Gun violence surges in Chicago, where residents want to show ‘everything is not all bad’

By Mark Berman and Mark Guarino September 6 at 7:42 PM

On a weekend afternoon in a city scarred by escalating violence, Kris Pinder watched his children play at a park festival in Roseland, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.

The harmonies of a gospel choir bubbled up through loudspeakers while clippers buzzed across the scalps of little boys in barber chairs. Basketballs flew across a nearby court, and tennis balls bounced over nets on another.

By the end of a violent Labor Day weekend, Chicago had reached a grim milestone, recording more homicides through Monday night than the city experienced during all of last year. This tally came with a late surge of gunfire, as the Chicago police said there were 13 homicides over the Labor Day weekend, most of them on Monday, along with 43 shooting incidents, both numbers that topped those seen in the city a year earlier.

All told, by the end of Monday police said there were 488 homicides in Chicago so far this year, more than the 481 killings they logged last year — with nearly four months left in 2016. The surge in violence on Labor Day came after an average of three people were killed each day in August, marking a particularly brutal stretch in a bloody year.

But in Roseland, where a woman was fatally shot five days before the festival, people came together over the weekend for a gathering that was one of dozens across the city over the long weekend aimed at helping parts of the city under siege from escalating gun violence.

“The children need to see that everything is not all bad,” said Pinder, 33.

Police have said that most of the city’s homicide victims were people killed by gunfire. In August alone, there were 92 victims of homicide, the city’s deadliest month in more than two decades and more killings than most big cities across the country recorded in the first six months of the year.

Eddie Johnson, the Chicago police superintendent, said the violence was due to repeat offenders in “impoverished neighborhoods” utilizing what he described as an absurd proliferation of guns on the streets.

“It’s not a police issue,” Johnson said at a news briefing Tuesday. “It’s a society issue … people without hope do these kinds of things.”

Police have attributed the spike in gun violence in Chicago to known, repeat offenders using illegal guns. Johnson again called for tougher penalties for people who commit gun crimes, echoing a plea he has made this summer in the face of the violence.

“I’m frustrated,” he said Tuesday. “The city should be frustrated. Frustrated that despite these weekends, we still see repeat offenders get back out on the street far too soon.”

For many in the city, this ongoing bloodshed has filled them with fear and anxiety; in a survey earlier this year, residents were found as likely to think young people in the city would become victims of a violent crime as graduate from college.

Over the weekend, a group of 75 organizations, block clubs and churches staged pop-up events in the areas of the city most impacted by the violence — the southern and western neighborhoods that have been home to most of the increase in killings, police say. The surge in violence has given an urgency to the block parties, cookouts, chess matches, gospel concerts, stage plays and pickup basketball games.

“When the amount of violence skyrocketed this summer, people realized if we don’t do something, it’ll get out of hand,” said Kaaron Johnson, 28, at a gathering in Bronzeville, another South Side neighborhood.

Last year, Chicago saw 481 homicides last year, police said, a number that authorities revised upwards from the 473 homicides they had previously reported. They also had said there were 90 killings in August before increasing that number as well. Police said the homicide totals increase when someone dies from wounds suffered during a particular time period or if an investigation winds up determining a death was a homicide. (While official police statistics put the city on the verge of 500 homicides this year after Labor Day, data collected by the Chicago Tribune — including killings not included in the homicide total by police — showed that the city topped that figure early Tuesday.)

Chicago is on pace for more than 600 homicides in a single year for the first time since 2003. The country’s third-biggest city has had more killings so far this year than the two larger cities — New York and Los Angeles — combined.

While crime rates nationwide remain far below those seen just a quarter-century ago — between 1990 and 1995, Chicago had at least 800 homicide victims each year — homicides have spiked in a number of big cities across the country this year and last year. Chicago’s violence has drawn attention for the sheer scale of the bloodshed, and it has reverberated on the presidential campaign trail.

Some other cities have also seen more killings this year than last, while still others have reported declines. Through late August, police say there were 227 homicides in New York, down from the 234 killings at the same point a year earlier; in Los Angeles, there were 182 killings, down slightly from the 186 a year before. On Tuesday, the New York police announced that there were fewer crimes reported there over the summer than they had seen in decades, adding that crimes like murder went down in August.

“We have further reduced violence and serious crime across this city, yet again,” New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton, who is on the verge of retirement, said in a statement Tuesday. “The tremendous focus on a small group of criminals has resulted in these unprecedented declines in crime – as violence has increased in other American cities significantly.”

Compounding anxieties among people who live in Chicago’s most heavily impacted areas are a series of memos from the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police asking the city’s police force not to work voluntary overtime during the holiday weekend.

In one memo obtained by the Chicago Tribune, the stated reason not to work overtime was “to show unity and to protest the continued disrespect of Chicago Police Officers and the killings of law enforcement officers across our country.”

Dean Angelo, president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, said the memos were not aimed at City Hall with the union’s contract up next year, but were aimed at officers uneasy after police were attacked and killed in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

“This isn’t a work slowdown…. This is telling the guys you take your family for granted; we take ourselves for granted,” Angelo said in an interview.

Many people cooking hot dogs, passing out school supplies or watching their children get free haircuts over the weekend said they don’t blame individual officers. Instead, they said their anger is reserved more for what they called bureaucratic infighting.

“People are fed up,” said Hal Baskin, 64, a lifelong resident of the Englewood neighborhood who helped organize several events there Saturday. He called the union’s suggestion un-American. “We don’t care about their political agenda, we care about lives,” he said.

The memos were also sent as the embattled Chicago police force is being investigated by the Justice Department, a civil rights probe launched after video footage emerged last year showing a white officer fatally shooting Laquan McDonald, a black teenager.

After that shooting, a task force assembled by Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) examined the Chicago police  — the country’s second-biggest local law enforcement agency — and released a blistering report in April lambasting the way the department treats minorities.

Angelo said this weekend that he felt like police officers in the city were being misrepresented by the media as well as by city officials.

“We’ve got no support politically,” he said. “We occasionally get, ‘Most of them do a good job.’ A lot of time when we hear something positive about the police, there is the proverbial ‘but’ that follows.”

Chicago’s violence has also been pushed into the national consciousness through repeated mentions by Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate. Trump has sought to portray himself as the law-and-order candidate and has invoked the city’s violence during campaign events and his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.

After Nykea Aldridge, cousin of NBA star Dwyane Wade, was shot and killed while pushing a child in a stroller, Trump posted on Twitter and claimed it was evidence of “what I have been saying.” Wade said that the comment “left a bad taste in my mouth” because it appeared like it was meant for “political gain.”

Just days before weighing in on Aldridge’s death, Trump claimed during an interview on Fox News that a “top police officer in Chicago” had told him there was a way to stop the violence “within one week.”

He did not name the officer or elaborate on what this officer would do, and Trump’s campaign did not respond to a request to identify him. The Chicago police say no senior officials met with Trump or his campaign, but they added that he is welcome to offer his input.

“If you have a magic bullet to stop the violence anywhere, not just in Chicago but in America, then please, share it with us,” Johnson, the police superintendent, said in response last week.

Activist Phillip Jackson said that when he heard about the police union’s overtime memos, he decided to rally community groups together for what he called a “Community Peace Surge,” a play on the titles of the “Purge” movies, during which crime becomes legal and violence takes over the streets.

Through social media and word of mouth, the idea grew into a mixture of official events, such as park festivals, and homegrown activities, such as neighborhood cookouts. Jackson, who operates the Black Star Project in Bronzeville, said most people know the police can’t stop the gunfire. But he said it felt like officers were abandoning their posts during times of great need, which he said confirmed the mistrust of police that lingers on in these areas.

“Dean Angelo basically said, ‘You guys are mad at us, so we won’t work,’ ” he said. “Yes, we are mad at you for shooting down young black boys in the street. What is a community supposed to think?”

A Chicago police spokesman said the union’s calls on overtime were not a factor in the weekend deployment. There were volunteers to work and leave was canceled only for specific units — such as those focused on gangs and guns — to keep those officers deployed, said Anthony Guglielmi, the department’s chief spokesman.

Most of the events in Chicago received no money or help from the city or philanthropic foundations, organizers said. In Bronzeville, six women pooled $700 and rented a bouncy house for tots, hired a DJ and bought hot dogs and other summer treats.

“This is the first time we’ve seen this kind of thing in years,” Kaaron Johnson said at the Bronzeville gathering. “We wanted the community to know it’s safe to come out and have a good time.”

For some of those out over the weekend, the fun shielded an underlying anxiety. On Sunday, one 13-year-old sat on a street curb in Bronzeville watching his friends practice dance moves together. He said he was scared because “people keep dying over here.”

Police say murder arrests and gun arrests are both ticking up in the city, and the department said it has seized or collected more than 5,900 illegal guns. On Saturday, the police said they arrested 77 people in police raids, dozens of whom authorities said were documented gang members.

Parents and organizers say they realize a weekend of activities is not a solution to the bloodshed, but they hope it could be the beginning of one. The Labor Day weekend is typically a deadly one in Chicago; last year, nine people were killed and dozens more shot.

Still, other people in Chicago said they have given up. Despite the sunshine, music and friendly crowd at the Roseland festival, Jonas Lee said he was not happy as he watched his two daughters, both girls wearing pink tiaras and black leggings while they walked with their pet pug.

“I don’t like them outside at all,” Lee, 37, an exterminator, said at the event. He said it was because a family friend had been shot in the head while sitting on his porch this year. “If it could happen to him, it could happen to anybody,” Lee said. His house is on the market, and Lee said he plans a move to Indiana to escape the “never-ending” violence.

Others echoed the commitment to retaking the streets after living in fear. People felt unsafe “because of the violence that has overtaken our city,” said Laura Pinder, 61, as she watched her grandchildren — twin boys and a girl — play at the park in Roseland.

“You can’t stop living,” she said.


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