One afternoon last summer I was driving up Halsted around the vacant lots that have become the dried bones of the once-thriving Bronzeville neighborhood. While stopped at a red light I saw a group of boys, aged about 11 or 12, go bolting across the street - one of them carrying a baseball bat. I sat there eying them thinking where they might be going, what they might be up to. As my thoughts raced lamenting these boys who were too young to be going around in broad daylight doing crime, carrying weapons (as though there were an appropriate age for it) another boy, smaller than the rest came running up behind them. He was carrying a ball.
Long before Chicago children ever become victims of gangs, drugs, poverty or violence they find themselves the unwitting victims of our assumptions. Those assumptions matter because they are the very tools necessary to dismiss a good kid as a potential problem, or a not so good kid as an unrepentant sociopath. When do they ever get to speak their hearts about what's going on in the communities around them? What would a corpse in a child-sized coffin, or a pre-pubescent mugshot say if they could speak before they met their ends?
Staked into the lawn in front of Hyde Park Union Church (5600 S. Woodlawn Ave) is a row of solemn banners bearing the names of the more than 200 minors who have died in Chicago shootings since 2009. Every month the congregation holds a vigil following a Sunday morning service offering prayers for peace, reconciliation and adding that month's victims to the memorial.
Every month, without fail.
If there is a story to the violence in the streets of Chicago it is the story of two steps forward, two steps back. In 2011 violent crime in Chicago is actually down from 2010. Still, the number of police on the beat had to be increased due to the special visibility of people getting mobbed in the Gold Coast, and 2011 has already seen more shootings by police than in all of 2010. Kids, especially, are either doing the shooting or caught in the crossfire.
If violent behavior is learned then peaceful behavior can be as well. That's the intention behind the Peace Table series of dialogues between Chicago clergy and at-risk youth that began on Wednesday. Bring the kids and the peacemakers together for a meal where they can share their experiences and begin to build a relationship of trust that might break the seemingly endless cycle of grief. Instead of a preach-a-thon or a glorified vacation bible school where teens are brought in so a bunch of well-meaning adults can sit them down and tell them what's wrong with them, this effort strives to give the children a voice in the matter.
The topic questions for this maiden voyage of hope were:
What do clergy need to understand about the violence?
How do youth perceive clergy?
How can we work together to achieve peace in the city?
Deep questions for a group of teenagers who've so acclimated to violence around their communties that they've probably never really considered an alternative. Likewise for a collection of religious leaders unafraid to take a hard look at the reputed hypocrisy of their profession. For example, when Rev. Susan Johnson asked the question, "How many people here often view clergy as hypocrites?" the hands of about half the kids went up. But every single minister in the room had his or her hand raised in response. So, the order of business - if you could call it that - for this first meeting seemed to be to address the 'do as I say, not as I do’ attitude young men and women encounter in many churches. For my own part, while I have a lot of respect for many of the leaders of the strongest congregations in the city, for every earnest minister out there, there is one for whom preaching is simply a different kind of hustle - a way to comfortably retire from pimping. The ministers in the room held no illusions about the fact that in order to address the children authentically they have a lot of work to do.
Over a generous spread of sandwiches & desserts these community leaders did their best to hear what the kids need from them in order to turn away from the path that leads to violence & incarceration. The results of this single day were predictably mixed. While one young man stood up to the microphone to express his gratitude for an opportunity to meet with leaders and speak his mind, another sat back in his chair trying to hear but his mind was barely in the room. I asked him, "What would you be doing if you weren't here right now?" He matter-of-factly replied, "Making money. I'm sitting here thinking about all the money I'm missing [on the street] right now." For one, the Peace Table was a long-awaited opportunity to seek change; while another distractedly endured the proceedings which represented but a momentary interruption in his cash flow.
But he was present, and that’s what matters. One woman left the table, went to her car and returned with a book for the young man about the prison system and how it feeds on kids just like him.
"I'm going to be your mom." she told him. Later she told me she plans to keep an eye out for him on the block between now and the next meeting on August 24th.
It's just a beginning, but maybe a beginning is all we need right now. It will take time for a kid like him to find his voice about what's wrong. Up to now, he never knew he had one.
New Mayor, New Superintendent, New Opportunity
Absent from this initial Peace Table were the city's law enforcement and political leadership. But, it was very apparent that no significant progress towards peace can be made unless they are involved at least tangentially in these efforts.
One name that narrowly avoided being added to the memorial banner this week is that of Jimmell Cannon, the 13-year old boy shot 8 times by police who assert he was armed with a bb gun. While Jimmell lay in a hospital bed, felled by one of many tragic errors of judgement his grandmother, Pastor Collier Baggett of the Union Star Missionary Baptist Church on the West Side attended the Peace Table meeting (her interview with NBC Chicago). She had a lot to say about her experiences with the tenuous relationship between the police and the community.
"A young man got shot two weeks before [Jimmell], [the police reported] this gun was on the roof and fell down when he actually was on the 3rd floor. But my church was there to encourage the neighborhood to go out and stand up. Something else I noticed. When I lived on Hamlin and Ohio I saw a police car everywhere I went - I shared this with a bunch of reporters yesterday - in my neighborhood where I live now when my 14 year old does something they bring him home and tell him not to do it anymore. But if I come from the West side of Chicago and he does the same thing, he's going to jail . We as parents need to learn our communities and learn how to use them. Learn what the police, what the city are doing to our children. "
Chicago's new Superintendent of Police, Garry McCarthy gave an interview to WBEZ's Eight Forty-Eight on Tuesday to discuss recent shootings (including that of Jimmell Cannon) and his view of 'romanticized' gang activity. Superintendent McCarthy placed a high premium on earning the respect of his officers, going so far as attending the Chicago police academy before accepting the post. If the pieces are going to come together for a major change in how Chicago engages its youth, Superintendent McCarthy will have to place just as high a premium on earning the respect of parents and children in neighborhoods most affected by crime. So long as police activity is something that is done to our children and not for our children the gulf of fear and mistrust can never be bridged.
Our children deserve to be protected from crime, protected from despair, and protected from the assumption that they are somehow unredeemable. Right now, that's not happening. But this is a moment when things can change should the Mayor and the Chicago Police make the determination that they will finally be the ones to build a police force that places the safety of every Chicago child above every other interest or priority. They deserve no less. This table is set so that the at-risk youth, the weary clergy, the growing numbers of the bereaved might somehow organize the terrific mass of public grief into a better future for Chicago's kids. But, there is still an open chair. I hope somehow, some way the Chicago Police Department will also find their way to the Peace Table.
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