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Deconstructing Chicago Youth Violence

Headlines blare whenever a young person is killed in Chicago – especially if it's at the hands of another youth. Community activists, educators and politicians alike are wrestling with how to stop these murders and some are calling it a crisis. But that kind of hyperbole may be misplaced. The youth violence the city is experiencing today is not as extreme as past decades.

Gang-Motivated Murders 1991-2004 (Chicago Crime Trends)
Murders of Persons Under 20 Years 1991-2004 (Juvenile Justice)
2008 Murder Analysis in Chicago (Chicago Police Department)

Let's be clear: Too many young people are dying violently in Chicago. Cause for concern is justified.

But University of Chicago professor Dexter Voisin says much of what he hears about youth violence these days makes it sound as if the violence is at an apex.

VOISIN: Youth violence has definitely been on the decline. In 2006 we saw our lowest decrease in violence in Chicago – almost down by 40 percent.

That's a 40 percent decrease over the last 10 years. Yes, there has been a recent uptick.

VOISIN: Between 2007 and 2008 we saw an increase in homicides by 15 percent.

But even now the most recent homicide stats show a nearly 10 percent from last year.

A few years ago then-Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan took on youth violence as a personal crusade. The news media also began to focus on tallying murdered CPS students.

In May 2007, Blair Holt was killed while protecting a fellow Julian High School student on a city bus. The focus on youth violence reached a new crescendo. The tragedy garnered national attention and 2,000 funeral mourners.

archival tape of funeral

Voisin says the random nature of Holt's death contributed to the rhetoric around youth violence and the belief that it was peaking.

VOISIN: Conventional thinking has been a lot of this violence has been between gang members. But now we're finding young people, honor students, individuals who are not part of gangs who individuals don't see as deserving to die because they're good kids.

Holt's death is reminiscent of other high-profile deaths of young people in Chicago. It's a familiar narrative: media coverage, outrage, rallies, fade to black.

In the 1980s, Simeon High School basketball star Ben Wilson was gunned down. In the 1990s, seven-year-old Dantrell Davis died from a stray bullet on his way to school.

But people seem to forget the killings of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Gangs and violence then were associated with a new drug called crack cocaine that ravished American cities.

music fades up

The killings and the discourse reached a fever pitch. Twenty years ago a group of all-star East Coast hip-hop artists recorded “Self Destruction” as a national public awareness “Stop the Violence” campaign.


It was the era of young black men killed for Starter jackets and gym shoes. By the mid-1990s, the Chicago overall homicide rates and youth murder rates peaked to more than 900 and 250 each.

music fades

And then murders slowly fell. Today the city's homicide rate has fallen by about half. Law enforcement takes credit for cracking down on gangs and violence.

But that doesn't explain the depth of the problem.

KABA: It's not by accident that we see so much violence in communities that have had huge de-industrialization, huge poverty, and amount isolation.

Mariame Kaba is founder of Project Nia, a group that works with youth and criminal justice issues. Kaba says the segregation of Chicago's neighborhoods has led to poverty and that begets violence. Some of the most poverty stricken, violent neighborhoods are in pockets of the city's South Side.

KABA: So we know that the roots of violence have a lot to do with oppression and social inequality. And that in fact violence is the glue that holds all of that together.

Kaba says she's tired of ??non solutions” for youth violence. She says city leaders should tackle the lack of jobs in segregated neighborhoods. Kaba and some teachers are working on curriculum for schools that deal with violence – with input from teens.

University of Chicago's Dexter Voisin says the reasons why youth violence happen are known.

VOISIN: There's nothing new under the sun.

He says the challenges are how the larger issues around socioeconomics are addressed.

VOISIN: The solutions are also going to take concentrated effort and resources not just knee-jerk reaction when someone dies or we have another big sort of pageantry around violence but sustained resources to address this.

Diane Latiker knows the capricious ebb and flow of attention toward youth violence.

LATIKER: You get used to it. You really do.

Known as Miss Diane to the teens, Latiker turned her home in the Roseland neighborhood into Kids off the Block, a gathering space for young people. She opened her living room up several years ago when her daughter was a teenager.


This is the same community where Fenger High School student Derrion Albert was beat to death last fall. Another high-profile death, this time captured on a cell phone video.

LATIKER: We didn't get all in front of the cameras. We just had to keep doing what we were doing because you're get sidetracked with all of the publicity, all of the meetings. I promise you in that time since Derrion was killed I went to over 30, 40, meetings.

Fenger sophomore Anthony Jackson is too young to know the city's more violent days. He says policymakers and leaders are clueless about youth.

JACKSON: They don't understand that we need to talk. They don't understand that we need to express ourselves. They won't let us get on TV or get on the panel of a youth hall meetings and discuss what we have on our head. Because a lot of teens want to express they feelings but don't know how.

Diane Latiker's has changed her approach.

LATIKER: We're not very vocal as far as ‘well, you need to do this and you need to do that.' We believe the work is more important. The solutions, we believe, is to be involved in the young people's lives; build the relationship, the trust, the respect. And then you can seek change.

Latiker says she's learned not to get sucked in to all of the attention around youth violence – perceived or real. Instead, she keeps a steady course, providing a safe haven at Kids off the Block. 

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