Many Have Made the Urgent Call to Stop the Violence in Chicago, but How Should We Go About Doing That?

4798When I meet Bilal, a 38-year-old security guard at Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago, it's hard to tell that he spent 15 years in prison for first degree murder. He's a family man now, married and raising three girls, and he's soft spoken and a little pudgy around the middle. Nearly two decades ago, he was a leader of a splinter group of one of Chicago's most notorious street gangs, the Gangster Disciples. After converting to Islam in prison and changing his name from Anthony, he committed himself to trying to prevent young men from his neighborhood from following in his footsteps and eventually found his way to CeaseFire, a group that works to stop conflicts before they erupt into violence.

A bulletin board at the Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago reflects the omnipresence of violence in the city's black neighborhoods. In January, 42 people were killed, after a 2012 in which the city recorded a record number of homicides. Photo: Jamilah King
Driving with him through the South Side community of Englewood on the way to take his infant daughter and school-age stepdaughters home, it's clear that an interrupter's work doesn't end when a conflict does. He pulls up to a group of young men on the corner, slows the car, and ask, "Y'all alright?"

Then he continues on down the street and points to a white SUV in front of us, telling me that the owner was shot and killed about a month ago. He pulls up alongside it and a black woman in her 30's with neatly pressed hair and light-colored sunglasses covering tired-looking eyes rolls down the window. She tells Bilal that she's thankful to be up today. At a bus stop across the street, a group of four teenage girls laugh and chatter with each other, all wearing matching white sweatshirts with "RIP Chris" scrawled across the front in sparkling red letters. Loss is so common here that it's become fashionable.

On January 29, 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton became the city's new symbol of loss. Just days removed from performing with a high school group at President Obama's second inauguration in Washington, DC, Pendleton was shot and killed as she stood with friends in a neighborhood park. That another young, black life was so senselessly ended--just days after helping to celebrate the most powerful black politician in history--has added yet another macabre twist to Chicago's tale of tragic deaths.

In 2012, the city recorded 506 homicides, an increase of more than 16 percent over 2011. The New York Times reported that those homicides were isolated to certain geographic areas in the city, indicative of longstanding segregation and a city that remains divided. In 2013, the killings have continued at a frightening pace; in January alone, 42 people were killed by guns. That's the worst rate of homicide in 10 years.

"There's a needed coordination on the national level at this point," Cathy Cohen, a political scientist at the University of Chicago and founder of the Black Youth Project, said on MSNBC recently. "People are trying to do whatever they can, from community groups, NGO's, to faith-based communities, but there's a leadership and coordination that's needed from the national level." Cohen was speaking to her group's petition to get President Obama to "come home" to Chicago to address the violence.

Locally, after Pendleton's murder Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel implored residents to take action. "It is incumbent on all of us who have a responsibility to see a stop to this. And all of us are responsible, all adults," Emanuel said. Yet the onslaught of death has begged difficult questions for those seeking to stop it. Can you address the violence without first dealing with its roots? And how do you even begin to work on the roots of violence while its tangling vines are spreading so rapidly?

Across the city, those who work directly with young people are walking a thin line between addressing immediate acts of violence and focusing on long term intervention. Bilal represents one approach, which has drawn national attention for its innovative way of thinking about violence: not as a criminal justice problem, but as a public health challenge. But others are asking an uncomfortable question about that innovation: Once a life is saved, what do you do with it?

Source: | Jamilah King
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