Vonmarie Burgos’ voice cracked as she tried to tell the crowd about her son.
“We always want our family to be here with us. We don’t expect anything to happen,” Burgos said through tears. “I lost my son three months ago.”
Her son, Sebastian Casiano, was just 16 years old when he was shot to death in the Humboldt Park neighborhood in September.
Burgos was one of a handful of parents who spoke at an event earlier this month at Daley Plaza downtown where friends and families memorialized their loved ones killed by gun violence in 2020. Burgos told her fellow mourners that her “heart pains” for them.
“It’s very important for us to have memories and take pictures of our loved ones. Keep remembering the good times.”
The event was the unveiling of the “Tree of Remembrance,” adorned with markers of the city’s dead. Throughout the afternoon and evening, grieving friends and families made the pilgrimage to the Loop to pick out ornaments in honor of their slain loved ones and pin them to the tree.
By the end of the night, the tree was covered with hundreds of mini-memorials.
There have been about 750 murders in Chicago this year, according to police, a more than 50% jump compared to 2019. It’s also right on pace with the carnage in 2016 when 778 people were murdered — a historically bad year that saw a spike in gun violence so steep and shocking it birthed multiple well-funded initiatives and prompted renewed collaboration between violence prevention groups.
Experts and frontline workers say despite the similarities between the numbers in 2020 and 2016, the differences between them are much more pronounced in ways that give reason for hope that this year was an aberration, not a sign of things to come. They also said this year’s bloodshed should not be taken as a sign that those anti-violence efforts aren’t working.
Art Lurigio, a professor of psychology and criminology at Loyola University, said one key difference is that this year, Chicago is not alone in its jump in gun violence.
Lurigio said there’s been a “remarkable” increase in violence in cities across the county.
In a recent report, The National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice found big increases across the country in homicides and gun assaults.
The novel coronavirus presents the most obvious difference between 2020 and 2016. Lurigio says he believes the pandemic has driven gun violence, but that the effect shouldn’t carry over once most of the country has been vaccinated.
“I don’t believe that there’s a disconnect between what’s going on in the public health arena because violent crime is, after all, a public health problem,” Lurigio said. “Fear and uncertainty beget more fear and uncertainty. And invariably, when people are afraid, they begin to look for ways to protect themselves.”
As evidence for this mounting fear and uncertainty, Lurigio pointed to the fact that gun purchases are way up across the country.
“If people who are obeying the law are afraid and are buying guns and carrying guns, you can expect that within the subculture of violence that there’s a similar phenomenon, that more people in the subculture of violence are carrying guns and are more prone to using guns and are using violence to solve interpersonal disputes,” Lurigio said.
Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, said besides creating general stress, the pandemic had “compounding” negative impacts on drivers of crime.
“The ability of frontline social service agencies to engage with kids and families [was hampered], you had young people no longer able to go to school. You had families stressed by the economic toll that it was taking,” Ander said.
Ander agreed there are reasons to believe gun violence will go back down in coming years, “but I don’t think it’s going to happen by accident or by itself.”
Ander said the pandemic, and the high levels of violence, brought “into sharp relief all of the sort of fault lines and historical challenges that have not sufficiently been addressed over decades in Chicago.”
“I don’t think we’re going to get many more opportunities to really pull our city back from the brink,” Ander said.
Andrew Papachristos, professor of sociology at Northwestern University, said historically, “homicide and violence in the US peaks when especially young men and disenfranchised individuals are cynical [of] the government.”
“When people don’t think the state is doing what they need to do, they settle disputes by themselves,” Papachristos said. “And you had a perfect storm of that in 2020.”
The crippling of the nation by the pandemic was followed by the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests, mayhem and diminished faith in police.
“When you have these instances of police violence, people withdraw. They stop calling the cops, which means they still have to solve problems and they solve it themselves,” Papachristos said.
Papachristo said since cities throughout the country have experienced an increase in gun violence, the reasons behind Chicago’s spike likely can’t be found in local policies, like policing strategies or recent reforms to Cook County’s bail system.
But one driver of violence that is particularly pervasive in Chicago compared to other cities is the proliferation of street organizations and the ongoing violent conflicts between them.
While the pandemic was further disconnecting the young men who belong to those cliques from mainstream society, and hampering the work of police and community organizations, it was actually making it easier for gangs to settle old scores or escalate existing conflicts.
Papachristos said the stay-at-home order had made it easier to kill rivals.
“How do you find the [opposition] in Chicago? How do you do it? You’ve got to go on social media, you’ve got to track him down. You’ve got to know when they’re at school or church or coming back from work, like you’re trying to catch them,” Papachristos said. “You don’t have to do that right now. They’re easier to find and they’re probably not that far from you.”
Increasingly, Chicago has been turning to community-based violence intervention groups to try and reach the people involved in these ongoing conflicts.
And Lurigio and Papachristos agreed that the huge spike this year in gun violence has not dimmed their hopes for those community-based violence prevention programs that were significantly ramped up in the wake of 2016, and have gotten more support under the administration of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Lurigio said because of the pandemic, this year has not been a “fair test” for that work, which relies on personal connections and in-person conversations.
“I would say that it was a crippled outreach,” Lurigio said. “Any kind of intervention that’s going to involve social interactions and people’s willingness to talk and gather is going to be hampered.”
Papachristos is helping evaluate the anti-violence program Chicago CRED. He said the best way to judge the efforts is by looking at how effective the groups are at keeping the people they work with away from violence, and so far the early returns are good.
“It’s unfair to judge the success of outreach on aggregate homicide rates,” Papachristos said.
That’s because, based on his research Chicago has about 900 street crews and “tens of thousands” of gang members, compared to about 200 outreach workers citywide.
Chris Patterson is the director of program and policy for the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, which is one of the community-based groups that tries to intervene in ongoing gang conflicts on Chicago’s West Side.
Patterson said COVID-19 forced many service organizations to close their doors, drying up the supply of services they offer up as “carrots” to try and lure young men away from lives of violence.
On top of that, the stay-at-home orders left many people trapped, unable to escape ongoing conflicts.
“The guys who are hanging out on the block, when they want to leave, when they need a kind of break from that neighborhood scene. They go to places like clubs and the lakefront and malls. They do what normal people do,” Patterson said. “With COVID-19. There is no going anywhere, there’s nothing open. And so what we were finding was people who were traditionally … a little bit lower on the rung of the [gang] ladder, they were becoming victims [more often]. They were out there engaged [in violence] more because there was nowhere else for them to go.”
The result is that about 4,000 people have been shot in the city this year, according to police data. That’s meant hundreds more dead and wounded than in a typical year.
And as shootings have gone up, the number of children victimized has increased, too.
More than 350 juveniles younger than 18 have been shot in Chicago in 2020 — a 40% increase compared to last year.
Raymond Ricks’ son, Janari, was one of the victims. He was shot to death this summer at the age of 9 while playing outside near his home in the Cabrini-Green rowhouses.
After the Tree of Remembrance event, Raymond Ricks described the day-by-day challenge of coping with such a profound loss.
“There’ll be days that I’ll be cool and days that I’m not cool. It’s OK, but it ain’t OK … but I try to make myself to be strong, but trying ain’t going to get it. Can’t get it back. Can’t get him back,” Ricks said.