An unconventional approach to Chicago’s misunderstood gun violence

Young Chicago artists created a mosaic mural in Pilsen to honor victims of gang violence and promote peace. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL)

By Marisa Endicott

January saw its highest death toll from gun violence since 2000 in Chicago this year. There have been over 416 shootings in 2016 to date, 32 of them over this past weekend.

The numbers highlight the deep roots of gun violence in Chicago and the city’s inability to combat the problem.

While overall crime has decreased more than 37 percent since 2011, according to the Chicago Police Department at year’s end, shootings rose in 2015, and certain Chicago neighborhoods bear the brunt of gun violence.

Raymond McDonald, 22, grew up in the Cabrini-Green rowhouses on the Near North Side. Gun violence has affected his life, “definitely…indefinitely,” he said. Just last summer, unknown assailants shot up the basketball court where he and some friends were playing. His brother was hit but survived, but many others don’t.

“Some Chicago communities suffer murder rates equal to Central American cities,” said Stephen Franklin, the Community and Ethnic Media manager at Public Narrative and a journalist who has covered and researched violence in Chicago for years. “Poverty and racial isolation are the major reasons, and these situations are greater [here] than in any other major city.”

Chicago gun violence
Raymond McDonald, 22, stands in front of his childhood home in the Cabrini-Green rowhouses. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL)

With no foreseeable end to the violence around them, some community members like Tamar Manasseh have taken matters into their own hands.

Manasseh founded the grassroots organization Mothers Against Senseless Killing (MASK) after the shooting death of a teenage girl her daughter’s age. “The same way that this could happen to this really good kid, it could happen to my really good kid,” Manasseh said. “I can’t live in a world where something happens to one of my kids, and I just sat back and let it happen.”

MASK made waves last summer when the ever-growing coalition of mothers and others set up shop on a corner in Englewood to discourage retaliation against a recent murder there. When their tactics appeared to work, they decided to stay, remaining on the block for 66 consecutive days. The group built ties in the neighborhood, hosting cookouts and bringing positive press.

Manasseh maintains it was a concerted effort, and that community pride had a lot to do with the initiative’s success. “They wanted the world to see us as who we are – as people, as human beings – not as these animals that the media sometimes portrays us as,” she said.

Her frustration with the media is nowhere more apparent than in her criticism of Spike Lee and his recent film, “Chiraq,” in which women in Chicago withhold sex in an effort to stop gang violence.

“There was no real sensitivity in it,” Manasseh said. “He tried to make that story fit Chicago…instead of writing a story for Chicago.”

All summer long, Manasseh and MASK were camped a mile away from Lee’s film crew, her 17-year-old son barbecuing for the community and her 19-year-old daughter “makin’ resumes for the boys on the block,” Manasseh said. “And you mean to tell me if I were to have closed my vagina, that’s the only way that violence stops? No… It’s a group of mothers sitting out on a corner. And for you to say that that had something to do with sex at all… How dare you?”

It’s not just Hollywood that gets it wrong. “Today’s coverage of black violence tends to blame the victims and continually ignore the long range problems and solutions,” Franklin said. “This would not happen if crime took place on the same level in wealthier white communities.”

Compounding the problem is distrust. The Laquan McDonald video has put even more strain on an already troubled relationship between police and low-income minority communities.

Raymond McDonald said he will never trust a system founded in racial oppression. Even if there are good cops out there he sees them as guilty by association, similar to how police see gang bangers, he added.

Fed up with the stalemate and slow, contested progress, Manasseh and MASK took a less conventional approach to the problem.

“We can’t keep doing the same things over and over again expecting different results,” Manasseh said.

And building bridges within the community is a big part of that plan. Manasseh maintains that demonstrating against gang bangers and drug dealers in the neighborhood isn’t the way to achieve results.

“You have to build relationships with them” Manasseh said. “You have to treat them with the same love that you would treat your children.” She acknowledges and respects the inherent difficulty in this philosophy but added, “If you treat them the way the rest of the world treats them, they will behave that way.”

Chicago police have initiated an administrative shakeup, renewed minority recruitment and new training programs, but only time will tell if they are successful.

In the meantime, Manasseh is focused on redoubling MASK’s efforts for the months ahead. “While there is violence now,” she said, “there will be so much more in the summer.”

Photo at top: Young Chicago artists created a mosaic mural in Pilsen to honor victims of gang violence and promote peace.  (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL)