‘It’s a child taken from all of us’

How to Help

Experts estimate that up to 80 percent of gunfire shootings involve the attacker telling others about their dirty deeds. One gun-violence prevention organization offers an anonymous national hotline for students and other youth to report weapon threats and shootings. PAX, a nonprofit group, has received more than 16,000 calls since it began in 2002. For more information, visit www.paxusa.org or call the hotline at (866) SPEAK.

The war at home, PART 2 of 2

U.S. Rep. Danny Davis is convinced that the epidemic of child murders in the Chicago area since last school year is a reflection of larger socioeconomic problems.

Poverty. Deprivation. Joblessness. Poor parenting. Frustration. Helplessness. And, even worse, hopelessness.

“We can’t keep viewing violence against children as an abstract issue, disconnected from these other bigger issues in our society today,” says Davis, D-Ill., who’s been battling violence against Chicago youth since the 1970s.

But dealing with those bigger issues often requires bigger piles of money, Davis says. And while one pile was recently taken off the table by the state, another pile is on its way from federal coffers. The question is: Will it be enough to make last year’s child murders an anomaly instead of a trend?

“I have hope it will turn the tide,” he says.

Since last year’s first school bells rang, at least 36 Chicago area youth were killed, the majority of them Chicago Public Schools students who were victims of gunfire.

Since then, front-line soldiers in the city’s war against youth violence have clamored that lawmakers need to loosen up budget purse strings. Since then, one of the city’s most successful anti-violence programs has been stripped of more than $6 million in state funding, prompting catcalls from the front lines, from Davis and even the mayor’s office.

This summer, Gov. Rod Blagojevich cut $6.2 million from CeaseFire, an in-your-face, in-your-neighborhood program that has had success curbing gang and gun violence in the city. Overseen by the University of Illinois at Chicago, CeaseFire is based on the belief that violence is a public health problem, like an infectious disease.

But the governor’s office, which supported CeaseFire funding the past three years, says the public health program is no longer “a top state priority,” according to Justin DeJong, spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget.

“We were happy to help CeaseFire get established in communities that have struggled with gun violence, but the intention has always been that the organization would then develop other sources of support to maintain their operations,” DeJong says. “There should be more balance among private, local and federal stakeholders.”

Gary Slutkin, CeaseFire’s founder and executive director, remains hopeful, even optimistic, about the future.

Other city officials, including Davis, say cutting the funding to a proven public health program like CeaseFire is a mistake, but maybe alternative funding can be found in time.

Susan Hartnett, a researcher at Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research, says her office is in the final stages of an independent analysis of the program. Its findings are expected this month. A favorable finding by her agency would go a long way toward finding another big pile of money for the program, officials say.

In the meantime, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley unveiled a new citywide campaign to curb youth

violence. Daley and other city officials announced the campaign in September at Julian High School, the school of an honors student, Blair Holt, who was shot and killed in May while riding home from school in a city bus.

The anti-violence campaign, funded by $14 million in federal grants, will include expanded after-school programs for students, as well as converting 40 more CPS schools into “community school centers,” designed to be safe havens for students.

“When we see a child taken from us,” Daley said during the news conference, “it’s not just a child from the parents, it’s a child taken from all of us.”

Fighting the violence on multiple fronts

Blair’s mother, Annette Nance-Holt, told reporters, “If we don’t all stand up for what’s right and start telling what we see, then it’s just going to keep continuing.”

Over the summer, thousands of Chicago area residents have been standing up for what’s right, joining rallies, marches and vigils to address the violence plaguing their communities.

One of those parents was Vernetta Williams, whose 14-year-old son, Leserick Webster, was found dead inside a burning van June 16, the victim of mistaken identity, the family believes.

She holds out hope no more children will die. “The violence has to stop somewhere, and it stopped with me.”

In late August, anti-gun advocates such as the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., founder and president of Rainbow PUSH Coalition, urged citizens to make their communities “gun dry” during several prayer vigils across the country.

One local vigil took place at Barrington United Methodist Church, in the northwest suburb of Barrington, located in the same city as the largest gun manufacturer in Illinois, D.S. Arms, Jackson says.

“While some die, others prosper,” Jackson says in a statement. “Gun merchants and drug growers hide in the shadows, yet are targeting inner cities.”

However, national experts on youth against youth crimes, such as former public school counselor and author Helen McIntosh, say it is difficult to “make” anti-violence happen from the outside in.

Instead of combating external factors like guns and gangs, the aim should be squarely on internal factors like early-stage prevention and intervention, says McIntosh, who penned Eric, Jose, and The Peace Rug, a book aimed at introducing such preventative techniques to elementary-aged students.

“If we can get to children before they become enraged teenagers and adults who decide to bully others, we can put a stop to senseless … shootings,” she says.

But those two words-senseless and shootings-are linked all too often in Chicago, local officials agree.

On Sept. 13, the same day the city launched its anti-violence campaign, Chicago Public Schools released a new public service announcement TV commercial.

It shows home-movie footage of 16-year-old Blair Holt playing basketball at his grandmother’s home. Blair instinctively jumped in front of another student when gunfire went off on that city bus last May.

The PSA shows Blair dribbling the ball and shooting, a caption stating, “He loved reading, rapping and playing basketball.”

It then shows Blair trying to dunk the ball when the screen fades to black. Viewers instead hear the sound of a gunshot. “But that all ended on May 10, 2007, when Blair Holt was killed by senseless gunfire,” the caption says.

Finally, over a dark screen, the last caption echoes what Chicago parents have been asking for an entire year: “Why?”

Jerry Davich is a Chicago-area freelance writer.

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