26th and Cali and beyond: A look at Chicago violence and the young people caught in its midst

I spent two days last week at a historic Chicago location where many people hope they never will have to go. Fortunes are decided at this place, and its neighboring building is a stark reminder to many who come here of one possible outcome of these determinations. That place is the Cook County Courthouse on 26th Street and California Avenue, and the dreaded adjacent facility is Cook County Jail, the largest jail in the U.S.

Fortunately, I was not there, like most non-employees who are taken there, against my will. I was observing a judge for a story I’m writing and asking the judge about what it’s like working there, and dealing with the people whose futures are decided daily there. At the judge’s urging, I concluded my day Wednesday by sitting in on bond court. In doing so, I got a first-person look at who goes through the courthouse and why they are sent there.

All those who are called in before the judge were accused of involvement in criminal activity. None of them are proven guilty yet, but are held because they are allegedly implicated in a crime. The judge calls the name of a defendant, who is ushered into the courtroom by a member of the sheriff’s department. The defendant stands with their hands behind their back before the judge as the prosecution describes the crime the defendant is accused of committing and their criminal background. The defender then is asked by the judge to give mitigation, which can include the defendant’s family situation, education level and current employment. In light of the facts, the judge sets a bond amount that he/she determines to be reasonable according to the law, a portion of which the defendant will have to post for bail to get out of jail until their trial.

To an observer, the process seems very procedural. One after another, defendants are brought in and ushered out. Their faces express dismay, shock, remorse, detachment, or just general bewilderment. Some seem more used to the process than the rest. To others, the reality of their situation doesn’t seem to have sunk in just yet. One young man, after his bond was set, called into the crowd, asking those who were there to observe his hearing to “call my mama,” before the officers told him not to talk and led him back into the holding area.

On one hand, I looked onto the proceedings with a sense of justice being administered. Most of the defendants were there for possessing or distributing drugs, some of them armed with weapons. Some were in gangs, according to the facts presented in the court. However, I also felt a conflicting sense of compassion for some of the perpetrators. Most of the defendants were young black men under the age of thirty. Many had no more than a high school education, if that. I wondered whether they were victims in their own right, products of the environment they live in.

The next day, I went back to the courthouse and spoke to the judge about my experience sitting through bond court. I told the judge that I couldn’t help but feel a bit cynical. The judge asked if this feeling was toward society at large, or specifically to the justice system. I told the judge it was a bit of both, as I was disgusted that we live in a society where violence is a matter of daily fact, but I also was skeptical of the system’s capacity to reform those who go through it.

I told the judge about one seventeen-year-old that appeared before the court with two other defendants in their twenties. They were busted for drug activity, and one of them had been armed with a semi-automatic weapon with live ammunition. The seventeen-year-old had told the police that he was a part of a gang that was engaged in a turf war with a rival gang. He described himself as a “soldier.”

I said to the judge that I was shocked that the kid that stood there, scrawny and baby-faced, thought of himself as a soldier in a war. The judge immediately corrected me, saying that that’s not a kid and reminding me of the importance of keeping adult criminals, especially those active in violent and other illegal activities off the streets. I agreed with the judge, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether that seventeen-year-old, if convicted and imprisoned, would leave the jail a changed man, convinced not to commit future crimes so as not to be sent back there again, or whether, like many other criminals, this was the first bump in a road that would lead to more crimes committed, subsequent stays in jail, or untimely death on the streets.

******

Driving north on Western Ave. as I left from the courthouse, I passed through the Douglas Park, East Garfield Park and Humboldt Park neighborhoods, eventually stopping at the intersection of Western and Division, kitty-corner to Roberto Clemente High School. It was around three o’clock on Wednesday, and the high school had seemingly just let out, as students were present in bunches by the bus stops outside the school.

Just over a week ago, on Friday, the 18th of February, the high school lost student Frances Colon, 18, to gun violence. According to Chicagoist, Colon was an honor student who hoped to become a lawyer and had talked to her father the same day she was shot about the need for elected leaders to make “people more afraid” to shoot each other by imposing tougher penalties. She became the third Clemente High School student killed this school year in the Humboldt Park neighborhood where the school is located.

While stopped at the intersection, I looked at the students outside the school. Some of them were laughing with their fellow students as they gathered at the bus stop. Upon a brief glance, they looked to me like normal teenagers, socializing, joking around. They didn’t look like targets. However, as Colon’s death has shown, anyone – even an honors student with a bright future ahead of her – can be caught in the crossfire of violence if at the wrong place, at the wrong time.

It’s that circumstantial aspect to these killings that makes this situation so tragic. For someone who doesn’t live in the communities in Chicago that have been plagued by violence, it’s easier to reason to oneself that the violence is limited to gang members, to active participants in battles between rival factions. But that’s not the case, as we see with Colon’s death and as the nation saw with Hadiya Pendleton’s death earlier this year. No one in these communities is immune.

The pervasiveness of the violence in these communities is the subject of much discussion recently in the media. While in my car, I tuned my radio to WBEZ 91.5, which was broadcasting its Afternoon Shift program remotely from the Brown Sugar Bakery in Englewood. The program was highlighting a community that has acquired a dangerous label and the efforts of some of its citizens to make it a safer, more vibrant place. During the program, host Rick Kogan spoke to Principal Leonetta Sanders and social worker Crystal Winfield Smith at Harper High School, which was the subject of a two-part series on NPR’s This American Life. The series evolved from National Public Radio’s sending a journalist to the high school following the death of a student to gun violence.

In the series, titled “Harper High School” (which can be heard on Soundcloud), journalists explore how violence has affected Harper and the surrounding community. Listeners find out that the very idea of gangbangers actively engaging in illegal crimes in their respective communities and fighting rival gangs in a vacuum to the rest of the community is obsolete. In the area around Harper, gangs are often separated by a street, and living on one side of the street automatically associates a resident with that gang. Again, it is clear that no one is immune from the gangs that run those streets, neither honors students, nor athletes.

Walking down a street is enough to make someone a target. Alone, you’re an open target; with others, gang members might think you’re part of the area gang, still making you a target. As heard on the program, this is the “Catch-22” that faces the young people in the community. For this reason, educators and social workers at Harper often have to literally drive students to and from school to keep them safe.

As Principal Sanders told Kogan, between June 2011 and Jun 2012, eight current and former Harper students were killed and twenty-one others were injured. The situation can seem hopeless, and the continuing efforts of the school employees and social workers to make the school a safe place in a community engulfed in violence have to be commended.

“Do you understand that there are fifteen different gangs in this building?” Sanders said, with an astonished inflection in her voice. “But the good part of it is that they are able to go to school in Harper. We can’t control what happens in the street, but we can control what happens in the building.”

Instead of feeling alone in their fight to keep their students safe, it sounds like the prayers and encouragement Sanders and Winfield Smith have received from the city and the world, as a consequence of their feature on This American Life, have instilled in them a feeling of solidarity. That’s important, because, as Kogan said while speaking to Alderman Roderick Sawyer, “I’m talking to all of you BEZ listeners, I don’t care if you live in Burr Ridge or Winnetka, my theory is that we’re all in his together.”

We are. We don’t live in a void, and the perception that there are two Chicagos – one safe and relatively violence-free, and the other a virtual war zone – has to cease. When a student at Harper, or Clemente, or anywhere else in the city is gunned down, it is a loss for all of society. We are accountable for what happens around us. We have a civic duty to our neighbors.

Kogan’s call needs to be answered. It needs to be answered by young people, many of whom I know, that have been moving from the suburbs into the city, in areas like Humboldt Park. Educated young people can volunteer to become mentors, something that these disenfranchised teens drawn to violent activities desperately need. This should be part of an unwritten social contract that comes with gentrification. If you want to live in an “edgy” part of town, contribute to making it better-don’t do it just for the sake of escaping the vanilla suburban existence.

We have to support the efforts of teachers and mentors like Sanders and Winfield Smith, making sure they have the resources they need to continue . We have to urge our legislators to act to keep schools open, and as Colon said, to punish those engaging in violent crime. We have to seriously talk about our war on drugs – one that has been effective in jailing top gang leaders in Chicago, but with a dire consequence, splintering gangs into smaller factions fighting over more concentrated territories. We have to tackle growing inequality in our country, to curtail the violence that stems from and is perpetuated by the circumstances of poverty.

These of course, are complex issues that demand time, money and courageous individual efforts in order to address. But we are obligated to act if we believe in the American dream, if we believe that the opportunity for a better life is attainable for all regardless of their socioeconomic position.

We owe it to Colon and Pendleton and all the victims of senseless gang violence in Chicago and the rest of the U.S. But we also owe it to the teenagers that see themselves as soldiers at war on our very streets. We owe them a choice between a life of violence or lawful obedience and integration into society. We owe them a choice at self-determination, not a life predetermined by where they live and what gang colors rule their streets.

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