The end of 2016 marked a grim milestone in Chicago.
Those numbers are higher than the totals of New York and Los Angeles combined.
To be clear, other cities, like New Orleans and Detroit, had higher rates of gun violence and murder on a per capita basis. But nowhere were the sheer, raw numbers as staggering as they were in Chicago.
NPR’s Michel Martin spoke with a variety of voices in Chicago – those who have been personal effected by the violence; people who have been involved in it themselves, and officials at the federal and local level who are trying to fix it. The story that emerged was one of frustration, and fear, with no clear silver bullet toward fixing the problem. But there’s also a sense of hope, even from those who have suffered the deepest.
Illinois Congressman Danny Davis remembers exactly where he was when he got the phone call just a few weeks ago, in November.
“One of the police commanders was on the phone and he said, ‘I have some bad news to tell you,’ Davis recalls.
“And I said, ‘Bad news? Well, I’m pretty accustomed to bad news.” The longtime Chicago Democrat has performed eulogies for some two dozen young Chicagoans who have been killed. But this phone call was different.
“He says, ‘I want you to just brace yourself. I understand that your grandson may have been shot.'”
Javon Wilson, 15, was killed in a dispute over shoes and clothes, according to police. Davis says it arose from a “swapping group,” where kids borrowed each other’s clothes in a trading system.
The 75-year-old congressman choked back tears, as he recounted hearing the news.
“I couldn’t, for the moment, think. And by then, my son called, and I said, ‘Oh yeah, I heard that Javon…’ (And my son) says, ‘Daddy, he’s gone…'”
Davis says he has no choice but to find some sort of silver lining out of this.
He’s doubling down on his efforts to strengthen gun laws, and prevent similar tragedies from occurring again. That’s despite a Republican-controlled legislature, which has shown little appetite for stricter gun laws.
“There are millions and millions of people who think about guns the same way that I do,” Davis says. “You know, one of my favorite songs, something by a guy named Sam Cooke used to sing – oh, it is so profound. ‘It may be a long time coming, but I know some change is going to come.’ That’s the way I feel about this issue.”
No consensus as to why Chicago has been hit hard by violence
Although there’s no consensus as to why Chicago has been hit so hard by violence, there are a few factors that officials point to again and again: Guns and poverty.
“You put those two volatile things together and you end up with folks with guns and no purpose in life and killing people for no reasonable purpose at all,” says Davis’ Senate colleague, minority whip Dick Durbin (D – IL).
Durbin, among others, points out that geography might also play an important role in Chicago’s misfortunes. The city is seen as a centrally located hub for gun and drug trafficking. “Our city of Chicago is awash in guns. They come in from every direction, from the suburbs, from Northern Indiana gun shows, from Mississippi for goodness sakes. They make it into the city. They’re confiscated in these gun crimes at a rate of about one an hour every day, every week, every month.”
“My wife said, ‘Somebody has to do something.’ And I realized, I am somebody. I’m the senator from the state of Illinois. You know, I’m doing my best to understand what I can do from the federal level. But yes, I care, and a lot of people care. And this killing has to stop.”
President-Elect Donald Trump is another voice suggesting federal intervention. Earlier this month he tweeted about Chicago’s violence, as he sees it.
“Chicago murder rate is record setting – 4,331 shooting victims with 762 murders in 2016. If Mayor can’t do it he must ask for Federal help!”
Durbin, for one, says he’d be open to that sort of help.
“The mayor suggested an increase in the police department, and we need some federal funds to help us do that. We need resources and training and equipment. And [Trump] could help us do it. I hope he will.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office declined a formal interview request. But the city did make available Chicago’s recently hired police chief, Eddie Johnson, who spoke to Martin from member station WBEZ in Chicago:
“Chicago has a gun problem. That’s where our violence stems from. To be honest, Chicago isn’t out of control, but we have five police districts that are actually responsible for the majority of the increase in our gun violence this year. But I think one of the main factors that contribute to it is the fact that we do a terrible job of holding repeat gun offenders accountable for their crimes.
“The violence in Chicago is not just about what police are or are not doing. We have long-term issues. The economic support that we have to give these impoverished areas, the mental health treatment, better education, better housing – all of that stuff matters.
“But I tell you when it comes to morale, you look at what happened the other day when those beat officers found a young man wandering down the street. If they didn’t care and if morale wasn’t good, they didn’t have to stop and investigate that to the extent that they did to find out what happened.”
Johnson was referring to yet another black eye for Chicago.
Four teenagers have been charged with hate crimes, for allegedly kidnapping and torturing an acquaintance with special needs. Police say the victim was approached by police, after he escaped, looking disoriented and disheveled.
Hate crimes not common, but social media use is
NPR’s Cheryl Corley, who is based in Chicago, says the story is grabbing headlines locally, as well as nationally, “People are just really shocked by this. You know, what we know about the case is that it started off with the victim and a suspect he considered to be a friend hanging out.”
The victim was white, and the black suspects allegedly used racial slurs against him. But Corley says the crime doesn’t really fit the pattern associated with much of the violence in the city, which has been fueled by gangs and guns.
“I think that the only thing that may be common with what’s happening with gun violence here is that the Facebook suspects used social media to broadcast what was happening,” she told Martin. “And we often have cases where gang members here will post something on social media, often some sort of taunt, that sparks some of the gun violence that occurs here.”
One way the incident may be similar to others, however, is that the victim knew his attackers. Some researchers, notably Yale professor Andrew Papachristos and Dr. Gary Slutkin of the University of Illinois at Chicago, say that nugget could hold the key to predicting, and eventually preventing violent crime in places like Chicago.
“So if I get shot, for instance, there’s a high likelihood that the people around me in my networks will also be victims and that, then, their friends will be victims. And their friends’ friends will be victims,” Papachristos tells Corley.
“It is contagious and that, when it’s managed as a health issue, you can rapidly drop it and sustain drops for long periods of time,” Slutkin adds.
Slutkin heads a group called CureViolence. The group uses data to predict who might be involved in disputes, that might turn violent, and then sends “interrupters” to try to stop things from escalating. But Corley reports the program has been mainly dropped in Chicago, due to funding shortages. The state’s ongoing budget woes have widely been blamed as another obstacle to stopping violence in the streets.
In places like Austin on Chicago’s West Side, or Englewood and Chatham, on the South Side, there’s nothing abstract or academic about gang life.
Gang life can be a death sentence
All of them say their family structures were crumbling, and they were drawn to gangs for both structure, and safety.
“Most of the other people in the neighborhood were the pimps, drug dealers, dice shooters, ticket scalpers, some type of hustler, some type of, you know, shyster,” Hardiman told Martin.
“So I looked up to those characters and eventually became somewhat of a few of those characters myself – gambling and selling drugs, using marijuana.”
Evans tells a similar story.
“I felt isolated, you know – the whole emotional thing. You’re just dealing with my emotions and not having my biological father in my life.
“That was the number one source of why I wanted to – why I got involved in (Gangster Disciple Nation). And I think the second reason was really to protect my brothers as well. You know, there would be a lot of times when, you know, people would be having hits out on my brothers or things happening to my brothers and just in a lot of ways, it was a way for me to protect them.
Day recalls to Martin an incident where he was shot nine times in a gang dispute.
DAY: Well, I was involved in gang life. I felt that there was others that was trying to do to me and my people bodily harm, and so we felt at the time that we would protect ourselves at all costs. And so there were times that I would pick up a gun and try to shoot people. I didn’t – I’ve never done it or I never shot anybody, but I have shot a gun and tried to shoot people. And the ironic thing about that, I guess, things come full circle. I was shot. And so…
MARTIN: That’s part of the story, isn’t it?
DAY: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely.
MARTIN: That people are as likely to be victims as they are to be perpetrators. Right? So why – what happened with that? Why did you get shot?
DAY: And so what happened was – like I say – we were involved in gangs and drugs, and so you’re talking about monies being exchanged. And so that’s what changes. That’s where the violence heightens when you talk about drugs and monies and things of a sort. And so at this particular time, we were in what was called a gang war. And so guys would come in and try to shoot us and kill us, and we would kind of go back and forth try to shoot them and kill them.
And so one particular night, I was in a home where we were kind engaging in all of this negative activity. I was leaving out and actually prepared to go and put my gear on to go and cause somebody else harm. And so unknowing to myself as I walked down the stairs, there was a guy that was waiting for me on the side of the building in the bushes or what have you. And he could have killed me. I will say that he could have killed me because he could have waited ’til I got to the bottom step and just kind of walk right up on me and shot me in the back of the head, but he didn’t. And I thank God for that.
He waited until I kind of got to the edge of the curb, and he rose up out of the gangway and he started to shoot me. And so as I ran, I’m running across the street trying to get to my house, and I kind of catch one in the back of my leg. And I felt that and from then I continued to catch numerous shots – my back, my leg, my arms – all over. It was a total of nine shots that I ended up receiving. I can remember it kind of like it was yesterday. I was telling myself if I can just make it to the other side of the street, I’ll be fine. And so he continued to shoot, unload on me. And I did make it. I did make it to the other side of the street. And by the time I made it to the other side of street, I had caught so many shots that I just kind of collapsed right there. He was gone. I was down. And that’s what happened.
Unintended consequences another problem
Another problem, according to experts and former gang members, is one of unintended consequences. When authorities cracked down on gang leadership – rank and file members no longer had gang hierarchy to ensure order. Large groups devolved into hyper-local factions. And that in turn led to chaos on the streets.
“When you have different factions, you don’t have leadership, and people can kind of run amok and do what they want to do,” Evans says.
“And they be like oh, so-and-so come from this block, so we going to mess with him like that, you know, just do random pick-’em-outs, as they say, just because so-and-so comes from that side of the street per se. You know, and I had one of my best friends in high school who, you know, tried to join a gang, and they beat his jaw in with the gun.”
Day, Hardiman, and Evans now all talk to at-risk youth about avoiding the gang life. And despite their harrowing stories, they say they haven’t given up hope that things can get better, even if some young people in the city have.
Hardiman says the government has to step up and help the black community. Evans advises young kids to find a legitimate “hustle” to focus on, instead of turning to the streets.
Day says the answer lies within every person in Chicago, who can either ignore the problem, hide from it, or try to stop it.
“I think that it starts by really having a love and a concern for someone other than yourself, to be able to go out and say, ‘You know what? Let me go in and let me grab one. I’ll just grab it. It doesn’t have to be a whole group of young people, but let me grab one and talk to him.’ I think that it starts with love. It starts with compassion. It starts with caring for someone other than yourself.'”