Six-year-old Aliyah Shell was sitting between her mother’s legs on the family’s front steps when the stolen gray pickup truck approached through an uncommonly perfect spring afternoon. The baby-faced teenager who reached out the passenger-side window looked young enough to be playing with the other kids who were bouncing balls and skipping rope on this sunny residential block in Chicago. He had a gun in his hand.
“TSK!” he shouted. “What’s up, bitches?”
TSK stood for Two Six Killers. Two-Six is one of 73 major Chicago gangs that were once unique in being as highly organized and structured as Mafia crime families. The official Gang Book of the Chicago Crime Commission still lists a host of middle-aged bosses, but the supreme leaders are all either imprisoned or dead. And the once-mighty organizations have splintered into more than 300 factions with as many as 130,000 members, the majority of them young gunslingers now governed only by their own impulses. Police say these deadly “shorties” include a 16-year-old Latin King nicknamed "Murder" who now began firing at Aliyah’s front steps. Murder would later tell cops that he saw her and her 2-year-old sister in the line of fire, but began blasting anyway with the hope of hitting the mother’s boyfriend, who stood nearby.
The mother, Diana Aguilera, had been untangling Aliyah’s hair in preparation for heading off to a birthday party. She now pushed the 2-year-old behind her while simultaneously leaning forward to shield Aliyah in a desperate attempt to protect both her girls from the sudden gunfire. Aliyah jumped up as if to flee back into the house, then collapsed. She was one of at least 49 people shot that third weekend of March in America’s Second City, the city our president calls home. Others shot in the days ahead include 29-year-old Robert Fort, who lives around the corner from the Obama home and had survived two previous shootings. He was standing just two blocks from Obama’s house and his own early last Saturday morning, when a black SUV pulled up and someone inside fired 14 times. Fort was struck by eight bullets, but he survived this third shooting and was listed in stable condition at Northwest Hospital.
Aliyah was not so fortunate despite the best efforts of the trauma team at Mount Sinai Hospital, which has had much too much practice with gunshot wounds. She became among the 10 who died that weekend. Her family and neighbors gathered in the yard at the school where she always arrived with her homework complete and loved to play basketball. They released dozens of white balloons that sailed high over a city where crime is down overall by 10 percent but shootings are up more than 30 per cent thanks largely to the shorties and a seemingly endless supply of guns.
The word “Murder” was entered as both the nickname and the charge after Luis Hernandez was arrested along with another alleged Latin King, 18-year-old Juan Barazza, who police say drove the pickup truck. Barazza wore a Department of Corrections yellow jumpsuit when the two appeared in Cook County Criminal Court, but Hernandez was still young enough to have on a blue t-shirt stenciled with JOTC, standing for Juvenile Offender Temporary Center. They both stood charged as adults and faced the judge as impassively as if it were all just what was to be expected. Hernandez clasped his hands behind his back, the fingers slender, almost delicate, needing a weapon to have conveyed any menace.
The brief hearing happened to be on Good Friday. Aliyah’s mother was at home, facing the prospect of Easter without one of her little girls. She had planned to dress them in identical outfits, just as she had last year.
“Poofy dresses,” the mother said. “They were my Easter girls.”
The 2-year-old toddled over and extended her arms. The mother swept her up and the child snuggled close. She appeared at once stunned and anxious as she gazed about at a world suddenly bereft of the sister who had been her singular point of reference.
“She can’t find herself,” the mother said.
Out in the sun-splashed street where other youngsters were once again playing and birds were chirping from budding trees, cops had pulled over a red sedan in the most traditional manifestation of an effort to curtail the shooting by the shorties. One of the cops searched the interior as his partner kept watch on three teens who stood silently with their hands on the hood.
“Our streets do not belong to gangbangers,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel had declared in the aftermath of Aliyah’s death. “I will not allow a child in Chicago to not have—as long as I’m mayor and I have something to do about it—the most basic of rights, which is the ability to play in their neighborhood, play on their streets, and grow up with that sense of normalcy.”
The city’s new police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, had spent his months reorganizing the department to better address crime in general. He was now recruiting such law enforcement visionaries as David Kennedy of John Jay College and Tracey Meares of Yale to join in antigang strategies that go far beyond car stops. The approach begins with “audits” that identify the members and turf of each faction and their potential opponents, so the cops can move to prevent retaliation after a shooting.
The police then sit down with the factions and begin by providing them with contacts for various social-service agencies. The police will also impart a warning: if even one of you decides to settle something with gunfire, we will come down hard on all of you. The intended result is to impose another kind of structure on the gang by making all the members to answer for the actions of the individuals.
“Group accountability,” McCarthy says.
McCarthy is also mindful of what Meares and her colleagues call “police legitimacy.” Their research has established that people are more likely to comply with the law when those who enforce it treated them with fairness and due respect. The police need to be viewed as acting with moral as well as legal authority.
At the same time, McCarthy is seeking to include everybody from elected officials to educators to religious figures to business leaders to community service providers in a concerted, coordinated effort to reduce the violence.
“All these concepts are coming together,” McCarthy says. ‘I got a plan.”
Meanwhile, the shooting continues. Two hooded figures with guns suddenly materialized by the steps where 13-year-old Roberto Adrian Luna was sitting with two friends on the night before Easter.
“Two-Six,” one of the figures said.
‘Our streets do not belong to gangbangers,’ Mayor Rahm Emanuel declared in the aftermath of Aliyah’s death.
The figures began firing before Luna and his friends had a chance to rightly say they were not involved in any gang. Both the friends were wounded. Luna was struck numerous times and died in the arms of his older brother, who came running from two stoops away.
“He was just gasping for air,” the brother, Mario Lopez, recalls. “I tried to clean the blood from his mouth. I told him, ‘Breathe! Breathe! Breathe!’ He just give me the look that he was in a better place.’”
On Easter, a parish priest sprinkled holy water on the latest steps in Chicago to be stained with the blood of a dying innocent, declaring that this time it was young Roberto and next time it could be anybody. Somebody set down an Easter basket and a stuffed animal. Others brought balloons and candles.
The makeshift shrine also included a recent school assignment. Roberto had responded to a series of questions about slavery. One asked what he would miss most if he were enslaved.
“I would miss all the free rights I had and all the activities like sports,” he had written, the penmanship neat, the spelling perfect.
At the top of the lined notebook paper, the teacher had bestowed a grade that now stood as a measure of this most recent loss to a bullet.
“ 10/10 :) ”