The Saturday afternoon shooting of a six-year-old little girl on the Southwest Side is tragic. Ridiculous. Enraging. My son is six.
When I lived in Little Village, I remember hearing gun shots from my bedroom window late Friday and Saturday nights. I called the cops. I went to CAPS meetings. I doubt it made a difference. Despite the dedication of many police officers and the difficult challenges they face, I know inequalities in police patrols exist.
In February, according to Naperville’s TribLocal, “Police received a tip that a boy about 7 to 10 years old was seen heading toward the woods with a man who was holding him by the arm at Country Lakes Park, in the 700 block of Genesee Drive. Officers then found a Mongoose bike in the park.”
I heard about this on the news. A massive search ensued.
Two days later, police suspended the investigation because their investigation found no evidence of illegal activity.
In an affluent community, suspicious behavior gains police investigation and massive media coverage. In low-income neighborhoods, is suspicious behavior expected and, therefore, ignored until an innocent child dies?
I thought I would live around 26th Street until I died. But when the gangs and gunshots got too close, I made the difficult decision to leave.
A vile bunch lives on the Southwest Side. Latin Kings and Latin Queens, the Two Six–male and female–float around looking for a place to perch, destroy, then disappear. These guys and girls presume themselves on street corners when it gets dark, clutching bottles, and passing cigarettes from hand to hand.
“Don’t you know the Lawndales only smoke blunts, muthafucka?” says a young punk to another puffing a cigar as I walk by the Little Village Academy playground. Pride is in their posture, but fear is in their glance.
It’s 7 p.m. It’s getting dark. The sun sets and more gangbangers scurry out like rodents. Black hoodies keep their bodies warm, their faces hidden. With nothing else to do, they are inseparable. They shout and sometimes shoot to get attention. Their booming cars roll by, thumping and sparking silver from polished chrome. These rowdy guys and girls wake the working class at night and make the sirens swirl and swirl like the chaos in their heads.
But my social consciousness should make me understand. Chicago, like most big cities, boasts inequality. Immigration isolates a population. Color traps someone. Color sets another free. But I can’t justify the gangs.
In April of 2002, just when the weather was starting to get nice, close to midnight on a Friday, a car crashed into a day-labor office on 27th and Lawndale. My wife and I were coming home when we turned the street and saw the fire with flames slapping the sky like giant flags. The crumpled Cadillac crackled as it roasted; the smoke dropped it scent on everyone who stared in fright.
Gangbangers surrounded it. The driver, a 22-year-old Latin King, stood shoeless with bandages wrapped around his head. A woman walked up, grabbed his powerless arm, and pleaded in Spanish, “Cuídense, mijo,” “Take care of yourselves.” He almost nodded in response. His eyes moved left and right; he wanted to hold someone’s hand.
The Cadillac’s front passenger lied shirtless on the sidewalk, his stomach rose and fell under the paramedic’s hands. In the streetlight, his face looked black with all the blood that spilled from his temple. His mother, recently arrived from working second shift, screamed into the sky. In her wrinkled work shoes, she spun and yelled without control–her insides must have trembled. She made fists from her frustration, went to hit a car window, then stopped and seemed to think that it might break. In panicked movements, she moved closer to the driver with the bandage on his head. He barely moved to mumble, “I’m sorry, Señora.”
The passenger’s father in his dusty baseball cap and old mechanic’s pants stared silently at his son bleeding on the cracked concrete. There was nothing he could do.
According to the neighbors, before the crash there were three gunshots, frightening as door slams, a couple blocks away. Then silence. Then two collisions. The old Caddy was rammed by a van, neighbors said. The driver lost control, then crashed into the building. Three of the passengers got out by themselves. The front-seat passenger was unconscious as the car began to burn.
“You have to get him out,” a neighbor shouted in Spanish at the guys. “He’ll burn!” The teens pulled out the sagging body through the window and laid him on the sidewalk. Nothing but the Caddy’s frame was left when the fire was extinguished.
According to the detectives, however, there was only one collision–the Cadillac with the building. “Usually when you get hit, crap falls off the bottom of your car or your lights break or somethin'”, the skeptical detective told a tiny crowd. “There’s no evidence of any impact on the street.”
The neighbors shouted, “No, there were . . .
“We heard . . .”
“Pero eso fue . . .”
“Before we saw . . .”
Some of them said they called 9-1-1 when they heard the shots. To the detective, those weren’t facts.
When he asked the driver what happened, the driver stared blankly and said he lost control. Gangbangers never tell the cops about their rivalries; it’s their own unspoken code.
Four months later, I left 26th Street after living there twenty-nine years. That last day, I looked at the bundles of books and boxes waiting to be carried away like sleeping children. I threw away old curtains wrinkled as tissue and stared at the overload of memories in a garbage can belonging to the city. The gangbangers won, I thought. I’m the one who has to leave.
But now I know I can still work to address the problems plaguing the Southwest Side. I convinced myself that I don’t have to live in Little Village to contribute to it. I can’t pay rent there anymore or chase away the gangsters smoking weed. But I can write about those blocks with broken sidewalks in a potent metaphor . . . or in a simile bolder than any gang graffiti.
I know this is no comfort to the families who lose a child to gang violence. Perhaps, however, if we demand preventative policing and make more phone calls and challenge the city to protect the innocent in Little Village and other struggling communities, we won’t see this tragic image:
When a child dies,
the father doesn’t cry.
His hands prepare to catch his wife
if she collapses like a curtain.
Then he ambles to a spot.
The mother shrieks.
She swoops to hug a heartbeat
but barely finds her own.
Her hands reach into the sky
to seize the clouds
and shake her child’s soul
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