The Absence of Hope (Part 1)

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ChicagoPhoto courtesy of Blueskywebsite.com

Chicago!  I love this city! It’s vibrant – not too fast but, not too slow.  Big but, not too big. The people are friendly with a Midwestern sensibility and really like to have a good time.  You can find some of the best food in the country (you knew that would be important to me) and it has a wide variety of arts and entertainment.  On many fronts Chicago is the Midwest at its very best!    On the other hand, like many other cities, Chicago has its fair share of problems:  high unemployment, poverty, segregation, poor public schools and high crime.  It’s the last one that has garnered some national attention and has me doing some soul-searching.

When we left Illinois for Texas, my twenty-two year old son desperately wanted to stay in Chicago and live with my sister.  I totally understood how he felt because after all, his life was there.  Not to mention that I felt the same way.  After some consideration, my sister and her husband told him that they thought it was not a good idea.  Although they live in a very nice neighborhood, he would have to cross out of that neighborhood to get anywhere (school, work, friends) and considering his age and race, they were concerned for his safety.  I totally understood how they felt, also.  It is true that portions of that city have turned into a war zone, particularly for Black males between the ages of 15 to 25.    He wasn’t pleased nor did he understand, at the time.

I don’t even know where to begin.  I have been tossing this around in my head for some time trying to figure a few things out: 1) Why does the situation in Chicago, and other urban areas to a lesser degree, weigh so heavily on my heart?; 2) What do I think is the root cause(s)?; and 3) What could be some solutions or at least interventions.  I’m going to tell you now that I may be misinterpreting some of the issues and I certainly don’t think that I have some definitive answers.  I guess what I really want is to put it out there, in your face, and mine, so that we can’t avoid it, because it is an issue that deserves more than talking heads in the media pontificating and reporting as if it’s a movie.  It deserves a national outcry for some sort of action.  As you read, I want you to keep in mind that this is NOT a political post but, rather, a post from a mom and a member of a community, and not just the African – American community but, also the community known as the United State of America.

The violence is nothing new.  You may or may not remember this but,  back in 1994 there was a boy named Robert Sandifer.  His friends and family called him “Yummy” because of his love for junk food. By age 11, Robert had quite and extensive criminal record that included murder, arson, armed robbery and drug possession.  Yes, at age 11.  He sought to join a street gang and one summer evening he went on a violent shooting spree that left 14-year-old Shavon Dean dead.  Many thought that his actions were part of a botched gang initiation.

Sandifer The country was in shock and a massive manhunt by the Chicago Police Department was underway for Sandifer.   They found him, or shall I say, his body with two bullet holes to the back of the head.  He had been executed by those very people he sought to be a part of because his actions had brought too much heat and attention to the gang.  I cried a lot that day and many days thereafter.  As horrible as I thought his crimes were (and they were indeed horrible), the very people who this little boy wanted to accept him, killed him as if he was disposable, because to them, he was.  He was 11.  He had no idea what he was dealing with but, he knew that he wanted to belong to someone, that he wanted to matter somewhere.  I found this whole situation – his life and his death – heart breaking.  I still have a copy of this Time magazine.  I kept it for my son and when he was old enough (he was only 4 at the time) I made him read it, then we talked about it.  Even though I would die to protect him from this sort of thing, I wanted him to know exactly what was out there waiting for him, who they were and what they were capable of.

Admittedly, one aspect of this situation that was really hard for me to understand was what kind of home life this kid must have had to be a known wanted criminal at the age of 11.  Coincidentally, at the time, I was teaching Junior Achievement at a school just outside of Cabrini Green, a public housing complex just west of  downtown Chicago, that has since been torn down.  I taught a class of second graders who had lived a heck of a lot more in their young lives than I could have ever imagined.  Some of them had experienced loss, violence and neglect, while others had loving families who just happened to be living in less than ideal circumstances.  Do you know that while they could see the Chicago skyline from their homes and school, many of them had never been downtown, which was less than five miles away?  While I taught, they shared their lives with me, while trying to relate it to the curriculum.  Often I was sad but, often I was amused by their stories and amazed by their optimism and resilience.  You know the biggest lesson that they taught me was that no one is to be discounted.  Although they were caught in a quagmire of violence and poverty, not all of them would succumb.  Some of them would rise to be shining stars!

Since then, there has been a macabre parade of violent incidents, inside and outside of the African-American community and not just in Chicago, but across the nation.  We have witnessed mass shootings at (and in no particular order) Columbine, the Century movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, Northern Illinois University, the Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Virginia Tech and most recently Newtown, Connecticut.   I’m sure that I have missed some.  All horrific, tragic and senseless.  Each one, understandably, caused public outcry and mourning.  We took to social media to voice our concerns and give our condolences and it was with one voice that we did so.  Regardless of race, age, gender or socioeconomic standing, we came together as one American voice… hurting.

Now, let me give you a statistic that you may not be aware of but, will definitely blow you away.  Since 2001, 2,000 troops have been killed in Afghanistan, including shootings, roadside bombs and accidents.  In that same time period 5,000 Chicagoans have lost their lives to gun violence. Is that not unbelievable?!  By and large, a good portion, if not the majority of the victims have been African-American.  Some say that it is safer for a young, Black male to be in Afghanistan than it is for him to be on the streets of Chicago.  This is beyond disturbing to me but, what’s worse is that there is no public outcry, there’s no national debate on what to do or how to help and there are no candles being posted on Facebook in loving memory of those lost (I really don’t think this is necessary and I rarely participate but, it is symbolic and since we do it for other victims, why don’t we do it for them?) .  There is fear, mostly of the people who come from the same community as these victims, yet we are not reaching out to these mothers and fathers in these communities and asking “What can we do for you?” as they grieve.  Why not? Where are we?

These are questions that I have been asking myself a lot lately.  I am not pointing fingers here, I am being inclusive of myself.  This is not an African-American tragedy, this is an American tragedy and I’m going to tell you why in my next post. It affects all of us and it doesn’t matter where that bullet comes from or in what neighborhood the shot was fired or the color of the perp or the victim, the end result is the same.  And, it feels the same to those left behind.  I’m going to leave you with a photo of one of the latest victims, 6-month-old Johnylah Watkins who was the unintended target of an assailant that was shooting at her father as he changed her diaper in the front seat of his car.  Rest in peace, pretty girl.

Watkins  Photo Courtesy of uptownmagazine.com

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