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Gangs and guns fuel Chicago’s summer surge of violence

July 20, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
In Chicago, the number of shooting deaths has climbed in 2015 after falling the last two years. Vonzell Banks was one of the victims -- a 17-year-old church choir drummer, who got caught in the crossfire during a family outing over the July 4th weekend. Special correspondent Chris Bury reports on what’s driving the violence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Chicago this summer, police are dealing with an unsettling spike in violent crime, after a drop in the homicide rate over the last two years, this weekend, 11 dead and 34 injured.

More now from special correspondent Chris Bury.

CHRIS BURY: In Chicago, this is the season of sorrow and grief. Every summer, tears flow as the body count climbs with the temperatures. This is the killing season.

Many of those killed are kids filled with promise, including Vonzell Banks, just 17. For his family, the pain is unbearable. But so many young people like him are dying that the whole city is grieving, too.

MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL, Chicago: Do you think it’s too much for a city to let parents see their kids graduate?

CHRIS BURY: Even Chicago’s hard-charging mayor, Rahm Emanuel, had to choke back his tears.

MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: I will tell you this as a father of three. This is not natural. This is not right. They deserve better.

CHRIS BURY: By all accounts, Vonzell Banks deserved better, too, playing by the rules, staying out of trouble, spending time at church. They called him drummer boy for his talent keeping the beat for the choir.

For his pastor, Derail Smith, the pain is personal. He watched Vonzell grow up.

REV. DERAIL SMITH, Pastor, Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer: He was brought up in a traditional type family where it was yes, sir, yes, ma’am, and thank you very much, and I appreciate you, those type of things.

So, therefore, there was never any indication for me to see that he had any type of interaction with drugs or with any type of violence. He wasn’t that, no, not at all.

CHRIS BURY: So a good kid.

REV. DERAIL SMITH: Absolutely. Absolutely.

CHRIS BURY: That promising life ended during a family outing over the July 4 weekend at this playground, a gritty slab of asphalt on the city’s South Side. In a bitter irony, it had recently been renamed for Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old honor student whose killing drew national attention when she was shot to death in another park just days after performing at President Obama’s second inauguration.

Her parents were beyond dismayed to learn of Vonzell’s killing here.

NATHANIEL PENDLETON, Father of Hadiya: I was devastated. The park, you know — we just got the park renamed, and already, you know, there was a murder here.

CLEOPATRA COWLEY-PENDLETON, Mother of Hadiya: My emotions really got the best of me, to be perfectly honest, because the situations were so similar between what happened to my daughter and what happened to their son.

CHRIS BURY: Like Hadiya Pendleton and so many others in Chicago, Vonzell Banks died from a bullet intended for someone else, in this case, a gang member who ran onto this basketball court fleeing a rival. Police say the gangbanger pulled out a gun and fired indiscriminately, hitting Banks in the back. His cousin, also shot, survived.

CLEOPATRA COWLEY-PENDLETON: Vonzell died in his father’s arms. A father not only lost his son. He held him as he took his last breath.

CHRIS BURY: Already this year, Chicago has seen more than 1,100 shootings, the number of murders, more than 200, climbing again after dropping each of the last two years. Summer nights are the worst.

PAULEY LAPOINTE, News Photographer: It’s definitely related to heat. There’s definitely more shootings when it gets warm out. That’s just the way it goes.

CHRIS BURY: We spent a recent Friday night with Pauley LaPointe, a nightcrawler who races to crime scenes to shoot footage for local TV stations. Just after 11:00, police radios crackled with reports of the first of 10 shootings that night.

What have you heard from the scanner so far? What do you know?

PAULEY LAPOINTE: So far, we got a person shot. Sounds like a victim in their 20s, critical condition. Ambulance is en route.

CHRIS BURY: When we arrive, a young woman is clearly distraught; 25-year-old Keith Cannon has been shot in the chest. He died a few hours later, one of three men killed that night. Even as police investigated that shooting, another erupted a few blocks away.

CHRIS BURY: More shootings.

PAULEY LAPOINTE: Yes. Here they come.

CHRIS BURY: This time, two men have been shot outside this fast food joint, the gun casings still in clear view. By the end of the weekend, 32 people had been shot. Six of them died.

How frustrating is it for you to see the level of violence that Chicago is experiencing this summer?

GARRY MCCARTHY, Superintendent, Chicago Police Department: Well, it’s very frustrating, because I see clearly what needs to be done.

CHRIS BURY: Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy says coping with Chicago’s violence is like drinking from a fire hose. His officers take more illegal guns off the street than New York and L.A. combined: more than 3,400 in the first six months of this year. But even that has not been enough to stem the killings.

GARRY MCCARTHY: The biggest reason is, the people who we arrest with firearms do not do jail time here in the state of Illinois. Possession of a loaded firearm, illegally, in the state of Illinois is not even considered a violent crime for sentencing purposes.

And it’s very frustrating to know that it’s like 7 percent of the population causes 80 percent of the violent crime. Well, let’s put that 7 percent of the population in jail. Somebody has to go to jail.

CHRIS BURY: McCarthy also blames a Chicago gang culture that is even more entrenched and deadly than the ones he knew during previous stints in New York City and Newark.

GARRY MCCARTHY: The gangs here are traditional gangs that are generational, if you will. The grandfather was a gang member, the father’s a gang member, and the kid right now is going to be a gang member.

CHRIS BURY: How easy is it for these kids, 12, 13 years old, to get guns?

DIANE LATIKER, Founder, Kids Off the Block: It’s so easy for kids here to get guns, it’s like comparing it to going to the gas station and getting a 50-cent juice.

CHRIS BURY: For 12 years, Diane Latiker has run an after school program called kids off the block in one of Chicago’s deadliest neighborhoods.

In 2007, she built a memorial with bricks containing the names of children and teens killed in Chicago violence. After 374 bricks, she had to stop. There was no more room. Nearly 600 more young people have died violently since then.

DIANE LATIKER: If we would have kept with the bricks, it would have took over the whole block, sadly, sadly.

CHRIS BURY: Diane Latiker’s idea is to keep kids away from gangs before they can be recruited.

DIANE LATIKER: A big percentage say they made the decision to join a gang, or not to join, or participate in violence between fifth and eighth grade. So I said, well, that’s who I should target, because if they make that decision at that time, maybe I can get a few of them to say, no, I’m not going to do it, because I’m involved in something positive, I feel like I have hope, and I have a future.

CHRIS BURY: Nearly all of the kids here told us they had heard gunshots and knew someone who had been shot. What many fear most is becoming the unintended targets of bullets meant for others.

STUDENT: I have to come outside every day, and people just end up killing innocent people, like mostly every day.

STUDENT: When it’s hot outside, people do dumb stuff. Everybody be outside. They gets into arguments, and they have guns and point them at the wrong person, shoot for no apparent reason.

CHRIS BURY: The deadly violence that afflicts Chicago is rarely visible in the gleaming downtown that tourists see. Nearly all of it takes place in the impoverished neighborhoods of the South and West Sides, the victims overwhelmingly black and Latino.

For Diane Latiker, the strongest antidote to the killing is shoring up the economy.

DIANE LATIKER: Jobs, investment, economics. Business is afraid to come here because of crime. It’s like a catch-22. We need the investment and the economics to show up, so we can stop having the guns so readily available.

CHRIS BURY: But, from the police point of view, poverty alone doesn’t lead people to shoot each other. Superintendent McCarthy is convinced that only tougher penalties on gun law violators, much stiffer prison terms will make a real impact.

GARRY MCCARTHY: It’s just such a simple formula. New York State did it. Stiffen the gun laws, lighten up on the narcotics penalties, and you will see incarceration rates go down, you will see gun seizures go down, and you will see murders go down at the same time.

CHRIS BURY: For Chicago’s Mayor Emanuel, the fundamental problem and solution is a matter of values. At the funeral of Vonzell Banks, he struck a strident tone on the role of fathers, in particular.

RAHM EMANUEL: There’s a big debate out there about fatherhood. It’s a fair discussion. Let’s have it, because the fathers have to be present. The fathers have to be there and teach.


RAHM EMANUEL: These are God’s children. These are your children. These are my children.

CHRIS BURY: In the lively gospel service, mixed with notes of sorrow, were songs of joy for the life that this 17-year-old lived and demonstrations of faith that his spirit was now in a better place.

But the songs and prayers could not mask the deeper anguish in this congregation and in this city that far too many of its children are taken away in senseless acts of violence.

I’m Chris Bury for the PBS NewsHour in Chicago.