CHICAGO (AP) — It was February, the middle of lunch hour on a busy South Side street. The gunman approached his victim in a White Castle parking lot, shot him in the head, then fled down an alley.
The next month, one block away, also on West 79th Street: Two men in hooded sweatshirts opened fire at the Bishop Golden convenience store. They killed one young man and wounded five others, including a nephew of basketball superstar Dwyane Wade. The shooters got away in a silver SUV.
In July, a Saturday night, two men were walking on 79th when they were approached by a man who killed one and injured the other. This shooting resulted in a quick arrest; police had a witness, and a security camera caught the shooting.
These three violent snapshots of a single Chicago street are not exceptional. It’s been a bloody year in the nation’s third-largest city.
A spike in murders and shootings — much of it gang-related — shocked Chicagoans, spurred new crime-fighting strategies and left indelible images: Mayor Rahm Emanuel voicing outrage about gang crossfire that killed a 7-year-old named Heaven selling candy in her front yard. Panicked mourners scrambling as shots ring out on the church steps at a funeral for a reputed gang leader. Girls wearing red high school basketball uniforms, filing by the casket of a 16-year-old teammate shot on her porch.
A handful of neighborhoods were especially hard hit, among them Auburn-Gresham; the police district’s 43 homicides (as of Dec. 21) ranked highest in the city, and represent an increase of about 20 percent over 2011. The outbreak, fueled partly by feuds among rival factions of Chicago’s largest gang, the Gangster Disciples, rippled along 79th street, the main commercial drag. That single corridor offers a window into the wider mayhem that claimed lives, shattered families and left authorities scrambling for answers.
The scars aren’t obvious, at first. Drive down West 79th and there’s Salaam, a pristine white building of Islamic design, and The Final Call, the restaurant and newspaper operated by the Nation of Islam. Leo Catholic High School for young men. A health clinic. A beauty supply store. Around the corners, neat brick bungalows and block club signs warning: “No Littering. No Loitering. No Loud Music.”
Look closer, though, and there are signs of distress and fear: Boarded-up storefronts. Heavy security gates on barber shops and food marts. Thick partitions separating cash registers from customers at the Jamaican jerk and fish joints. Police cars watching kids board city buses at the end of the school day.
Go a few blocks south of 79th to a food market where a sign bears a hand-scrawled message: “R.I.P. We Love You Eli,” honoring a clerk killed in November in an apparent robbery. Or a block north to the front lawn of St. Sabina church where photos were added this year to a glass-enclosed memorial for young victims of deadly violence over the years.
Then go back to a corner of 79th, across the street and down the block from where two killings occurred, both gang-related.
There, in an empty lot, a wooden cross stands tall in the winter night. Painted in red is a plea:
THE TOLL: Chicago’s murder count reached 500 last Friday — the first time since 2008 it hit that mark. In 2011, there were 435 homicides. More than 2,400 shootings have occurred. Gang-related arrests are about 7,000 higher than in 2011.
Gang violence isn’t new, but it became a major theme in the Chicago narrative this year.
Maybe it was because of the audacity of gang members posting YouTube videos in which they flashed wads of cash and guns. The sight of police brandishing automatic weapons, standing watch outside gang funerals. The sting of one more smiling young face on a funeral program. Or dramatic headlines in spring and summer, such as: “13 people shot in Chicago in 30-minute period.”
It was alarming enough for President Barack Obama to mention it during the campaign, noting murders near his South Side home. Then, addressing gun violence in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, he cited Chicago again.
As grim as it is, Chicago’s murder rate was almost double in the early 1990s — averaging around 900 — before violent crime began dropping in cities across America. This year’s increase, though, is a sharp contrast to New York, where homicides fell 21 percent from 2011, as of early December.
Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy says while murders and shootings are up, overall crime citywide is down about 9 percent. He says crime-fighting strategies against gangs — some just put into place this year — are working, but they take time.
“The city didn’t get in this shape overnight,” he says. “I think that we’re doing ourselves a disservice by advertising a Vietnam-type body count. I’ve got to tell you when I speak to people … they generally say, ‘You know what? We don’t even hear that anymore. It’s white noise.’… The fascination unfortunately seems to be in the media and it’s become a national obsession.”
After the 500th homicide was reported, McCarthy released a statement saying the pace of violent crime had slowed since early 2012. Murders skyrocketed 66 percent in the first quarter of the year over the same period in 2011; by the fourth quarter, the increase had dropped to 15 percent, he said. For shootings, it was a 40 percent hike in the first quarter and 11 percent in the last quarter compared with 2011. The superintendent called the numbers “great progress.”
Up to 80 percent of Chicago’s murders and shootings are gang-related, according to police. By one estimate, the city has almost 70,000 gang members. A police audit last spring identified 59 gangs and 625 factions; most are on the South and West sides.
Gangs in Chicago have a long, dangerous history, some operating with the sophistication and hierarchy of corporations. In the 1980s, the leaders of the El Rukns were convicted of conspiring in a terrorism-for-hire scheme designed to collect millions from the Libyan government. Before the feds took down the leadership of the Gangster Disciples in the 1990s, the group had its own clothing line and political arm.
Nowadays, gangs are less structured and disputes more personal, says Eric Carter, commander of the Gresham district, home to 11 factions of the Gangster Disciples. “It’s strictly who can help me make money,” he says. “Lines have become blurred and alliances have become very fragile.”
Carter says a gang narcotics dispute that started about six years ago is at the root of a lot of violence in his district.
Another change among gangs is the widespread use of YouTube, Facebook and other social media to taunt one another and spread incendiary messages. “One insult thrown on Facebook and Twitter becomes the next potential for a shooting incident on the street,” Carter says.
McCarthy, who has consulted with criminologists, has implemented several plans, including an audit that identifies every gang member and establishing a long-term police presence in heavy drug-dealing areas, aimed at drying up business.
In two districts, police also have partnered controversially with CeaseFire Illinois, an anti-violence group that has hired convicted felons, including former gang members, to mediate street conflicts. McCarthy, who has expressed reservations about the organization, is taking a wait-and-see attitude.
“It’s a work in progress,” he says. “It hasn’t shown a lot of success yet.”
AMONG THE DEAD: An 18-year-old walking on a sidewalk. A 36-year-old at a backyard party. A 28-year-old in a car two blocks from the police station. A 40-year-old convenience store clerk, on the job just two months.
In a storefront on 79th, Curtis Toler has a map of the street and surrounding area with 10 stick pins. Each represents a homicide in 2012.
Toler, a former gang member, spent much of his life causing chaos. Now, he’s preaching calm. As a supervisor at CeaseFire, his job is to ease tensions and defuse disputes before they explode.
Violence, he says, has become so commonplace, people are desensitized to death.
“I don’t think we take it as hard as we should,” he says. “When someone gets killed, there should be an uproar. But the ambulance comes, scoops them up, nobody says anything and it’s back to business.”
Toler’s own life was shaped by guns and drugs. “In the early ’90s, I was going to funerals back to back to back,” he says. “When you’re out there, you think you pretty much got it coming. It’s a kill-or-be-killed mentality.”
As he tells it, he was in a gang (in another neighborhood) from ages 9 to 30, including a six-year prison stint for involuntary manslaughter. He was shot six times, he says; he lifts a gray stocking cap pulled low over his head and presses a thumb over his right eyebrow to show the spot where a bullet struck. “I was blessed” to survive, he says, with a gap-toothed smile.
He was once so notorious, Toler says, that one day about a decade ago his grandmother returned from a community policing gathering and began crying. “She said, ‘The whole meeting was about you. … You and your friends are destroying the whole community. … You’re my grandson, but they’re talking about you like you’re an animal.'”
Now a 35-year-old father of four, Toler says he decided to go straight about five years ago. He knows some police don’t believe his transformation. He regrets things he’s done, he says, and for a time had trouble sleeping. “Life has its way of getting back at you one way or another,” he says. “I believe in the law of reciprocity.”
Toler’s message to a new generation on the streets: I keep asking them,’ What’s the net worth on your life? There is no price…. You only get one. It’s not a video game.'”