Grass Roots Activists Seek To Curb Chicago Violence

May 9, 2016

Chicago is looking ahead to what may be one of its most violent summers on record. Incidents of gun violence are already running 70 percent higher than last year.

In just the first four months of this year, there were more than 1,100 shootings, nearly 200 of them fatal. With police and elected officials struggling to find solutions, churches, grass roots organizations and community leaders including the YMCA, a Catholic "reconciliation center," an activist Baptist pastor and a juvenile judge, are stepping in do what they can.

In a two-part series, GLT's Judy Valente recently explored some of these efforts that can serve as models for other cities struggling with guns and gangs. She first reported this series for "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly" on PBS-TV. Here is the first of her reports:

 Thirteen year old Justen Wallace and his friend, 17-year-old Armir Lightfoot come on Saturdays to a lYMCA center on Chicago's west side. They come to talk.

Wallace describes being a bystander in crossfire. "I thought I’d never make it out, but I got through it. I ran," he said.

Lightfoot was shot at while walking home. "I guess they thought I was somebody. They hopped out of the car and started shooting. I ran as fast as I could to my house.”

“I just think about what would happen if I got shot? Where would I go? How would my family get there?" Wallace said.

At the YMCA, Wallace and  Lightfoot meet with men who know what it’s like to be under fire -- former combat veterans.

"When I was being shot at in Afghanistan, I was scared too. Sometimes feeling scared, that’s what gets you to manage to stay alive," one of the veterans told them.

The soldiers and the teens are part of a 16-week YMCA program called Urban Warriors. But for these youngsters, the fire fights don’t take place in an overseas war zone, they explode their own neighborhoods.

Eddie Bocanegra is head of the YMCA Office of Youth Safety and Violence Prevention. He grew up in a neighborhood much like the one where Wallace and Lightfoot live.

“You leave your home and you’re walking through these war zone communities between gangs that are fighting each other from block to block in many cases." Bocanegra said. "You’re looking at these houses that have been abandoned.  You see debris, garbage everywhere. You see prostitution on one corner, you see drug sales, and that’s your landscape.”

Bocanegra was once in a gang himself. Her served time in prison for killing another teen in a revenge shooting. Now a graduate of the University of Chicago and a respected youth counselor who has spoken at the U.N. and been invited to the White House, Bocanegra spends his days trying keep boys like Wallace and Lightfoot out of gangs.  But it’s a daily struggle.

"When people join gangs, a lot of time it’s because of a safety issue, protecting their siblings, for example, especially when the caregivers are either not present because they’re at work or they’re incarcerated," he said. "I mean there’s a void there that the gangs tend to fill in.”

This year is shaping up to be another bloody year in Chicago’s most troubled neighborhoods. The city was already reeling from several high profile violent incidents late last year. In one that made national headlines, nine-year-old Tyshawn Lee was shot several times execution-style in an alleyway where he had gone to play basketball.

Three gang members have been charged with his murder. One of them told police he wanted to kill “grandmas, mothers, kids and all” in retaliation for his own brother’s shooting death.

Last November, after a white officer was shown on video shooting a black teenager, sixteen times, angry protests broke in the heart of Chicago’s main shopping district. The incident led to the officer’s indictment on a murder charge, the firing of Chicago’s police superintendent and calls for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to resign.

Through it all, groups like Urban Warriors and other grassroots efforts have tried to steer kids away from gang recruitment. Increasingly, there are calls for churches to become more involved with at-risk teens, and more active in helping to stem the violence.

“I have seen a lot of pastors from smaller churches who would never open their doors to our kids, that would never be taking a stand or finding ways to solve some of the problems in our community," Bocanegra said.

Greater Bethesda Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago’s south side Washington Park neighborhood is a church that does open its doors. Pastor David Watkins III said he needs to be more than a pastor to his congregation. He has to be a “community preacher.”

“The church is in the community for the community. That means that this community should be better off because as a church we are in it," Watkins said.

Watkins’ church has teamed up with a local elementary school to provide a host of activities on Saturdays for children and teens through a program called “Paving the Way.” The activities range from cooking lessons, to creative writing, to drumming circles, to rewriting the lyrics in rap songs that reference violence  to give them a more positive message.

In one case, the lyrics, “Everywhere I go I see the kids in the corner, smoking that stuff, trying to sell marijuana ..." are rewritten to say, "Kid in a corner ,ights for his life and knows what’s wrong, knows what’s right ... "

For some choreographing their own dance routines becomes a lesson in teamwork and leadership.

"So what can be improved?" Watkins asked a group of male dancers. "Keep working at it," they shouted back.

Watkins says he is trying to redefine what it means to be church. "Church for us is really service and commitment in the community. Making a difference, sharing God’s love in tangible ways not just on Sunday, but more importantly, Monday through Saturday.”

Often these programs do lead kids back to church. That’s what happened to Antonio Davis, who coordinates “Paving the Way” and personally mentors about 50 teenage boys and young adults. Davis joined a street gang when he was six years old.

“It felt like finally that father figure that I was looking for, they played that role. So like if I needed anything, they gave it to me. It was basically a family,” Davis said.

By the age of 19, Watkins wanted out. He was facing jail time for aggravated battery. His grandfather insisted he go down to Watkins’ church. And there was another pressing reason. He had an infant son.

“I had my guys around me and they was dropping like flies. Everybody was getting killed and everything," Davis recalled. "And so when I had [my son], you know, it was like I’m responsible for a life now, you know, and I didn’t want him in that life that I lived.”

Davis says in recent years, gang life has become less structured and more violent.

“Now it’s the little boys that’s out here, and you can’t even call them gangs because it’s one corner against the next corner. There’s little factions. And you know, they’re killing each other over Facebook, Snapchat. I mean, it’s ridiculous out here," Davis said.

“When Antonio came to us as an angry black man making $5,000 a week selling drugs, we offered him an alternative," Watkins said. "Whatever he needed we were willing to do. So whether that was anger management, whether that was housing, whether that was counseling, you name it, we got it for him.”

A seemingly insurmountable problem is the constant flow of guns into the city. Cook County Juvenile Court Judge Colleen Sheehan says many of the youths in her courtroom are there on gun charges. She recalled asking one young man with no prior record what he was doing with a gun.

“He looked at me with sort of surprise, like what do you mean, how did I get this gun? I just got it from a friend," Sheehan said. "It was that easy. It was as if I asked, where’d you get that candy bar?"

Father Dave Kelly is the chaplain at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center."You have a 14-year-old carrying a gun because he knows life is short," Kelly said. "He knows he’s at risk and he knows adults won’t protect him. So he has a gun. At the same time, we have to stop the flow of guns. There’s no reason that anyone has to have an assault weapon.”

That message has been taken up by the Archbishop of Chicago, Blase Cupich. The archbishop wrote an open letter to children in the community after nine-year-old Tyshawn Lee was killed.

"I said to the young people, You should be upset. The adult world has failed you,” Cupich said.

In addition to seeking a ban on assault weapons, Cupich is calling for stricter background checks and holding both gun sellers and manufacturers accountable. He is urging Catholics to consider gun control a “pro-life” issue.

“We have to take this in hand and put aside various divisive and political arguments that serve no one’s purpose at all. We have a crisis on our hands. It’s a death epidemic and we can stop it if we take action, but we need to come together, and the first step is enacting proper gun safety rules," Cupich said.

Leaders from the archbishop to Watkins of Greater Bethesda Baptist Church to the YMCA’s Bocanegra recognize that their efforts, while important, are but small stop-gap measures. They say what’s needed is a comprehensive approach to many complex social and economic problems.

“Fatherlessness, education, we want to talk about jobs," Watkins said. "What we know about black men right now is fifty percent of them don’t have access because they don’t have appropriate training.  We need job readiness.”

"We just don’t have a real clear understanding of how to address the root causes of violence," Bocanegra said. "We come at it from a very punitive approach to address those issues as opposed of thinking about a way where we could identify those individuals and find ways to support them and their families."

“Sometimes the issues, the concerns, and even the pain that’s resident in the community, it can be overwhelming," Watkins acknowledged. "However, part of the hope of the gospel is that even in the midst of despair you always have a way out, there’s always a new way and hope at the end of the day.”

Watkins said it will also take a long-term effort to stem the tide of violence -- one that will require partnerships between government and churches, police and the community, courts and schools, business and social service agencies --  if there is to be change.