Seeking Solutions, Keeping Up Hope In The Midst of Violence | WGLT

Seeking Solutions, Keeping Up Hope In The Midst of Violence

Aug 31, 2016

There were 56 shootings last weekend in Chicago, eight of them fatal.
Credit Bart Everson, Flickr

The long, hot, violent summer  plaguing several Chicago south and west side neighborhoods continues.  

Last weekend alone, there were more than 50 shootings, nine of them fatal.

One of the victims was 32-year-old Nykea Aldridge, a cousin of Chicago Bulls player Dwyane Wade. A mother of four, Aldridge was killed in a gang crossfire as she pushed one of her children in a stroller along a city street.

Many in the city were still grieving the death the previous weekend of Abner Garcia, a 23-year-old Army veteran and volunteer who counseled teens against joining gangs.

Garcia was part of a YMCA of Metro Chicago program known as Urban Warriors.

According to witness accounts, Garcia was shot to death in the early hours of August 13 after a van pulled up alongside his vehicle on a south side street. Passengers inside the van  flashed gang signs, exchanged some angry words with Garcia, then someone opened fire, hitting Garcia in the head.  

In an audio recording he made for Urban Warriors, Garcia told why he wanted to be a part of the program, which pairs military veterans with youths whose lives have been traumatized by neighborhood violence.

"My uncle came home and he was shot. We had to take him to the hospital ... A rival gang member threw up his gang sign, walked up to him, put the gun right up to him and shot him a lot of times. That was my first time seeing that kind of stuff, seeing someone hurt, seeing someone die in front of me," Garcia said.  "I was about five years old."

Witnesses say Army veteran Abner Garcia, 23, who counseled kids to steer clear of gangs, was shot by a gang member August 13. The motive remains unclear.
Credit YMCA Office of Youth Safety and Violence Protection

Eddie Bocanegra is head of the YMCA Office of Youth Safety and Violence Protection, which created the Urban Warriors program. Like Garcia, Bocanegra had also turned his back on gang life. He said Garcia's death stunned the youth he worked with as well as the YMCA staff.

"Like anybody else I was in disbelief, I just couldn't understand, couldn't fathom how or why," Bocanegra said. 

"The irony is that on Saturday morning just about three hours after his passing, we were convening a training for our veterans, for about another 20 vets, who were about to start a new group of Urban Warriors, and Abner was to be one of them."

Garcia had been studying criminal justice at the University of Illinois/Chicago and was considering joining the city's police department. 

August is on track to become the most violent month in Chicago in close to 20 years. Homicides are up nearly 50 percent over last year. Most of the violence is restricted to a few neighborhoods on the the city's south and west sides that have high rates of gang activity. 

"Every Monday morning we pick up the paper to see how many shootings and homicides we had. The narrative becomes old, but it also becomes normalized,"Bocanegra said.

Multiple factors seem to be fueling the violence, Bocanegra said. "Because of the mistrust between the community and the police, police are being scrutinized in terms of their tactics, which often prevents officers being able to detect something before it happens the way they might have in the past, because of concerns of  civil rights," he said. 

Chicago police were severely criticized over treatment of minorities in an independent report earlier this year. The report was prompted by the release of a video last November that showed an officer shooting teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times as McDonald appeared to be walking away from police.

"Every time the community hears about police abuse, about another young person being shot and killed, it takes away hope," Bocanegra said. 

Eddie Bocanegra of the Metro Chicago YMCA sees some positive signs emerging from the tragedy of volunteer Abner Garcia's death.
Credit YMCA Office of Youth Safety and Violence Protection

The officer who shot McDonald has been indicted on murder charges, and the city recently announced it is considering firing other officers who were present during the shooting. There is a continuing investigation into whether police tried to cover up the shooting before a judge ordered video of the incident released last fall. 

Other controversial police shootings since then have added to the tension in many minority communities.

With police seemingly more guarded, Bocanegra said, gang members and other young people "are willing to take the risk of walking around, driving around with a gun because police are less likely to pull them over."

Bocanegra suggests clergy members, community leaders and public officials need to become a more visible presence in communities where the violence is concentrated.

He said most of the shootings occur between the hours of 6 p.m. and 2 a.m.

"What would it look like for several weeks to organize and  coordinate churches, politicians, police officers, county sheriffs, law enforcement, probation officers to go in these communities and just be seen, to walk around in groups?" Bocanegra asked.

"The gangs that hang out on the corners, hang out near them, make them feel uncomfortable," he added.

Any such an effort would have to be sustained, he said. "Violence is not a two-hour thing, it's an investment, it's a long-term investment and coordinated effort," he added.

Such tactics also would have to be coupled with efforts to improve  schools in these neighborhoods  and job prospects for the residents, he said. Troubled schools and lack of employment opportunities undergird many of the problems residents experience on a daily basis.

Speaking on GLT's "Sound Ideas" daily magazine show, Garcia also spoke of the positive efforts that Garcia's death has sparked among the teens who knew him, as well as how he tries to keep hope alive in them, and in himself.

Hear also a recording of Garcia telling in his own words why he wanted to become a mentor in Urban Warriors.

Police have arrested two gang members in connection with the shooting death of Nykea Aldridge. No arrests have been made so far in the death of Abner Garcia.

(Audio recording of Abner Garcia is used courtesy of Grant Buhr, YMCA Urban Warriors program).