NEW: Killings in the first quarter of the year up 71.9% over 2015
Residents say the economy and emboldened gang members are to blame
"It has gotten much worse out here," a longtime resident says
Eighty-year-old Betty Johnson has lived in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood since 1968. She raised two children and several grandchildren on the city’s far south side, where she has lived her entire life.
After her granddaughter Sabrina was killed in a car accident in 2008, Johnson gained full custody of her great-grandson Andre Taylor. She looked on proudly as he busied himself with swimming, football and karate. She knew the dangers someone his age faced if he spent too much time on the streets of Chicago.
But on a Sunday night in March, her worst nightmare was realized. Andre, 16, was shot in the head and killed just a block from his home.
“It has gotten much worse out here,” Johnson says, standing outside her home and looking out onto the streets she knows so well.
There was gang violence when Johnson was growing up, “but you never heard anything like what’s going on today,” she says.
Andre’s death is part of a massive spike in violence since the start of the year. By March 31, 141 people had been killed, according to the Chicago Police Department. On Thursday, eight were shot and two of them died in one hour alone, Chicago Police said.
The 141 deaths in the first three months of the year mark a 71.9% jump from the same period in 2015, when 82 people were killed. It’s the worst start to a year since 1999, when 136 people died in the first three months the year, according to the Chicago Tribune.
At that pace – an average of three killings every two days – Chicago would have 564 homicides by the end of the year. That would eclipse the 468 killings recorded in 2015 and 416 in 2014.
Overall, shootings have also skyrocketed.
According to data provided by Chicago police, the number of shootings in the first three months of the year jumped from 359 in 2015 to 677 in 2016 – an 88.5% increase.
‘We better brace for a long, hot summer’
Michael Gabb knows the pain Betty Johnson feels all too well. He helped raise his grandson Tyjuan Poindexter.
The 14-year-old had never been in serious trouble, and Gabb was raising him in his home in the Kenwood neighborhood.
He believes Tyjuan was mistaken for a gang member when he was killed in a drive-by shooting just a few blocks from his home. Gabb told CNN six months ago he was hopeful police would find the people responsible. Mayor Rahm Emanuel even paid a visit to Gabb’s home to offer his condolences.
Almost six months later, Gabb is still hopeful his grandson’s killer will be found. But he thinks it may only happen if someone steps forward with information.
He hopes things can change so others don’t suffer the same fate as his grandson. But how that change will occur and what’s causing the violence is something difficult to narrow down to one definitive explanation.
Gabb, like many residents and advocates throughout the city, agree that there are several contributing factors; some old, some new.
“I think it’s got something to do with economics,” he says of the continued shootings.
Most residents say communities continue to suffer from an economy that is nowhere strong enough to keep at-risk youths from looking for financial support in the wrong places.
“There’s not enough money to sustain certain families and people go into drugs,” Gabb says.
It’s hard for longtime community pastor Ira Acree to watch. He has been serving the Austin community on Chicago’s West Side for 26 years.
“It’s horrifying,” he says. “It’s horrifying to look at the numbers from this winter, because if it’s that bad in the winter, we better brace for a long, hot summer.”
‘The best way to stop a bullet is with a job’
Acree, like Gabb, believes the struggling economy in many communities is a big part of the problem.
“All of the violence is rooted in the illegal drug economy,” Acree says. “Many guys have allowed their economic desperation to cause them to resort to these measures. The economy is terrible, especially in African-American neighborhoods.”
Acree says the violence is the worst he’s seen since the 1990s, and he’d like to see a state of emergency declared for wide areas of the city by President Barack Obama, who called Chicago home for so many years.
“I’m hoping that some money is invested in some job creation. We bailed out Wall Street, why not bail out Main Street? It would make a world of difference,” Acree says. “If you really want to stop this epidemic of violence, the best way to stop a bullet is with a job.”
The pastor also believes the recent police scandal and cover-up involving the Laquan McDonald shooting has almost certainly contributed to the spike in the numbers.
“Our Mayor Rahm Emanuel, because of the mess he partly put himself in because of the Laquan McDonald scandal, doesn’t have the influence and the clout that he had in the past, where he could come in to a neighborhood, hold a press conference after a shooting and say ‘Hey, we’re not gonna take it, this is unacceptable.’ “
Acree says Emanuel is heckled if he holds news conferences on the South or West sides of Chicago.
“They run him away,” Acree says of the mayor. “The climate has allowed gangbangers to become emboldened.”
Trying to fix ‘poverty of imagination’
Jahmal Cole, 32, grew up in the city of North Chicago, about 45 miles from Chicago’s South Side. But in 2007, he moved to the Chatham neighborhood on the South Side, one of the toughest, to help young kids most at risk of falling prey to gangs and drugs.
His mother grew up on the West Side in Austin, a neighborhood that had almost 50 murders in 2015.
One of Chicago’s biggest problems, he says, is not only segregation by color, but also by resources and opportunities.
“I think that we’ve developed a mentality in Chicago – we see ourselves part of the North Side, South Side,” Cole says.
If they tried to learn from others, or immerse themselves in other opportunities, Cole believes lives could be changed. His nonprofit organization, My Block, My Hood, My City, is dedicated to providing young people with opportunities to see things they don’t even know exist.
“They don’t know what’s available,” he adds. “They don’t know the museum is open Tuesday nights. Many of these kids have never even seen the lakefront in their entire life.”
Many will never see a lifestyle different from one where squad cars are part of the norm and the constant hovering of police helicopters is more known than a YMCA. It’s a way of life he views as “traumatizing” to the children and part of a cycle he is trying to break.
But he knows there isn’t one easy fix.
“I don’t think there’s a program a policy or a resolution that’s going to solve violence in Chicago,” Cole says.
He believes many teens and residents suffer from what he calls “poverty of imagination.” Cole hopes to bring new experiences to one child at a time and hopes that will make a difference.
But for Betty Johnson, as she stands outside her longtime home, thinking about all of the years she’s lived in Chicago, there isn’t as much hope as there is sadness anymore.
“I feel sorry for all of these young kids coming up today,” she says.
Johnson wishes she could do more to save her other grandkids from the streets of Chicago and from the same fate as her great-grandson Andre.
“If I wasn’t so old, I’d take the other grandkids that are living with me and go so far up in the country, it would take three hours to get to me,” she says. “It’s just so bad that this is the way we have to live.”