For Those Touched By Chicago’s Violence, Shootings Aren’t Always Senseless

A black sign with the words ‘Stop Shootin’ spraypainted in white
Signs asking for an end to gun violence are found across Chicago. Bill Healy / WBEZ
A black sign with the words ‘Stop Shootin’ spraypainted in white
Signs asking for an end to gun violence are found across Chicago. Bill Healy / WBEZ

For Those Touched By Chicago’s Violence, Shootings Aren’t Always Senseless

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Chris Patterson couldn’t judge her. She was a mother. She was grieving, but she was also angry.

Her son had been shot in the back a few days earlier, one of the victims of Chicago’s most violent weekend this year, with more than a hundred shootings and 13 deaths between Friday, June 19 to early on Monday, June 22.

Her son was alive, but there was a chance he’d end up paralyzed. Should he recover, she knew she’d soon have a choice: should she encourage her son to seek vengeance or not?

Patterson, an anti-violence worker on the city’s West Side, was trying to talk the mother toward peace, but she left the conversation angry, and hadn’t made up her mind.

The woman’s dilemma is an example of what anti-violence workers like Patterson say is at the core of Chicago gun violence — the people doing the shooting are traumatized themselves and often driven by righteous anger. The violence is tragic and terrible, the violence prevention workers say, but it is not senseless.

“Once violence affects you, you can’t forget it, right? And so now violence becomes an option,” Patterson said after his conversation with the mother had ended. ”When people lose people who are close to them, an array of feelings may arise. … For people who are caught in a cycle of violence, violence makes sense for them. That’s the way they answer their problems.”

“We can stop a lot”

Violence prevention leaders say they’re taking small, deliberate steps to try and break the cycle, and they say there’s evidence their efforts are paying off, despite the high levels of violence this summer. In June 562 people were shot in the city according to numbers released Wednesday by the Chicago Police Department. 89 people were killed in June with the vast majority being victims of gun violence. In the first six months of the year 329 people were killed in Chicago.

Patterson, who is the senior director of programming and policy at the Institute for Nonviolence in the West Garfield Park neighborhood, said their shooting reviews indicated more than half of the West Side shootings during that most violent weekend came from “historical beefs,” as in the violence was just the latest in a long line of shootings back-and-forth between rival groups.

Strips of orange material memorialize people who have died in the city's gun violence

Chris Patterson outside the offices of the Institute for Non Violence in Chicago's Austin neighborhood.

Chris Patterson outside the offices of the Institute for Non Violence in the Austin neighborhood. Orange fabric strips tied to a lightpole nearby memorialize victims of gun violence. (Rob Wildeboer/WBEZ)

Jalon Arthur, director of strategic initiatives for the violence prevention group Chicago CRED, said when you have these long-standing rivalries “it’s a lot of loss on all sides of the equation.”

“It’s hard for people to shake those losses,” Arthur said when explaining why groups keep shooting at each other.

That’s why, Arthur said, he designed the FLIP program, focused on 75 “violence hot spots” throughout the city of Chicago. Those spots are identified with help from the Chicago Police Department.

The program, funded mostly by Chicago CRED, pays people with close connections to Chicago gangs about $400 per week to keep the peace in their immediate area. Arthur said the goal is to keep the groups “on defense.”

“If people are on offense, they’re sliding back and forth. I mean, they’re driving into the other side looking for opportunities, you know, to engage in violence as opposed to a defensive posture,” Arthur said. “You know, we’ve got guys that are still, they’re gonna protect their areas. But if they’re not on offense, they’re not actually, you know, trying to go to the other side to engage in violence, then we can stop a lot.”

Arthur said he understands that the goals could seem small to an outside observer. They aren’t even trying to get groups to disarm, just trying to prevent them from seeking out violence. But he said considering the lives already lost and the ongoing conflict, “it’s not like everything’s just gonna stop instantly overnight.”

“We’ve got communities and hot spots that haven’t gone a day or a week without a shooting,” Arthur said.

He said a stretch of calm is the first step to getting two rival groups to agree to a “non-aggression agreement,” and then hopefully a lasting peace.

“Sometimes you’ve got to protect yourself”

Recently, a group of young men drove through the intersection at Central Avenue and Madison Street in the Austin neighborhood, throwing up rival gang signs.

It’s the sort of incident that could prompt a shooting and lead to violence back-and-forth throughout the summer. But Central and Madison is one of the FLIP hot spots, where they are paying a trio of guys to keep watch.

“They came and was being disrespectful, basically somewhere where they weren’t supposed to be,” said Latrice Nelson, one of the FLIP peacekeepers. ”Somebody could have followed them down to wherever they was from and, you know … but instead we called outreach workers, and told them, ‘Man, tell them it’s been peaceful, keep it peaceful.’ And they called and apologized.”

The corner of Madison Street and Central Avenue in Chicago's Austin neighborhood
The corner of Madison Street and Central Avenue in the Austin neighborhood is one of 75 places Chicago CRED’s FLIP program has designated as violence hot spots. The FLIP program pays people to keep the peace in these areas. Rob Wildeboer / WBEZ

Arthur said that’s how his program was designed to work.

“A conversation first before shots get fired is exactly what we need to happen,” Arthur said. “They could easily just start shooting and whatever, you know, I mean, but instead, because of the way we have it set up, there’s a line of communication.”

All three of the FLIP workers interviewed by WBEZ at the corner of Madison and Central grew up just a few blocks away from the corner. All three of them had been shot in recent years.

Now, they are being paid to keep the peace. They focus their efforts only on their own friends.

“We can only stop our people from doing stuff. We can’t stop the next people from doing nothing,” said Ed Harris.

Even as he works to keep the peace, Cornell Graham won’t answer whether he himself has been out on this corner carrying a gun. But as a victim of gun violence, he certainly doesn’t think it’s an unreasonable choice.

“[Let’s say] you got shot and you’re scared. What would you think of doing if you’ve got to come outside? You can’t stay in your house your whole life,” Graham said. “I ain’t saying carry a gun on you, I’m just saying what would you think of doing? You got shot. You don’t know who’s gonna pull up, what’s going to happen. Sometimes you’ve got to protect yourself.”

Arthur said Graham and the other guys working the corner as peacemakers are the exact guys they need to be working with to stop the cycle of gun violence in Chicago.

A map provided by Chicago CRED shows that on the weekend of June 19, when more than 100 people were shot throughout the city, the majority of “hot spots” that are part of the FLIP program were peaceful.

Patterson said FLIP works, but “it’s hard to explain why [the shootings] then happen in other places.”

Arthur said considering the high levels of gun violence, with more than 400 shootings in June alone, they are redoubling their efforts and reassessing their strategies. The anti-violence groups are trying to find ways to expand their footprint, but it’s difficult without more funding.

Patterson said they need to do more than just convince people not to shoot, they need to provide counseling, mentoring and training to people caught up in violence.

“Once a person is labeled a gang member, once they’ve identified themselves as a gang member, there’s no system for them except prison and the Chicago Police Department. And we want to change that,” Patterson said.

After speaking with the grieving mother, Patterson got on the phone with some of his fellow workers at the Institute for Nonviolence to organize an event near the Austin corner where her son was wounded.

Patterson said, at the very least, it’s important to show her that people care.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at