To understand Chicago’s violence, start at Kostner Avenue and Monroe Street and walk west up a one-way stretch of graystones and brick two-flats. There on a boarded-up front door you’ll see the red stain of gang graffiti. On the cracked sidewalk below lies an empty heroin baggie. Hardened young men sit on a porch.
This single block on the West Side — part of the Harrison police district — has been the scene of at least six shootings so far this year. A masked gunman shot a teen in the stomach. A father delivering groceries to his daughter was shot before he could escape gunfire. And just last week, police again unspooled the yellow crime scene tape in the alley behind the block after a teen was fatally shot in the head.
As Chicago heads into the often violent July Fourth weekend, these kinds of stories are all too common in pockets of the West and South sides. At the halfway point of the year, homicides have jumped by 49 percent citywide to 312 through Tuesday, reaching levels unseen since the late 1990s. Shooting incidents have risen by even more, marking the third consecutive year of double-digit increases.
While it doesn’t rank as the nation’s murder capital on a per-capita basis, Chicago is the runaway leader in the sheer volume of killings and shootings. New York and Los Angeles don’t even come close. Through June 19, Chicago had more homicides than those two larger cities combined, records show. The two combined had fewer than 1,000 shooting victims during that same period, while Chicago by Tuesday topped 1,900 — about 10 a day.
A closer look at the numbers shows the intractable hold that violence has in some of Chicago’s 22 police districts. Two of the city’s historically most violent police districts — Harrison and Englewood — account for fully one-fourth of the homicides and shooting incidents.
A complex mix of factors is driving the violence. But much of the bloodshed can be linked to gang conflict over everything from petty disputes to control of drug dealing, as well as the splintering of gangs into smaller cliques fighting over a few blocks at a time and easy access to guns, experts say.
Yet there are deeper societal problems at play as well, including long histories of poverty, joblessness, segregation and neglect in these crime-ridden neighborhoods.
The increased violence comes as the Police Department confronts an unprecedented crisis that has Chicago cops under the harshest light. The U.S. Justice Department is leading a wide-ranging probe of police practices in the wake of a video showing a white officer shooting black teen Laquan McDonald 16 times. The department also was forced into revamping its street stop procedures after the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois raised red flags over whether officers were violating citizens’ civil rights.
All this has led many officers to feel unsure about stopping anyone. Just this week, the president of the police union said many officers feel that “no one has their backs.” Other veteran officers agree that Chicago cops are dispirited and have slowed down on the kind of proactive policing that can remove a gun or criminal from the street.
The Tribune will be chronicling these issues in a series of stories over the coming summer months — traditionally the peak of the violence.
Gang conflict: ‘Runnin’ from God’
At 10:30 a.m. last Saturday it was already steamy as the Rev. Marshall Hatch and about six other members of his New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church walked from their majestic edifice in the West Garfield Park neighborhood. One carried a life-sized wooden cross on his shoulder as the group set out to offer prayer.
As the group wound its way to Monroe and Kostner, the site of the six shootings this year, a young boy buzzed by on a bicycle to find out what they were doing. Neighbors gathered on front steps and side yards. A barbecue was already smoking, and Hatch made his way over to say hello.
Hatch, who has worked on the West Side for some 30 years, took a break at a shady spot to talk about the complex problems faced by the neighborhood. As he spoke, a group of young men, as if cued by a movie director, crossed Monroe and streamed toward a home in the middle of the block.
Hatch turned to watch. He sighed.
“Well, you know, it’s painful because its hard to imagine that they are up to anything positive,” he said. “Because everything else in the neighborhood is so negative.”
Unbowed, Hatch walked to the home a few minutes later and passed his business card across the wrought iron fence. The men responded with hard, vacant looks. No eye contact. Then they peeled off, one by one.
“You runnin’ from God,” a woman in front of the house told the young men.
The makeup of Chicago’s gangs has changed dramatically over the years. They once were massive organizations with powerful leaders and hundreds of members who controlled large chunks of territory. Now small cliques battle for control over a few blocks.
Veteran officers say the fractured nature of gangs has made life more chaotic on the street, with rivals sometimes living just a few blocks apart.
Hatch thinks much of the violence involves retaliatory shootings stemming from so many homicides going unsolved, while police complain of too few witnesses willing to cooperate.
“That means you’ve got a lot of vigilantism going on out there,” he said. “They think they have to get (justice) on their own.”
On the West Side, on a street like Monroe that is minutes from the Eisenhower Expressway, nicknamed the “Heroin Highway” for its easy access for drug-buying suburbanites, fights for the lucrative drug spots are fueling much of the violence.
Asked what’s behind all the shootings, a resident near the troubled 4400 block of West Monroe said, “Whoever’s dealing the drugs.”
On the other hand, shootings by gangs on the South Side tend to be more over controlling turf or seeking retribution, according to police and former gang members.
“South Side is about gangbanging,” said one former gang member who lives near the Monroe block. “West Side is about money.”
Experts also agree that personal disputes increasingly are playing a role in the violence. One veteran cop recalled with disbelief recently how a slaying he investigated boiled down to an insult over shoes.
Police also said so-called net-banging on social media fuels conflicts. Gang members have been known to post menacing videos on YouTube, showing them furtively entering rival territory, waving guns and issuing threats.
Source: Chicago Tribune