Call To End ‘Gang Warfare’ In Obama’s Chicago
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Matt DeMateo clearly remembers the day he had to tell his five-year-old daughter that her schoolmate had been shot dead on a porch.
The girl, Aliyah Shell, six, was an innocent victim in one of the hundreds of shootings that have blighted some of Chicago’s poorest communities this year.
Her death in March refocused attention on gun violence in America and led to the Windy City’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, publicly challenging the killers, telling a news conference: “How dare you?”
In some of Chicago’s most deprived areas, where Barack Obama prepared for his political career as a community activist, people such as Mr DeMateo are hoping whoever is elected president will act to end the bloodshed.
Guns are easily bought in his neighbourhood of Little Village, in the west of the city.
The 30-year-old pointed to scenes of shootings on virtually every block as he gave Sky News a tour of the area.
They are easy to spot because they are often marked with shrines made of beer bottles left by fellow gang members. Gang graffiti tags are everywhere.
He told how Aliyah’s murder just a short drive from the house he shares with his wife and three children left his daughter fearing that they too would be shot.
“When you see and hear those kind of things growing up in a neighbourhood, it has a deep effect on people,” he said. “It’s traumatic.”
Mr DeMateo runs a mentoring scheme for teenagers who have been put on probation for firearms offences.
He says his Christian organisation, New Life Centre, has had huge success turning young people’s lives around and he insists the area is mostly a vibrant and friendly community, not the “Godforsaken place” he says it is often portrayed as.
Sporting events run by the centre along with the YMCA tend to coincide with a drop in violence reported to police, he says, because teenagers who would otherwise be causing trouble are off the streets.
But he says they face an uphill battle as rival gang factions, whose members include boys as young as 13, engage in a turf war in which innocent victims such as Aliyah Shell are caught in the crossfire. The shooting in which she died was a retaliation to the killing of a 19-year-old man who had been helped by New Life Centre.
“We try to show young people that there’s more to life than violence, but it’s hard,” he said. “There’s no magic bullet. It’s not easy to keep hearing moms wailing at funerals. I don’t want to hear that sound any more.”
He questions whether his organisation’s funding could be hit if Mr Obama were to lose to Mitt Romney, although the president is currently predicted by polls to be in line for a second term in the White House.
“A lot of the things we’ve got in the neighbourhood could be cut back,” he said. “It could be harmful.”
Emmy Lozano, 56, has lived in Little Village for 30 years. Each night as she goes to bed, she wonders if she will see her 16-year-old grandson alive again.
The boy, Manuel, has been sucked into a gang and not long ago he needed surgery after rivals set upon him, smashing his elbow with a plank of wood. She found him bleeding in the street.
“The president needs to do more for us,” said Ms Lozano. “We need more money here. We have so many empty plots of land that aren’t being used – why can’t they create green spaces where these kids have something to do?
“It’s scary here. I want to leave. I hear gunshots every week. We’ve lost a lot of young kids and too many mothers have suffered.”
One ex-gang member helped by New Life Centre, a 17-year-old who cannot be named, told Sky News how he was arrested when he was 14 for carrying a gun. “I was on my way to kill a guy from another gang. I don’t know why, I just had it in my head to do it.”
He had joined a gang a year earlier when he started using marijuana and cocaine. “It was dumb. Being in a gang seemed like a good life. It was all b*******.”
Chicago’s murder rates have fallen in the past ten years, but so far this year more than 440 people have been killed – greater than the death toll for all of last year. The murder rate here is higher than in New York or Los Angeles.
The city has attempted to deploy extra police to the worst-hit areas, but Mr DeMateo shrugs when he is asked about the police. “Police alone aren’t the answer,” he said. “There are many parts to the puzzle. We need to get to the cause of the problem.”
A few miles away from Little Village, in Chicago’s South Side, Father Michael Pfleger spent Sunday morning urging his congregation to vote and offering them free lifts to polling stations.
The unconventional Catholic priest at Saint Sabina’s church is one of the city’s most outspoken critics of guns and says he wants “whoever the next president may be” to ban assault weapons. Outside his church is a glass display containing pictures of local people who have been gunned down.
Fr Pfleger is quite a presence as he preaches in a style hard not to compare to an evangelist. On Sunday he danced to gospel music against the backdrop of a huge painting of a black Jesus and in front of a predominantly African-American audience before telling them: “You must vote. It is your obligation.”
There is clear support for Mr Obama here – one parishioner was wearing a jacket bearing a large print of a smiling president, while others wore T-shirts branded with the Obama campaign logo.
Fr Pfleger hinted at his own liberal political leanings when he said things such as: “You can’t be pro-life and not be against strong gun control in the community where these guns are killing our children.”
After the Mass he told Sky News the local neighbourhood of Auburn Gresham had recently seen a drop in shootings after several gangs agreed to stop fighting. He hopes gang members stick to the truce, but says that cannot happen unless jobs or education opportunities are found for them.
“Communities have post-traumatic stress from this violence that’s rampaged … where teddy bears and police tape have become the new landmarks,” he said.
“It’s an undeclared war in urban America, but America has pretty much turned its back because the primary victim of this war is black and brown, and so they’ve ignored it.
“Whoever becomes the next president on Tuesday, we’ve got to put the pressure on them to deal with the guns, violence, education and poverty.”
Asked if he felt it was Mr Obama’s direct responsibility to tackle the issue, he said: “I don’t think anybody in America or in the last generation of presidents has done enough to deal with violence. Part of that is our fault – we haven’t forced them.”
Koron Nash, 32, who works for a scheme that finds jobs for young people in Auburn Gresham, said it was “unfair” to expect Mr Obama to do everything and said the media made too much of violence in the city.
“The majority of people here are good people,” he said. “There is violence, there is anger, but I don’t have a problem with that anger – it’s just directed at the wrong people.
“We’ve got brothers shooting brothers, instead of directing that frustration at getting out of the mess that they’re in.”
His friend Tina Wallace, 35, a stay-at-home mother, said: “Things aren’t as bad as they used to be.”
Teacher Delores Wedgeworth, who lives near the church, said people were “realistic” that Mr Obama cannot tackle violence on his own.
“We know it’s not going to happen overnight, that unemployment is just going to go away. But it’s human nature to be impatient.”
Article source: http://news.sky.com/story/1006970