Like everyone else’s, my heart breaks for the family and friends of Hadiya Pendleton. All of the gun violence in this city—in this country—is out of control, and each killing feels more and more senseless. This time, I don’t want to talk about gun control; there’s no sense in dialoguing with the type of people who believe that any suggestion of increased gun safety is a violation of their God-given rights. (Because, as declared in Mean Girls, “on the third day, God created the Remington bolt-action rifle, so that man could fight the dinosaurs. And the homosexuals.”) Instead, I want to talk about the issue of gangs and their territories. One theory behind Pendleton’s shooting is that a gang member, defending his turf, mistakenly assumed the teenagers at Harsh Park were rivals and so he began shooting—because, I mean, that’s your instinct whenever you see people you don’t recognize, right?
See, it’s easy to be flippant, to completely disregard the motive here and once again blame the gangs for their irrational and unforgivable actions. But is this whole “turf mentality” so different from the mindset of the rest of our city, gang-affiliated or not?
It’s no secret that Chicago is a divisive city. Up until this point, most Chicagoans have been largely dismissive of all the gang violence. “Just let them all shoot each other until no one’s left,” has been the unspoken—or sometimes even the spoken—response to their fighting. As long as they kept it in “their” neighborhood, then it wasn’t a problem that “we” needed to concern ourselves with. But this shooting was different. It was in a park, in a decent and improving neighborhood. And so maybe it’s not only the fact that an innocent teenager was shot that upsets us: it’s the fact that she was shot while in a seemingly safe, public place. In this light, our indignation is not just caused by the senseless loss of a promising life (though, to be sure, that is a significant cause of it)—the indignation is that the gangs have brought their ways to “our” territory. And if we take steps to protect our turf, how is that any different from what the gangs are doing to each other?
Listen, I hate what these gangs have done to their neighborhoods and to the children who live there. But let’s be honest. If you grew up in the same place, with the same circumstances, would you have turned out any different? We are all human, and have more in common than most would like to admit. Yes, the gang members need to take responsibility for their crimes and stop sabotaging themselves. But everyone else who’s just watching idly needs to stop viewing these gangs like they’re a dying animal gasping for its last breath. Ignoring the gang problem has led to the deaths of innocent people, and if we let too many more people die, the blood will be on all of our hands. Instead of just focusing on your own neighborhood or your own suburb, support the police, support the schools, and support the public spaces—like libraries, parks, and transportation hubs—that provide the structure and pride that give children the confidence and foresight to see a future beyond gangs. It’s not just an investment in them. It’s an investment in everyone.