young man shot, the police tell us, belonged to a gang, as if suggesting that “what goes around, comes around.” But life in these communities is more tangled than that. You can’t grow up in certain neighborhoods and not be affiliated, because of geography or lineage. (An administrator at one South Side high school estimates that 90 percent of the boys there are identified with one clique or another.) Moreover, it’s often safer to belong than not to belong. You want someone watching your back. And honestly, as Matthews suggests, many if not most of the disputes stem not from gang conflicts but rather from seemingly petty matters like disrespecting someone’s girlfriend, or cutting in line, or simply mean-mugging. This doesn’t explain the madness. Not at all. It’s just to suggest that it’s more complicated and more profound than readings of a daily newspaper or viewings of the evening news would suggest.

These neighborhoods are so physically and spiritually isolated from the rest of us that we might as well be living in different cities. When was the last time you had lunch in Englewood? Or tossed a football in Garfield Park? Or got your car repaired in Little Village? Or went for a stroll in the Back of the Yards? To understand—I mean really understand—what it’s like to grow up in these communities requires a leap of faith. For reasons that no one can really explain, Chicago has been the epicenter for very public and horrifying youth murders—Yummy Sandifer, Eric Morse, Ryan Harris, Derrion Albert and now Hadiya Pendleton. And each time public officials shout, “never again,” and then do very little to strengthen these neighborhoods, do very little to ensure a sense of opportunity—real opportunity—for the kids. Let’s be frank, we’ve abandoned these places, just walked away. We tore down the public-housing high-rises and, in places like the State Street corridor, have rebuilt just a little more than half of what was promised. We talk of dismantling neighborhood schools in communities where the local school is the very fiber that holds things together. A place like Englewood is pockmarked by boarded-up, abandoned homes, as many as every other structure on some blocks. Where’s the outcry? Sometimes it feels like even a nod of acknowledgement would do.

Yet in the midst of all this, people in these impoverished neighborhoods go about their lives. They hold down jobs. They raise families. They go to school. They play basketball and skip rope. They attend church and get their hair done. They shop and grill and mow their lawns (and the lawns of neighboring vacant lots). They tend their gardens and rake their yards. They gossip and share a beer. In other words, despite the five people each day (on average) who are shot, people still are immersed in the routine and banal. They seek some normalcy. So lest we forget, those in Englewood share more than you might think with those, say, in Lincoln Square. Maybe it’s not a leap of faith that’s required, but rather just simply a faith, that everyone wants the best for themselves and for those around them.

A few years ago, on the city’s West Side, someone posted a handmade wood sign on a tree. It read: we are all good people. It felt as much a statement of fact as it did a plea, really, that things need not be this way. And yet all these promises. Like tear down public housing, and the poor will be better off.

These are young men and women who, despite the cacophony of their neighborhoods, live in silence.

Alex Kotlowitz contributes to a two-part series about youth violence on American Pubic Radio’s This American Life Friday 15 and February 22.

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