Chicago is in the middle of a gun violence epidemic. Since the start of summer 2020, about 6,000 people have been shot, 1,000 of them fatally.
The numbers are so large and the grief so incomprehensible it can be easy to feel hopeless, or resort to cynicism. For those lucky enough to live in areas mostly untouched by gun violence, there may be an inclination to turn away completely.
But there are people throughout the city working to make it better.
“[There] is hope for the city,” said anti-violence advocate Anthony Chestnut. “You have a lot of men and women out here that’s working to curb this violence.”
Throughout the summer, WBEZ has been talking with some of those men and women. They’ve shared their fears, their successes and their insights into what’s driving the violence — and what it will take to stop it.
Anthony Chestnut got out of prison in 2018 after spending 22 years locked up for a gang murder he committed when he was 16.
After getting out, Chestnut joined the anti-violence program READI Chicago, which seeks to provide counseling and a salary to the men most likely to shoot or be shot in the city.
He completed the program last year, and he’s now an anti-violence advocate and a mentor to the at-risk young people in his life.
Chestnut believes trauma is at the center of Chicago’s gun violence epidemic. Both of his parents were drug addicts, and he grew up watching his father abuse his mother every day. It began to seem normal.
“That’s f***ed up. That’s where the root of my anger came from,” Chestnut said.
It pushed him out into the streets, an angry kid looking for a sense of belonging. He found it in a gang.
“Everybody deals with trauma differently, but to me I think that’s the biggest thing. A lot of the stuff that these young men and women are dealing with in these urban neighborhoods come from that trauma,” Chestnut said. “It is not normal for you to be next to your best friend and see somebody get their brains blown out. That’s trauma on a different level.”
Chestnut said there is no one offering therapy to kids living through extreme trauma every day, no one helping them process what they’re seeing and experiencing.
“A lot of these young Black men and women need a safe space to come and talk about … that trauma that they’re dealing with,” Chestnut said. “If you never had somebody come and tell you, ‘I see you hurting, you can get help for that.’ How would you know?”
Lt. Daniel Allen
Chicago Police Department
and Divine Purpose
Lt. Daniel Allen has been with CPD for 30 years. He’s also a musician and co-founder of Divine Purpose Youth Performing Arts Center, with his wife Victoria Allen.
The youth center sits right at the border of West Garfield Park and Austin, where it provides after-school programming and a summer camp.
Allen said sometimes with new groups of kids, he won’t tell them he’s a police officer for the first few weeks of the program.
“Just so they can see how cool a police officer can be. That we are just the same people and then eventually midway through the program, I say, ‘Guys, guess what I do for a living,’ ” Allen said.
He said the kids never guess, and are stunned when he tells them.
“One kid one time had to actually pinch me. He came up to me and pinched me,” Allen said. “I’m like, ‘Why did you pinch me?’ He said, ‘Because I can’t believe that you’re real.’ Because their encounters with police were so negative.”
Allen said it makes him “very sad” that young Black people on the West Side where he grew up and works don’t have positive experiences with officers. He believes it contributes to the city’s violence problem.
“Organizations, we shouldn’t be pointing fingers at the police about what they’re not doing. Police shouldn’t point fingers at … the community,” Allen said. “ [There’s] more bickering and finger pointing, I noticed that and it really disturbs me, it really does because we have an issue where young people are shooting and killing each other.”
Resident Association of
Asiaha Butler co-founded RAGE in 2010 in response to the negative portrayal of the South Side neighborhood in the media and the poverty and violence confronting residents there.
Butler, an Englewood native, said the last time violence spiked in 2016 there were several shootings near the RAGE offices. In response, members went out and talked to the people doing the shooting.
“They really said to us, ‘We’re here all day together, you know, conflict happens, just out of the blue, could be [based] off social media, but we really want to work,’” Butler said.
In response, Butler said, they brought employers out to the block for a job fair and about 400 people showed up.
She believes COVID-19 has fueled Chicago’s current surge in gun violence, as the pandemic has made already desperate people even more desperate.
“Even the average person has dealt with trauma through this pandemic … and so when you have individuals who are already kind of living on the edge, and you add this, you’re just going to see some [negative] responses,” Butler said.
Butler said some of the young people she knows don’t have steady homes, and go from home to home sleeping on couches. But when the novel coronavirus hit, the people who were giving them a place to sleep a few nights a week didn’t feel comfortable doing that anymore. Those young people ended up on the streets, she said, more desperate and less stable than ever.
The solution to Chicago’s gun violence, Butler said, is doing more to empower community members. She said she hasn’t seen enough support from the city for neighbors like herself “who step up on” their block and say, “This is not happening here.”
“If there were more resources and opportunities for those neighbors to flourish” by improving vacant lots, or creating communal spaces or getting more lighting on their blocks, there would be less violence, Butler said.
Rev. Donovan Price
Solutions and Resources
Most nights, Rev. Donovan Price can be found out at Chicago murder scenes, offering emotional support and prayer for grieving families.
Price rushes out to scenes as soon as hears about them and often acts as a conduit for communication between police and people close to the victim, explaining hard things to grieving families, like why their loved one is being left in the street while police investigate.
“There’s a little mistrust, oftentimes, between the community and the police,” Price said.
Price was called to minister to gun violence victims after 6-year-old Tacarra Morgan was injured in a shooting in 2016. Price said he helped organize a crew of police and residents who fixed up the child’s West Englewood home so she wouldn’t see bullet holes when she got home from the hospital.
From talking with people at shooting scenes, Price said there are “many, many” different causes for the violence in Chicago.
“There’s about as many motives as there are people,” Price said. “From gang-oriented things to personal things. There are systemic issues, there are psychological issues, there are cultural issues.”
Eddie Bocanegra is director of READI Chicago, the program that helped Chestnut when he got out of prison.
Bocanegra said despite all the shootings, anti-violence organizations are showing “positive results.” The people who are actually engaged in services are less likely to be involved in gun violence. Outreach workers who try to mediate gang disputes are able to head off shootings. The key, Bocanegra said, is scaling those services up, so more blocks are served by anti-violence workers, and more at-risk people can get the help they need.
“The people that we are serving, the people who are impacted by [gun violence], really want better in their lives,” Bocanegra said. “But they have few options to choose from. And sometimes those decisions they make are not always the best ones.”
Bocanegra said he is concerned that as there is more focus on gun violence, the country could revert back to so-called “tough on crime” policies.
“In our country, in our city, specifically, we are not only grappling with the issue of gun violence, we are also grappling with the fact that we have over-incarcerated too many Black and brown people,” Bocanegra said. “There has to be accountability [for offenders]. But we also have to recognize that there’s an injustice here too. And so the more that we could do proactively to address the needs of these men, the better and the safer community we will be building.”
Garfield Park Rite to
Christyn Freemon is a Garfield Park resident and a community leader. She said the gun violence on the West Side affects her day-to-day life, and she worries about the emotional impact it has on her children who have lost friends and classmates.
Freemon believes the way to stop the violence is to make the community a healthier, better place to live. She works developing commercial corridors and is helping the Garfield Park Rite to Wellness Collaborative to develop West Madison Street.
“Opportunities deter crime. … Nobody just purposely wakes up and says, ‘I want to be a criminal,’ ” Freemon said.
The wellness collaborative recently brought a community pavilion and roller rink to the corner of West Madison Street and Pulaski Avenue.
Freemon said she could afford to live in an affluent neighborhood but she chose Garfield Park.
“When you make a conscious decision to live in an underserved, under-resourced community, you’re very aware of what it lacks,” Freemon said. “I have a focus on building Black people, like explicitly, and that’s part of the reason why we feel we have to stay. Because if [everyone leaves], there is no one to help turn the neighborhoods around.”
She said her neighborhood is “under siege from a lack of resources.”
“That is not passive. That’s war. … You cut off supplies from people, that’s a war tactic,” Freemon said. “And so when you live in communities that have literally been under war, and then wonder why war things happen? It makes no sense. It’s like, yes, everybody needs a therapist. Yes, everybody needs some relief. Yes, everybody needs a place to play.”
WBEZ producer Cianna Greaves contributed to this story.
Mary Hall produced the web version of this story. Follow her @hall_marye