On the same day as the Parkland school shooting, I found myself on the south side of Chicago, talking with the victims and perpetrators of a different, continuing massacre.
At the optimistically named Youth Peace Center of Roseland, M. told me of being shot six times in the back and head. “Until you lay in your own blood,” he said, “you can’t understand.” His friend D. has three bullet scars. “We was in a war,” he explained, “just like Iraq.” Not far away, the staff and participants at IMAN (Inner-City Muslim Action Network) were mourning the recent death of Steven Ward, who took part in the violence-prevention program. On his way home from taking his kids to a trampoline park, while stopped at the traffic light, Ward was executed in front of his family.
In the local newspapers, killings such as these rate a few paragraphs as “another gang-related homicide.” This does little to portray the horrifying reality: There are war zones within the borders of America. Though the numbers are recently down a bit, Chicago had more than 650 murders in 2017. Some young men take precautions appropriate to Beirut, circling their home block three or four times in search of any person or car that is out of place, before they will park. Others must be smuggled out of the city to avoid revenge killings.
Activists working with gang members describe a perfect storm of unintended consequences. The tearing down of Chicago’s high-rise, public housing monstrosities caused the diffusion of gang problems into other neighborhoods. Aggressive policing that put many gang leaders in prison also removed a source of structure in neighborhoods—leaving smaller groups (sometimes of three or four) engaged in chaotic, block-by-block warfare.
In this environment, relatively minor provocations—trash talk by a rap music star, social media disrespect, a stolen watch—can result in years of murder and revenge.
What can be done? Programs such as BAM (Becoming a Man) employ a form of group therapy to keep young men from going off track. During the session I attended at Phillips High School, students took turns sharing their personal struggles, building a kind of brotherhood. Role-playing is used to encourage values such as integrity, accountability and respect for women. And there is good preliminary evidence that participation in BAM significantly reduces violent crime and arrest.
But reducing gang violence also requires someone to enter the most damaged lives. At the Youth Peace center, young men leaving gang life are not only matched with jobs but with life coaches who take a daily interest in their success. At IMAN, older mentors are matched with young men, providing a father figure in largely fatherless lives. There is a waiting list to enter the program.
Both efforts are now getting serious help from an effort called Chicago CRED (Creating Real Economic Destiny), led by former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. With deep roots in Chicago, Duncan has tried to bring greater resources and a sense of urgency to the prevention of violence, in which progress is measured life by life. “This is not a second chance,” Duncan told me. “They didn’t have a first chance.”
The young men I met were disarmingly transparent and reflective. D. talked of having trouble getting up at 8 a.m. for work and learning it was not a good idea to “walk into jobs tweaking” (while high on drugs). All of the participants I met reported some rock-bottom moment when the downward trajectory of their lives became unacceptable. “My son is 4 months old,” M. told me. “If I had died, my kids wouldn’t know me. All they would have is a picture.”
Programs like these succeed by gathering a community in which young men from different gangs don’t view each other as “Ops” but as brothers. The only force sufficient to defeat retaliation is reconciliation. Which can be remarkable to witness.
When Duncan was young, his friend—basketball star Ben Wilson—was murdered by a 16-year-old named Billy Moore. “I hated him all my life,” Duncan told me. After serving almost 20 years in prison, Moore is now one of the life coaches at IMAN, working with Duncan to reclaim young lives.
A few months ago, Moore’s only son was murdered—shot 16 times. “If the young men who shot my son come through those doors,” Moore told me, “I would help them. In order to ask for forgiveness, I must extend forgiveness.”
Good public policy can promote order and justice. But ending the Chicago massacre will require miracles of mercy.