‘We have no political courage’

Shot in the head. Stabbed in the neck. Shot in the back. Beaten to death. Shot in the chest. Suffocated in a burning van. Bludgeoned to death. Choked to death.

These are only some of the ways Chicago area youth were killed since last September’s first school bells rang.

Fifteen years old, 12 years old, 18 years old, 14 years old, 13 years old, 11 years old.

These are only some of the ages of the victims, a tally of 36 and counting, nearly all of them Chicago Public Schools students who will never advance to the next grade.

Hyde Park. Evanston. Logan Square. Wicker Park. Englewood. Albany Park. Blue Island. Humboldt Park. The city’s South side, West side and Northwest side.

These are only some of the locations where these children and teenagers were slain, eulogized or buried.

Mothers are grieving. Fathers are angry. Educators are frustrated. Community leaders are vexed. Police are exhausted. School officials are deflated. Lawmakers are blamed. Yet, what’s being done to stop this from happening again this school year?

“Nothing, we have no political courage,” says Chicago Public Schools Chief Arne Duncan, who has attended many of the victims’ funerals. “This is a local tragedy and a national disgrace, but we seem to value the right to bear arms more than we value our children. It’s totally heartbreaking.”

Duncan and other outspoken gun control advocates say public policy legislators need to begin dealing with the cause, not the symptoms, of gun violence, which triggered the deaths of more than two dozen CPS students.

“It’s not like we’re looking for a cure for AIDS. We need to take away guns,” says Duncan, a father of two young children. “Will it take another 36 students to get killed before state and federal lawmakers realize this?”

Blame shouldn’t be aimed at CPS, he points out, which has seen a double-digit decline in school violence and an 86 percent drop with guns found in schools over the past few years. “The schools have never been safer.”

Others, like Chicago Police Capt. Jack Murphy, on the front lines of the city’s war on gun violence, say the cultural norm of accepting and allowing guns, gangs and the killing of children needs to be changed.

David Cassel, director of the Alliance of Local Service Organizations, says too many residents are desensitized to what should be highly sensitive situations. He has seen sidewalk passersby walk over fresh blood stains of a child slain just a few hours earlier, not thinking twice about what happened at that site.

“People in too many communities feel that this way of life is normal,” says Cassel, who lives in Oak Park. “It’s not normal.”

Calling for a CeaseFire

Hundreds of people who live with such normalcy of gun violence swarmed Humboldt Park on a sticky, overcast Saturday in late July, chanting “What do we want?” “Stop the shooting!” “When do we want it?” “Now!”

Yet just 14 hours earlier in this

community, a 17-year-old boy was killed by a drive-by shooting and his killer sped away unscathed by police.

This was just one more reason participants took part in a rally and march against guns, gangs and the growing list of homicides against youth in their communities-Austin, Cicero, Maywood, Aurora, to name a few.

Tiny kids hoisted towering posters demanding “Stop. Killing. People.” Tough-looking teens sported white-flag T-shirts pleading “I want to live.” Proud parents used disposable cameras to capture permanent memories of the historic day.

“We turned a corner today,” shouted Gary Slutkin, director of CeaseFire Chicago, the group that organized the rally, from a pavilion podium.

CeaseFire is an in-your-face program that addresses gangs and gun violence head-on, by employing “violence interrupters,” many of them ex-felons, to talk to young gangbangers, wayward adolescents and their families. Since 2000, CeaseFire Chicago has intervened in more than 700 lives, and it has reduced the number of homicides in most every targeted neighborhood, according to Chicago Police Department figures.

Slutkin told the crowd that gun violence is like an infectious disease, such as polio, tuberculosis or typhoid fever, and it should be viewed as a public health epidemic that can be erased just like those diseases were mostly erased.

Curing such a scourge of violence and homicide in the city comes down to funding for his CeaseFire programs, Slutkins explained later. Three years ago his staff calculated that with $18 million, CeaseFire programs could lower yearly homicides to about 200, in partnership with the city and state. Last year the city had 466 homicides and the year before it had 447.

Information you can use

What is CAPS?

Your concern about the safety of your neighborhood shouldn’t be met with a sense of powerlessness. Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy, or CAPS, is a partnership between the police and the community. Based on the idea of community policing, CAPS “brings police, the community and other city agencies together to identify and solve neighborhood crime problems, rather than simply react to their symptoms after the fact.” www.cityofchicago.org

What’s my beat?

To understand how CAPS works (and how you can fit in), you have to understand how the Police Department is organized. The city is divided into 25 police districts, each of which is split into three sectors; each sector is divided into three to five beats. CAPS operates on the beat level. By dividing the large city into 281 beats, the police and community can better focus on very local problems. Just enter your address into the Civic Footprint Web site and you’ll find your beat; click the beat number and you’ll find your district number. www.civicfootprint.org

I want to know more about crime in my area

Now that you know your district and beat, you can look at the crime that has occurred in your beat. Chicagocrime.org downloads every crime from the Police Department’s Citizen ICAM system and maps it. You’ll be able to see when and where everything from theft at a grocery store to homicide was reported. www.chicagocrime.org

I need to report a crime now

You should always use 911 to report a crime in progress, but if you’d like to make an anonymous call regarding crime in your neighborhood, the city has a number of hotlines in place. Find the complete list of phone numbers on the city of Chicago’s Web site tailored to everything from illegal possession of firearms (877-CPD-GUNS) to locations involved in drug trafficking (800-CRACK44). www.cityofchicago.org

Currently, Slutkin’s organization receives roughly $6 million from the state, $4 million from the city and $1 million from private and federal sources, he says. Plus, because of the program’s success rate at its first 14 sites, several elected officials are beginning to buy in to the CeaseFire techniques in their communities.

“In other words, an additional $10 million from a combination of city and state sources would go a very long way toward putting most of this problem behind us,” he says.

Parents need to start parenting

State Rep. Elga Jeffries admits she doesn’t have the answers for curbing gun violence or the cultural acceptance of urban warfare. But she also didn’t mince words when she spoke at the same CeaseFire rally about one of their root causes-poor parenting.

“What’s wrong with us?” she yelled into the microphone. “Parents have got to start parenting. We can’t sugarcoat that.”

Several parents in the crowd said too many children come from violent, chaotic and neglectful homes and they have little chance of escaping their cyclical fate as violent, chaotic and neglectful parents.

“It’s a vicious circle that abuses every generation of our society,” said Carmelo Martinez, a mother of three from Barrington.

Earlier in the summer, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama made headlines when he spoke to parishioners at Vernon Park Church of God on the city’s South side. He preached to the choir of local family victims, saying, “Our playgrounds have become battlegrounds. Our streets have become cemeteries.”

But he made at least one enemy in Joyce Mitchell, the grandmother of 13-year-old Schanna Gayden, who was shot and killed by gang crossfire on June 25. Mitchell says Obama made repeated calls for her attendance that day, but when she tried to discuss “the issues” with him at the church, he brushed her aside.

“He used me as a prop for his speech,” she says angrily, noting that he pointed her out in the crowd. “We don’t need more sound bytes, we need sincere support from our elected officials.”

Rita Sallie, Schanna Gayden’s mother, has her own solutions on how to curb gun violence, after thinking about it daily since her daughter’s murder in Logan Square.

“We have to hold the parents of these young criminals responsible,” Sallie says. “We have to give these parents jail time and a fine, to send a message to other parents that they need to do a better job of parenting.”

Sallie isn’t just talking the talk. A few years ago she found marijuana in her oldest daughter’s bedroom and she immediately called the police on her. Police didn’t arrest her daughter but Sallie sent a message: I’m a parent first, a friend second.

“The streets have more influence than most parents do, and that’s a shame,” she says.

Sallie also echoed what other parents have been pleading for years: City and state lawmakers need to stop using the killings of children as a political platform or photo opportunity. Instead, they need to secure funding for existing programs and better policing.

“They know what they need to do. They just aren’t doing it.”

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