Vigils Just the First Step When Kids Are Killed

July 11, 2007

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Photo by Eric Young Smith/LISC Chicago

We begin now an occasional series examining violence against young people in and around Chicago. Early May saw the shooting death of a young man who was simply riding the bus home from high school. There have been other shootings of young people by young people since. The deaths have sparked marches throughout the city. Observers say anti-violence protests are a way for people to channel anger. But they might not do much good unless there's a follow-up plan. It's a reality one Chicago father is learning firsthand. Chicago Public Radio's Natalie Moore has the story.

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Ronald Holt likes to show off a favorite picture of his son. It has a prominent place in his living room.

Four-year-old Blair Holt has cheeks like balloons, rumpled hair and a sweet smile.

Blair died a few weeks before his 17th birthday. On May 10 police say two teenagers boarded a CTA bus and shot five students from South Side High School.

Blair was the only one who did not survive.

At the hospital that evening, Ronald Holt made a decision to go public with his grief.

HOLT: I truly believe at that point when I asked God to strengthen me to get us through this and to guide me through this because this is something I never had to deal with.

Holt is a Chicago police officer. In the days after Blair died, he was in the media…and on the street.

Two days after the shootings, he and Blair's mother, Annette, a Chicago firefighter, led a walkout of students from Julian in protest of such violence.

He says he needed to speak out for himself…and because his only child's death hit a nerve beyond the family.

HOLT: People were impacted by pure good versus pure evil. And I think that's what they saw. Again, young people, children, innocent, doing the right things, coming from school, from being educated. Mature enough to get on a public transportation bus. Reach their destinations. Not bothering anyone. They were not in gangs or anything like that.

There have been other shootings and deaths of young people since May: Fourteen-year-old Roberto Duran died in a drive-by shooting. Seventeen-year-old Darryl Pickett was killed two blocks from his Evanston high school.

And there have been many rallies against youth on youth violence – almost one a week since Blair died.

March ambi: We are here because we are tired of the violence. There are teens who don't agree with violence. Who don't sell drugs. Do not kill each other…

The marches have run the gamut – from neighborhood churches responding to a single act of violence to a citywide rally led by Police Superintendent Phil Cline. But they all have the same point, says Phillip Jackson who runs a black education group called the Black Star Project.

March ambi

At a June rally in downtown Chicago, Jackson called the rallies a crucial first step in boosting public will against violence.

JACKSON: We're here to alert black people, Latino people that these are our children and they're mostly being killed by our children. Only we can stop that.

Marches are the visible display of passion, disgust, anger, conviction. Experts say they're a typical first response because they give people the feeling that they have done something.

But ask longtime observers and experts about their effectiveness, and the first response is a deep sigh.

BELL: Social service people have a disease and the disease is called Kum Ba Ya. They think all they need to do is come together and sing Kum Ba Ya and sing and all the problems will get fixed. And that's not how the world works. There has to be execution.

Carl Bell has studied violence for years. He's a psychiatrist who runs the Community Mental Health Council on the city's South Side.

He rattles off myths about youth violence like future offenders can be identified in early childhood, scared-straight programs work and getting tough on juveniles reduces crime.

Bell's solutions come off like common sense.

BELL: One of the strategies for youth violence prevention is to create social fabric in communities. The social science says that community development is a good thing to prevent violence.

He calls for creating block clubs and social networks to monitor behavior. It's neighbors admonishing children who break the law. It's residents collectively calling the police when they see corner drug dealing.

The result? Political capital that bends the ear of elected officials.

And often brings more resources to the neighborhood.

It's the kind of social network that Ronald Holt says his son's alleged shooter didn't get.

HOLT: The mom didn't do a good job in raising this kid. She really didn't do a good job. She dropped the ball. She did drop the ball.

Chicago's reeled from shootings like Blair's and the June death of a 13-year-old girl caught in Logan Square gang crossfire.

But youth homicides and other violence crimes are down over the past decade. So far this year in Chicago 40 young people have been killed. Last year 104 died.

But gangs still choke some neighborhoods.

Ronald Holt knows that. His work is with the police department's gangs crimes unit.

He's not sure if his emotions will let him return to that work.

But he's committed to taking action beyond the rallies.

For starters, he echoes Carl Bell's call for community building.

HOLT: When you have a block club, you come recognized by the politicians. The alderman. Alderwomen. State representatives. Mayor of the city.

He also wants to start a foundation named after his son to strengthen needy communities through things like grants to new black-owned businesses.

Amid the advocacy there is unspeakable sorrow. Holt often listens to the music aspiring rapper Blair recorded. The lyrics are about having teenage fun.

Blair's rap music

HOLT: Blair had so many hopes and dreams for himself at such a young age. Things that we instilled in him. Prepare yourself for what you want to do in life. We looked at that and said we will commit our lives to making sure that Blair's goals, hopes and dreams would be realized in some type of way.

And that makes the father feel like Blair is still in the living room smiling.

I'm Natalie Moore, Chicago Public Radio