As Tony Lyons turned from 90th street onto Cottage Grove Avenue on Thursday, he shouted into a bullhorn, “Don’t shoot.” Then, the group of 50 teenagers following behind responded, “Let us live.”
It was a chant repeated over and again as they took over a lane of Cottage Grove on the South Side, marching past beauty shops and gas stations, crowded bus stops and small groups of men leaning against walls and sitting on plastic milk crates. Some raised fists in solidarity, others nodded quiet support. A few onlookers sized up the group in a threatening way.
Thursday was the United Nations International Day of Peace. Several schools across Chicago held events. Lyons, the principal of Chatham Academy High School, said he wanted students at his small alternative school to mark the day after they lost six students to gun violence last school year alone.
Alternative schools, which serve students who dropped out of traditional schools, have long been the epicenter of gun violence. A 2018 Chicago Reporter article found their students are disproportionately victims.
Yet Lyons, a tall man with a graying beard and dreadlocks he wears tied back, said six students for a school with roughly 100 students is more than ever before. Four of the six were girls, which Lyons said is also unusual. He blames mass shootings at parties or into crowds hitting intended and unintended targets.
Lyons said he wanted his students to feel they could do something, and he wanted to send a message to the community that something needs to change.
When some students started goofing off a bit, as teenagers will, Lyons and his assistant got angry. “Nothing is funny,” Lyons screamed. “Right now, we are carrying posters with pictures of our dead brother and sisters. Get serious. This is real.”
The teenagers immediately settled. Some chanted in response to Lyons. Others walked in silence.
Especially as they reached 79th Street, some of the young men nervously pulled up their hoods and covered their faces with medical masks.
“Does he know where he is taking us,” one teen said to the other. “This ain’t safe.”
Even in a march for peace, fear hung over them.
One student, Brian Granberry, carried a poster with a picture of a young man named Curt, one who was killed.
“He was just that chill dude and he wore his shades, that was his trademark,” Brian said. “And he used to cut hair for everyone. He didn’t discriminate.”
When Curt was killed, Brian said he felt angry and sad. It was his fourth friend killed.
Brian, a thin teen wearing a purple sweatshirt with his hood up, said he appreciated the peace march because it made him feel he was part of something bigger. Yet he said he never feels safe in Chicago.
“I am a very cautious person, I don’t trust nothing. There is always that ignorant dude wanting to kill something or shoot something,” he said.
When asked what could make Chicago more peaceful, Brian said he didn’t know. Others said putting down guns or coming together, but many didn’t think that was possible.
As the group made it back to 90th Street, Principal Lyons took a moment to directly address anyone listening who might be a “shooter.” He spoke to them because he doesn’t think the police can help. He doesn’t believe the government can help.
“I need you to think real hard the next time you get ready to pull that trigger,” he told his students. “Think about the pain you are causing yourself, your family, other families.”