As Yasmin Miller drove home from a laundromat in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood last weekend, a gunman in another car peppered her red Hyundai sedan with bullets, grazing her head and striking her son, Sincere Gaston, in the chest. Sincere died in his car seat. He was 20 months old.
On June 20, a man fired gunshots through the back of a dark blue SUV, wounding the 27-year-old man driving and hitting his stepson, Mekhi James, in the back, killing him. Mekhi was three.
Two other girls, both aged three, were hospitalized with gunshot wounds in separate incidents in recent days — one after her mother thought she heard fireworks and turned around to see her daughter collapsed on the ground.
These were just the toddlers.
In all, nine children under 18 have been killed since June 20 as Chicago reels from another wave of gun violence. The last two were killed on Saturday evening. A 14-year-old boy was shot to death on Chicago’s South Side. A seven-year-old girl was struck in the forehead by a bullet when three gunmen opened fire on a July 4 street party on the city’s West Side, police said.
“The Windy City is becoming the Bloody City,” said the Rev. Michael L. Pfleger of Saint Sabina Church, calling it the worst period in the 45 years he has worked on social issues. “I have never seen the despair, hopelessness and anger all mixed together at the level it is right now.”
The violence comes amid a wrenching debate nationwide about policing in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police. Those who defend the police say that the violence shows they need more support, not less, and that it is people living in high-crime areas who most need effective policing. Critics say the violence shows how police are failing the public, how deeply residents distrust officers and the need for reforms and the transfer of funds to address underlying problems, including unemployment, mental illness and drug use.
At least 336 people have been murdered in Chicago through July 2 of this year, according to the Chicago Police Department, a homicide rate on track to hit the 2016 record of 778 deaths, one of the deadliest years in decades. (New York City, with almost three times the population, had 176 murders as of June 28.)
Chicago had 658 murders in 2017, 567 in 2018 and 492 in 2019, according to Chicago police records.
Ahead of the July 4 weekend, Mayor Lori Lightfoot made an appeal to young men, who she said were responsible for the bulk of the shootings. “Think about the number of children that have been killed just in the last two weeks,” she said at a news conference. “Families that will not recover from this hardship. Mothers’ hearts that are broken, fathers’ hearts that are destroyed, grandparents who are living in mourning.”
Chicago isn’t alone. Before the coronavirus hit, homicides were escalating nationwide in early 2020, and although the lockdown brought a pause, they began rising again as the stay-at-home measures were lifted. A national study showed that homicide rates fell in 39 of 64 major cities during April and began creeping up in May.
The pandemic has added significant stress on the communities that already suffer the most violence. Impoverished neighborhoods like Englewood also have some of the highest rates of Covid-19 infections and deaths. Overall, there have been 53,375 known coronavirus cases in Chicago and at least 2,631 deaths, according to statistics from the state.
Unemployment in some of the most affected areas rose to 35 percent from 28 percent during the pandemic, said Father Pfleger. “That is the tragedy,” he said. “The bad situation in this city got even worse with the pandemic. It exposed the reality that Black and brown communities are disproportionately affected.”
“Because this is not one crisis, this is two crises operating at the same time, this could in fact be worse than what we saw in 2016,” said Thomas Abt, a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice and one author of the nationwide homicide study by Arnold Ventures, a philanthropy focused on criminal justice.
Distrust of the police is also a contributing factor as many residents of the hardest-hit neighborhoods feel reluctant to call on law enforcement, perhaps even more so since the death of Mr. Floyd and the nationwide protests against police brutality that followed it.
People who have lost trust in the police are more prone to settle scores on their own, experts said. “The lack of trust, the lack of confidence in police and the lack of willingness to use police, I think is going to have a broader effect,” said Mr. Abt.
The police too are feeling the strain as they try to confront both the violence in the city and the pandemic. “All of the people and organizations that we usually depend on to respond to homicide and violent crime are overburdened right now,” Mr. Abt said.
Chicago’s new police superintendent, David O. Brown, who took the job in April, had vowed to keep murders this year below 300. That benchmark has already fallen.
Mr. Brown called the open air drug markets on street corners “the precursors” to much of the violence, with the drug sellers employing teenagers with no criminal history so they will be released if caught.
Asked about how they are addressing the gun violence, he said that the police are confiscating guns — 4,629 so far this year, over 10,000 last year . He repeatedly appealed to the public for help, saying that residents knew something about the perpetrators in most cases.
A low rate in solving murders — it hovers around 20 percent — and the lack of protection for witnesses both play into the continued high murder rate, said criminologists. Murderers don’t expect to get caught and witnesses feel intimidated, they said.
The Chicago Police Department let its community policing program wither about two decades ago, said Wesley G. Skogan, of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University,. Now, young police officers canvassing unfamiliar blocks have found that residents do not open their doors out of fear of being seen talking to a police officer, he said.
Thomas Ahern, the police department spokesman, disputed the notion that community policing was being neglected. He cited Operation Clean, which works to spruce up neighborhoods including fixing streetlights, repairing damaged buildings and removing graffiti.
Many residents think that is not enough, however. The city needs to do more to protect witnesses, said Rev. Ira Acree of the Greater St. John Bible Church. “People want to tell, but they are afraid,” Rev. Acree told a community meeting that he organized to discuss the shootings, adding that people approach him repeatedly about doing the right thing. They tell him, he said, “I want to go to heaven, but I do not want to go this week.”
He called the death of children ”heartbreaking” for the community. “There was a time even in the gangs, there was some code of ethics, you would not bother the kids or the old ladies. They were off limits,” he said.
The debate over rising violence is also tangled in both local and national politics.
President Trump weighed in on the killings in late June, sending a letter addressed to Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lightfoot, saying that the Federal government could help revitalize distressed neighborhoods but “you must establish law and order.” The mayor accused the president of trying to play politics rather than to help.
Kimberly M. Foxx, the prosecutor for Cook County, has been a strong advocate for reducing the prison population through measures like release without bail, erasing marijuana convictions and not prosecuting low-level crimes like shoplifting.
The police union, also at odds with Mayor Lightfoot over her criticism of some of their actions during the recent unrest, opposes the bail policies.
Chicago’s toll has mounted steadily since Memorial Day weekend — when 85 people were shot and 24 killed — which usually ushers in summer violence. During a 24-hour period the next weekend, 18 people were murdered, the worst day in decades.
Some experts attribute the high numbers of children being killed to collateral damage from gunman leaving their fingers on the triggers of automatic weapons that they have never been trained to shoot.
For example, Amaria Jones, 13, was showing her mother a dance step when a bullet tore through a window and a television set before striking the girl in the neck, killing her. The gunman had opened fire from more than a block away, the police said.
At a memorial for Sincere Gaston, a giant poster bearing the words “Enough is Enough” showed the bright-eyed toddler grasping a green-topped milk bottle.
His parents, Thomas Gaston, 27, and Ms. Miller, complained that the police treated them like suspects, even though Mr. Gaston has participated in an anti-gang program. He was the intended target of the shooting that killed his son, the police said.
Ms. Miller said that detectives initially prevented her from seeing her son, demanding that she first divulge information about who might have carried out the killing. “Have some compassion for us, it hurts,” she said.
John Catanzara, the head of the police union, defended the decision, saying that investigators needed to collect as many details as possible while events were still fresh.
On the hot, humid day the memorial was held, about 100 people gathered under a white tent erected in an empty lot, releasing a flurry of red and blue balloons in Sincere’s honor. “He lit up the room. Everybody loved him,” his mother said. “I can do nothing without that little boy. I feel lifeless, I am lifeless.”
Mitch Smith contributed reporting.
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