Last weekend, another 53 people were shot in Chicago. Nine fatally, including a 16-year-old named Joseph Briggs, who had been wounded in a shooting last year.
On Monday, June 11, just as the Chicago Police Department was announcing a new initiative in which officers would be working overtime on their days off, word came that a pregnant 17-year-old had been shot in the Marquette Park section of the city. That is the same neighborhood where another pregnant 17-year-old was shot and killed eight months ago.
In the earlier shooting, the gunman shot Charinez Jefferson in the face as she begged for her life, citing her six-month pregnancy. The gunman stood over her and fired repeatedly into her body. She was in cardiac arrest when she arrived at Advocate Christ Medical Center, but doctors managed to save her baby, who was named Kahmani. In Monday’s shooting, the victim was taken to the same hospital, after being struck in the shoulder by a stray round as she sat in her home. She was listed in stable condition and the doctors do not expect the pregnancy to be affected.
But when that young mother-to-be returns home, it will be in a city where she was not safe even sitting in her own living room. Crime is down overall in Chicago, but violence is way up, with 228 homicides as of June 11 compared with 169 during the same period last year, a spike of nearly 35 percent. Police say they are getting a handle on the mayhem, but in the meantime our president’s home city has a murder rate four times that of New York City. The number of Chicagoans murdered in the city since 2001 is more than twice the number of Americans killed in Afghanistan in that same period.
The same day as the shooting of the second pregnant teen in 10 months, Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina’s Roman Catholic Church sought to dramatize the city’s ongoing carnage by having 50 parishioners assemble in a church playground wearing white T-shirts stained with red. Nine of them lay down to represent those who died.
“I’m tired of hearing children terrorized that can’t go on their front porch, can’t go in their yard, can’t go on the playground to play,” Pfleger told the gathering. “The ‘Wild Wild West’ is coming to the Midwest.”
In the rectory Pfleger blamed a “perfect storm” of unemployment, failing schools, and program cutbacks for the surge in shootings. Funding is scarce. Guns are everywhere.
“And then you have a culture of violence,” Pfleger says.
On Friday, St. Sabina’s will mark the end of the school year with a peacemakers’ rally and march through Chicago. Those expected to attend include Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, who has devised a series of new strategies to reduce the gun violence, targeting in particular the gangs responsible for much of the shooting. He says shootings have begun to decline as these strategies take effect, but he would also be the first to admit that the number remains intolerable.
Even with hundreds of extra cops on overtime, the police can do little about the proliferation of guns in a state where you have to register a car but not a firearm. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is pushing legislation to change that, but in the meantime the Midwestern city remains wild.
“We just want them to treat guns like cars,” Pfleger says.
The National Rifle Association says it is opposing the measure out of concern for the Second Amendment rights of citizens, but Pfleger is certain it has more to do with the profits of the gun manufacturers.
“The NRA does not represent gun owners,” Pfleger says. “The NRA represents gun companies.”
In the meantime, Pfleger has parishioners instructing kids who are away at college to stay there. “Parents are telling kids, ‘Don’t come home to Chicago this summer,’” he reports.
Pfleger urges all who will listen to ignore the street stigma about snitching and become what he calls “nosy neighbors.”
“Tell what you see,” he says.
Pfleger believes everyone must play a part: “Parents have to step up. Neighbors have to step up. Communities have to step up.”
Parishioners are being told to instruct kids away at college to stay there. “Parents are telling kids, ‘Don’t come home to Chicago this summer.’”
Pfleger’s activism was born from ministering to heart-torn family members who have lost loved ones to guns. A number of these still grieving survivors are expected at the rally, along with Ondelee Pertee, 18, who was paralyzed from the neck down three years ago when he was shot at a party by a 15-year-old. “He’s going to tell people, ‘Don’t let this happen to you,’” Pfleger says.
Should anyone tell Pfleger it is a shame what happened to Pertee or any of the other victims, the priest will offer his standard response. “When people say to me, ‘Isn’t it sad?’ I say. ‘What are you doing about it?’ Everybody has a part in this.”
He hears the deafening silence from President Obama and our other national leaders regarding the carnage, but remains convinced that the Wild West Midwest can yet be tamed.
“I’m a prisoner of hope,” he says.