x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Blood flows almost to Obama's doorstep in town they call 'Chi-raq'

The death toll from shootings in Chicago is more than 400 this year alone, with more Americans dying there than fighting in Afghanistan.

Police investigate the scene of a shooting on Chicago's south side.  The rate of murders in Chicago has increased 25 per cent over the same period last year.
Police investigate the scene of a shooting on Chicago's south side. The rate of murders in Chicago has increased 25 per cent over the same period last year.

CHICAGO // On a recent afternoon, as rainclouds threatened overhead, Lamar Johnson stood in front of Saint Sabina Church on Chicago's far south side looking at a memorial for the dead.

Staring back at him from the wood-framed sign on the church's lawn are small cutout pictures of 60 young men and women from the parish, some merely children: they represent a small fraction of those killed daily in the city's unrelenting gun violence.

"I've lost three of my childhood friends," said the 22-year-old youth organiser. "Last year, a teenage girl I grew up with was shot by a stray bullet.

"And then, two years ago, one of my friends was shot over a pair of gym shoes on his way to school."

The boy's family retaliated, Mr Johnson said, and there has been tit-for-tat violence in the neighbourhood ever since.

Such stories are mundane in Chicago, where more than 400 people have been murdered so far this year - a 25 per cent increase over the same period last year - mostly in gang-related shootings in south and west Chicago's African-American neighbourhoods.

The name young Chicagoans in the Englewood neighbourhood where St Sabina's is located have given their city is "Chi-raq", and the metaphor is apt: fewer US troops have been killed in Afghanistan this year than people murdered here.

There are many causes, but few solutions. President Barack Obama's former chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, now Chicago's mayor, has tried a surge of police officers in the worst-hit areas, but the department is understaffed after major budget cuts and the tactic has largely been ineffective.

Tougher policing is only a sticking plaster, and in its current form alienates innocent residents by what many of them say is indiscriminate police brutality.

The issue of gun control was broached briefly in the second presidential debate but is politically toxic, and Mr Obama has been silent on stricter limits as he tries to woo voters in conservative battleground states.

Meanwhile, the blood in his hometown has flowed almost to his doorstep. In August, a man was shot dead less than two blocks from Mr Obama's south Chicago home.

The president's face is everywhere in Englewood, smiling benevolently from faded posters in the windows of the hair salons, storefront churches that line the nearby 79th street commercial strip.

His image gazes through the shop windows, past the patrol cars driving slowly by groups of men on the corners. No one seems to look at the inspirational cliches the city has had carved into paving stones on each block. "Friendship and interdependence", reads one; another: "Humility and strength".

One of the pictures on the memorial at St Sabina's is of Terrell Bosley, who was 18 when he was killed in 2006.

"He played the gospel bass guitar and he sung, he had a job, was in college," said Pamela Bosley, Terrell's mother. "He was doing everything right." Then, one evening, Terrell was bringing musical equipment into his church. When he came back outside to help a friend with his drum set, someone drove by and shot Terrell in the back. Like most such murders in Chicago, Terrell's case remains unsolved.

Ms Bosley now directs one of St Sabina's outreach programmes that provides young people with mentoring and placement at trade schools, as well as with badly needed psychological care.

"When you're constantly losing friends, and there are no mental health services, imagine an adult let alone a child," she said.

"This is not how we're supposed to live, as if in a war zone."

Yet a war is raging in south Chicago. Last weekend, nine people were shot. Over the Memorial Day weekend in May, 10 people died in more than 40 shootings.

One cause, say community leaders, police officials and former gang members, has been the splintering over the last decade of Chicago's largest street gangs such as the Gangster Disciples into hundreds of feuding factions.

After decades of America's war on drugs, most of the older, and in many ways more principled, leaders are in jail. Without them, the younger generation of members is more violent and unpredictable.

"I was from the time when there was structure: no hurting kids and women, no disrespecting the neighbourhood," said Englewood native Keith Green, 25, whose mother was shot two years ago. "Now you got everybody in little mobs with no guidance, which brings up the senseless murders. Nobody's answering to nobody and you don't know what's going on."

The front door to St Sabina's rectory is covered with posters and notices that are evidence of that violent confusion. One reads, "Turn in guns anytime, no questions asked." Another offers a US$7,000 (Dh25,712) reward for information in the case of a woman who was shot in the face while she waited in her car at a traffic light last week.

Inside, Father Michael Pfleger cuts a surprising figure. Blonde-haired, he preaches in front of a painting of a black Jesus to an all-black congregation. But Father Pfleger has been at St Sabina's for nearly 40 years and is highly respected - especially by the local gangs.

"It's about building a relationship with them," he said. "They've been lied to by everybody and they see that we're for real and it's not a one-day thing for the cameras."

He added: "It's not just about telling them not to shoot. You've got to help them with excellent schools and jobs and training programmes."

Father Pfleger has led community responses to the violence, including leading walks through Englewood every Friday night to reach out to gang members. He recently brought four feuding gangs together for peace negotiations.

"There has not been a single shooting among these gangs for the past five weeks," he said.

Father Pfleger has also been at the forefront of lobbying the state and federal governments to adopt stronger gun laws, an uphill battle against the rich and influential National Rifle Association, which opposes any further limits on access to guns.

"Frankly, if Mitt Romney gets elected I don't think we have a chance," he said. "The Republican party has fought us on this; the Democratic party at least is open to the idea of banning assault weapons."

The recession has also contributed to the violence, said Father Pfleger, with unemployment at around 35 per cent in the area. "We finally had businesses coming in, but, when the plug was pulled in 2007, they walked out," he said.

Not everyone agrees that economics is a determining factor in Chicago's violence, however.

Roger Tilson, 25, went to prison in 2009 for gun possession before returning to Englewood in January.

"There was a recession when I went in, but am I doing the same things when I came out, when there was still a recession? No," said Mr Tilson, who is in a trade training programme at St Sabina.

Outside, near the memorial to Englewood's murdered youth, Lamar Johnson laid the blame for the devaluing of life in Chicago elsewhere in society.

"We live in a society where being dominant is attractive and rewarded," he said. "But how we get there doesn't matter."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae