CHICAGO – It was February, the middle of lunch hour on a busy South Side street. The gunman approached his victim in a White Castle parking lot, shot him in the head, then fled down an alley.
The next month, one block away, also on West 79th Street: Two men in hooded sweatshirts opened fire at the Bishop Golden convenience store. They killed one young man and wounded five others, including a nephew of basketball superstar Dwyane Wade. The shooters got away in a silver SUV.
In July, a Saturday night, two men were walking on 79th when they were approached by a man who killed one and injured the other. This shooting resulted in a quick arrest; police had a witness, and a security camera caught the shooting.
These three violent snapshots of a single Chicago street are not exceptional. It’s been a bloody year in the nation’s third-largest city.
Chicago’s murder count reached 500 on Friday – the first time since 2008 it hit that mark. In 2011, there were 435 homicides. More than 2,400 shootings have occurred. Gang-related arrests are about 7,000 higher than in 2011.
A spike in murders and shootings – much of it gang-related – shocked Chicagoans, spurred new crime-fighting strategies and left indelible images: Mayor Rahm Emanuel voicing outrage about gang crossfire that killed a 7-year-old named Heaven selling candy in her front yard.
A handful of neighborhoods were especially hard hit, among them Auburn-Gresham; the police district’s 43 homicides (as of Dec. 21) ranked highest in the city, and represent an increase of about 20 percent over 2011. The outbreak, fueled partly by feuds among rival factions of Chicago’s largest gang, the Gangster Disciples, rippled along 79th street, the main commercial drag.
The scars aren’t obvious, at first. Look closer at West 79th and there are signs of distress and fear: Boarded-up storefronts. Heavy security gates on barber shops and food marts. Thick partitions separating cash registers from customers at the Jamaican jerk and fish joints. Police cars watching kids board city buses at the end of the school day.
Go a few blocks south of 79th to a food market where a sign bears a hand-scrawled message: “R.I.P. We Love You Eli,” honoring a clerk killed in November in an apparent robbery. Then go back to a corner of 79th, across the street and down the block from where two killings occurred, both gang-related.
There, in an empty lot, a wooden cross stands tall in the winter night. Painted in red is a plea: “STOP SHOOTING.”
THE TOLL: Gang violence isn’t new, but it became a major theme in the Chicago narrative this year.
Maybe it was because of the audacity of gang members posting YouTube videos in which they flashed wads of cash and guns. The sight of police brandishing automatic weapons, standing watch outside gang funerals. The sting of one more smiling young face on a funeral program. Or dramatic headlines in spring and summer, such as: “13 people shot in Chicago in 30-minute period.”
It was alarming enough for President Barack Obama to mention it during the campaign, noting murders near his South Side home. Then, addressing gun violence in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, he cited Chicago again.
As grim as it is, Chicago’s murder rate was almost double in the early 1990s – averaging around 900 – before violent crime began dropping in cities across America. This year’s increase, though, is a sharp contrast to New York, where homicides fell 21 percent from 2011, as of early December.
Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy says while murders and shootings are up, overall crime citywide is down about 9 percent. He says crime-fighting strategies against gangs – some just put into place this year – are working, but they take time.
“The city didn’t get in this shape overnight,” he says. “I think that we’re doing ourselves a disservice by advertising a Vietnam-type body count. I’ve got to tell you when I speak to people ... they generally say, ‘You know what? We don’t even hear that anymore. It’s white noise.’... The fascination unfortunately seems to be in the media and it’s become a national obsession.”
After the 500th homicide was reported, McCarthy released a statement saying the pace of violent crime had slowed since early 2012. Murders skyrocketed 66 percent in the first quarter of the year over the same period in 2011; by the fourth quarter, the increase had dropped to 15 percent, he said. For shootings, it was a 40 percent hike in the first quarter and 11 percent in the last quarter compared with 2011. The superintendent called the numbers “great progress.”
Up to 80 percent of Chicago’s murders and shootings are gang-related, according to police. By one estimate, the city has almost 70,000 gang members. A police audit last spring identified 59 gangs and 625 factions; most are on the South and West sides.
Gangs in Chicago have a long, dangerous history, some operating with the sophistication and hierarchy of corporations. In the 1980s, the leaders of the El Rukns were convicted of conspiring in a terrorism-for-hire scheme designed to collect millions from the Libyan government. Before the feds took down the leadership of the Gangster Disciples in the 1990s, the group had its own clothing line and political arm.
Nowadays, gangs are less structured and disputes more personal, says Eric Carter, commander of the Gresham district, home to 11 factions of the Gangster Disciples. “It’s strictly who can help me make money,” he says. “Lines have become blurred and alliances have become very fragile.”
Carter says a gang narcotics dispute that started about six years ago is at the root of a lot of violence in his district.
Another change among gangs is the widespread use of YouTube, Facebook and other social media to taunt one another and spread incendiary messages. “One insult thrown on Facebook and Twitter becomes the next potential for a shooting incident on the street,” Carter says.
McCarthy, who has consulted with criminologists, has implemented several plans, including an audit that identifies every gang member and establishing a long-term police presence in heavy drug-dealing areas, aimed at drying up business.
In two districts, police also have partnered controversially with CeaseFire Illinois, an anti-violence group that has hired convicted felons, including former gang members, to mediate street conflicts. McCarthy, who has expressed reservations about the organization, is taking a wait-and-see attitude.
“It’s a work in progress,” he says. “It hasn’t shown a lot of success yet.”
AMONG THE DEAD: An 18-year-old walking on a sidewalk. A 36-year-old at a backyard party. A 28-year-old in a car two blocks from the police station. A 40-year-old convenience store clerk, on the job just two months.
In a storefront on 79th, Curtis Toler has a map of the street and surrounding area with 10 stick pins. Each represents a homicide in 2012.
Toler, a former gang member, spent much of his life causing chaos. Now, he’s preaching calm. As a supervisor at CeaseFire, his job is to ease tensions and defuse disputes before they explode.
Violence, he says, has become so commonplace, people are desensitized to death.
“I don’t think we take it as hard as we should,” he says. “When someone gets killed, there should be an uproar. But the ambulance comes, scoops them up, nobody says anything and it’s back to business.”
Toler’s own life was shaped by guns and drugs. “In the early ‘90s, I was going to funerals back to back to back,” he says. “When you’re out there, you think you pretty much got it coming. It’s a kill-or-be-killed mentality.”
As he tells it, he was in a gang (in another neighborhood) from ages 9 to 30, including a six-year prison stint for involuntary manslaughter. He was shot six times, he says; he lifts a gray stocking cap pulled low over his head and presses a thumb over his right eyebrow to show the spot where a bullet struck. “I was blessed” to survive, he says, with a gap-toothed smile.
He was once so notorious, Toler says, that one day about a decade ago his grandmother returned from a community policing gathering and began crying. “She said, ‘The whole meeting was about you. ... You and your friends are destroying the whole community. ... You’re my grandson, but they’re talking about you like you’re an animal.’”
Now a 35-year-old father of four, Toler says he decided to go straight about five years ago. He knows some police don’t believe his transformation. He regrets things he’s done, he says, and for a time had trouble sleeping. “Life has its way of getting back at you one way or another,” he says. “I believe in the law of reciprocity.”
Toler’s message to a new generation on the streets: I keep asking them,’ What’s the net worth on your life? There is no price.... You only get one. It’s not a video game.’”
“You get some guys who listen,” Toler says, “and some who really don’t care. ... They say, ‘I’m going to die anyway.’”
Two blocks east in another storefront on 79th, Carlos Nelson works to bring a different kind of stability to Gresham.
As head of the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corp., he lures businesses to a community that despite its problems, has well-established merchants and middle-class residents who’ve lived here for decades.
But Nelson, a 49-year-old engineering graduate raised in Gresham, sees changes since he was a kid, most notably the easy access to guns. “These aren’t six-shooters,” he says. “These are automatic weapons.”
Police say they’ve seized more than 7,000 guns in arrests this year. Strict gun control measures in Chicago and Illinois have been tossed out by federal courts, most recently the state ban on carrying concealed weapons.
Nelson says he sees limited progress despite new crime-fighting approaches. “The Chicago police department is a lot like a rat on a wheel,” he says. “They’re getting nowhere. They put metal detectors in the schools but they don’t put that same amount of money in to educate our kids.”
But Nelson also believes the problem goes beyond policing. A cultural shift is needed, he says, to break the cycle of generations of young men seeing no options.
“It’s almost like the walking dead,” he says. “They’re emotionless about shootings or death or drugs. They think that’s all that’s expected of them ... that they will die or end up in jail. That’s a hell of an existence. That’s truly sad.”
AMONG THE LIVING: A 17-year-old hit in the leg, wrist and foot while in a park. A 13-year-old struck in the back while riding his bicycle, A 38-year-old shot in the face while driving.
Cerria McComb tried to run when the bullet exploded in her leg, but she didn’t get far.
Someone heard her screams, her mother says, and rushed outside to help her make a call.
“Mommy, mommy, I’ve been shot!” Cerria cried into the phone.
Bobbie McComb ran six blocks, her husband outpacing her. “I’m panicking,” she recalls. “I can’t catch my breath. All I could think of was I didn’t want it to be the last time I heard her voice, the last time I saw her.”
Cerria and a 14-year-old male friend were wounded. The bullet lodged just an inch from an artery in the back of Cerria’s right knee, according to her mother, who says her daughter is afraid to go out since the early December shooting.
Police questioned a reputed gang member they believe was the intended target; Cerria, they say, just happened to be in the wrong place.
“I’m angry,” McComb says. “I’m frustrated. I’m tired of them shooting our kids, killing our kids, thinking they can get away with it. ... If it was my son or my daughter standing out there with a gun, I would call the police on them.”
A few blocks west, on 78th Place, another mother, Pam Bosley, sits at the youth center of St. Sabina Church, trying to keep teens on track. The parish is run by the Rev. Michael Pfleger, a firebrand white priest in an overwhelmingly black congregation whose crusades against violence, drugs and liquor and cigarette billboards are a staple of local news.
Bosley’s 18-year-old son, Terrell, a college freshman and gospel bass player, was killed in 2006 when he and friends were shot while unloading musical equipment outside a church on the far South Side. A man charged was acquitted.
“I think about him all day and all night,” Bosley says of her son. “If I stop, I’ll lose my mind.”
Bosley works with kids 14 to 21, teaching them life and leadership skills and ways to reduce violence. Sometimes, she says, neglectful parents are the problem; often it’s gangs who just don’t value life.
“You know how you have duck [hunting] season in the woods?” she asks. “In urban communities, it’s duck season for us every day. You never know when you’re going to get shot.”
In December, Bosley phoned to console the grieving mother of Porshe Foster, 15, who was shot a few miles away while standing outside with other kids. A young man in the group has said he believed the gunman was aiming at him.
“I know how it feels to wake up in your house without your child, and you don’t want to get out of bed, you don’t feel like living,” Bosley says.
St. Sabina is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. Bosley sent balloons to the girl’s funeral.
On Dec. 6, hundreds celebrated the A-student who liked architecture and played on her school’s volleyball and basketball teams.
Her brother, Robert, 22, says his sister “knew what was going on in the streets as well as we did,” but he didn’t worry because she was either at school, home or church.
“She was always a good girl,” he says. “She didn’t have to look over her shoulder. She was a 15-year-old girl. She didn’t ever do any wrong to anybody.”
In March, St. Sabina parishioners, led by the Rev. Pfleger, marched through the streets in protest, calling out gang factions by name. They planted the “Stop Killing” cross on 79th.
In April, the priest and other pastors returned to 79th to successfully stop the reopening of a store where there was a mass shooting; they condemned it as a haven for gangs.
In December, Pfleger stood in his church gym, watching gang members hustle down the basketball court.
On this Monday night, in this gym, it was hard to tell who was who.
The basketball teams wore different colored T-shirts with the same word: Peacemaker. They’re all part of Pfleger’s 12-week basketball league, aimed at cooling gang hostilities by having rivals face each other on the court. Many players, from 16 to 27, have criminal records.
The league grew out of a single successful game this fall and has high-profile supporters, including Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls.
Pfleger says the games have helped players build relationships, see beyond gang affiliation and stop shooting each other, at least for now.
“I have people tell me I’m naive, I’m stupid, I should be ashamed of myself working with these gangs,” he says. “I could care less. We’ve demonized them so much we forget they’re human beings.”
But Pfleger also says games alone won’t change anything. These young men need jobs and an education, and he’s working on that.
“When there’s no alternative,” he says, “you’ll continue to do what you do.”