CHICAGO — This June was rocked by violence that left children dead and hundreds wounded by gunfire throughout Chicago.
The month saw some of Chicago’s worst violence in years: Murders, shootings and the number of shooting victims were all up more than 50 percent compared to last June. A 20-month-old was shot dead, as were other young children. One weekend at the beginning of the month saw 18 murders within just 24 hours.
Officials and experts, trying to explain what led to the surge, said June saw a “perfect storm”: There was the pandemic, unemployment and warm weather.
Those factors built on the things that have long fueled violence here: It comes from racist, longtime disinvestment in Chicago’s communities of color, and it will take more than police to change that, experts have said.
In all, Chicago saw 89 murders and 562 shooting victims in 424 shootings in June, according to data from the Chicago Police Department.
For all of 2020, there have been 329 murders, 1,676 shooting victims and 1,384 shootings — also significant increases from years past.
‘The Worst Possible Circumstances’
Experts at Chicago CRED, a group that works to end gun violence, think a number of things drove the violence this June, including coronavirus-related stress, job loss, the warm weather, kids being out of school for an extended period and low morale among police, said spokesman Peter Cunningham.
“None of us have a lot of certainty about which of these factors are most dominant. All we know is there’s way too much of it,” Cunningham said. “That younger and younger kids are at risk is especially dispiriting.”
The youngest of June’s victims was 20-month-old Sincere Gaston, who was shot dead Saturday in Englewood. Gaston’s father, Thomas Gaston, had been mentored by members of Chicago CRED, and the group and family held a vigil for the baby Wednesday.
Attendees there spoke passionately about stopping Chicago’s violence. Steve Gates, a mentor to Gaston and the manager of CRED’s Roseland efforts, said toxic masculinity can be found at the root of much of Chicago’s violence.
“Y’all got nephews [who] you know need help. You’ve got brothers, you’ve got sons. Call them,” Gates told a crowd at the vigil. “Before you pick up a gun, pick up the phone.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, speaking during a Wednesday press conference, pointed to the coronavirus pandemic as a driving force behind the month’s violence. The pandemic forced people inside for months, she said, and it led to the partial shutdown of jails, courts and federal law enforcement.
“The reality is, is that we have, in some ways, the perfect storm, which means the worst possible circumstances,” Lightfoot said.
Police Supt. David Brown has also pointed to COVID-19 as a cause for violence, saying it’s slowed down the criminal justice system. He’s also said violent offenders need to be held in jail longer rather than being released.
The pandemic and its problems have compounded existing issues that cause violence, like poverty, lack of hope and lack of access to “the things we know build healthy and strong families and communities,” the mayor said.
Lightfoot also said there are “way too many guns on the street.”
“Those challenges remain, but they’re all being kind of compressed in the same set of circumstances,” Lightfoot said.
Experts and activists have long said the roots of Chicago’s violence are in the racist disinvestment of Black and Brown communities.
“People do care about Black lives,” Ald. David Moore (17th) said Wednesday at a press conference where he and other Black leaders talked about how to end violence. “We have activists that stand up every day. We are out here.
“But at the end of the day, this is all from systemic racism.”
‘What We Can Do To Help’
The city is preparing for more violence over Fourth of July weekend, which typically sees an uptick in shootings and homicides.
Brown said Monday police will try to tamp down on crime this holiday weekend by sweeping drug corners and arresting young people there — a plan for which he’s faced heavy criticism. There will also be 1,200 extra officers on the streets Thursday through Sunday.
It’s a strategy used previously by Chicago Police over holiday weekends, but it’s seldom been spelled out like Brown did.
Experts said the plan would sow distrust among community members, expose more people to coronavirus in outbreak-ridden jails and punish young people without providing a longterm solution to violence.
The controversial plan comes at the same time as there’s been renewed calls to defund police by advocates who say officers brutalize and over-police communities of color, contributing to the cycle of violence.
Cunningham said he worries pressure on the city to address the rising gun violence creates a tendency to rely on “old-school tactics.” “Flooding the zone” — or increasing police presence, as police plan to this weekend —could undermine the community’s trust at a time trust needs to be rebuilt, he said.
They’re taking another approach: The organization’s Flatlining Violence Inspires Peace program will employ about 300 participants in its violence prevention programs as mediators over the Fourth of July weekend, as it does every Wednesday-Saturday. The mediators help deescalate conflicts at “hot spots” with the potential for violence, Cunningham said.
“Right now these young men caught up in these lives need help. That’s the most important thing, that we try and show them a different path and give them a way out,” Cunningham said.
Lightfoot defended Brown’s strategy Wednesday, but she also said the city won’t be able to rely on police to end its violence.
“I do not and never thought you could solve the issue of public safety with law enforcement alone. That’s been a strategy; that strategy’s never worked,” Lightfoot said.
Instead, Lightfoot said, the city needs to team with community members for longterm solutions.
“I think in this time where we are definitely challenged — there’s no question about it — each of us needs to think about what we can do to help in making sure our communities are safe,” Lightfoot said. “… Putting resources and investments in neighborhoods goes a long way. Making sure that people have the same access to jobs, to health care and all the other social safety net offerings that build [vibrant communities].
“We have to do better. The status quo obviously is not working.”
Members of the Joint Caucus of Black Elected Officials are also looking for solutions: On Wednesday, they unveiled a plan to stop the violence that has plagued parts of Chicago.
They want to reestablish the state’s African American Family Commission to create solutions to address racial inequities in health, education and economic opportunities.
They also want to pass the Urban Progress Act, which would provide communities with sustainable economic development by preserving rental housing assistance and giving grant money to states for youth summer employment programs, among other things.
The caucus also hopes to strengthen the Police Department’s witness protection program so residents feel safe enough to speak up, said Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), echoing the call local activists made last week.
And Dowell, who was joined by Moore and Rep. Sonya Harper (D-IL), said the group wants to ensure violence intervention organizations are funded on the city and state level.
“It’s not just about social services, but it’s also about ways we increase business development, job development, ways to put money in their pockets on a sustained basis,” Dowell said. “All of these pieces form a comprehensive plan so that we can take our community out of the intensive care unit.”
Lightfoot also called for Chicagoans to “dig down deeper” and “put our arms around” children who are struggling amid the violence, Lightfoot said. Families, violence interrupters and others will all play a role in ending violence here, she said.
“This won’t get solved without a holistic, all-hands-on-deck approach,” Lightfoot said. “Now is the time for us as Chicagoans to rise to this challenge.”
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.