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‘I’m afraid of dying;’ Violence hits home for aldermen

Ald. Toni Foulkes.  Monday August 20 2012 | Brian Jackson~Sun Times

Ald. Toni Foulkes. Monday, August 20, 2012 | Brian Jackson~Sun Times

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Updated: October 17, 2012 6:07AM



F or Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), the violence that’s gripped Chicago this year is personal.

Over Memorial Day weekend, a college freshman home for the summer was shot to death just five doors down from Austin’s sturdy A-frame home in Roseland on the city’s South Side. He was a friend of her grandson.

“People say, ‘Well, you know they’re not gonna do all that around the alderman’s house,’ ” she says. “Yeah, you wanna bet?”

For her and nine other members of the Chicago City Council, the rise in the number of killings that has cast an unwanted national spotlight on violence in Chicago isn’t just something they read about or see on the news or wring their hands about during council meetings. They walk outside, and it’s there.

The Chicago Sun-Times took a look at murders and shootings in the city over a span of 13 months beginning in June 2011 and found at least three instances of such violence within two city blocks of where 10 Chicago aldermen live — one out of five members of the City Council.

Two South Side aldermen who represent Englewood each live within a couple of blocks of a combined 20 shootings and three murders since last summer, the newspaper’s analysis of crime data found.

The violence also has hit home in other parts of the South Side, on the West Side and even in increasingly gentrified Uptown, where, within a short walk of the home of Ald. James Cappleman (46th), there were nine shootings and two murders in the period the analysis covered.

Experiencing violence so close to home makes an impact, the aldermen say. Some are scared. Even those who say they’re not admit the shootings have affected how they live and what they do.

Ald. Sandi Jackson (7th), whose South Side ward includes an area known as “Terror Town,” says she always double-checks to make sure no one with a gun is lurking before she backs into her own driveway.

In Austin, Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) says she tries not to let fear get the best of her but knows that’s hard for her mother, who lives with her. So she hurries to get home before the streetlights come on at night to keep her mother from worrying.

In Roseland, Austin remembers how things were when she moved in 40 years ago. There was a certain snobbish neighborhood pride among people living in the middle-class community then. Today, some people call the area the “Wild Hundreds,” referring to its street addresses but also to the crime and violence that the splintered and warring gang factions have brought with them.

“I don’t really want to say this, but now I’m frightened,” says Austin, who lives within a couple of blocks of where three murders and one other shooting took place in the period the Sun-Times analysis covered. “Now, I’m afraid of dying.”

People sometimes ask her, as aldermen, to reassure them that steps are being taken and that things will get better. “How do I tell them, ‘Don’t worry, it’s gonna get better,’ ” Austin says. “I don’t have no solution to tell them it’s gonna get better.”

‘I don’t live in a bubble’

From her front stoop, Ald. Toni Foulkes (15th) points to landmarks from her childhood.On that

sidewalk she learned to ride a two-wheeler.

Under the street lamp she and her friends used to stretch a net across the street to play volleyball at 2 in the morning.

And the house next door, where a renter’s son shot the landlord five times, killing him, while Foulkes, then a teenager, was barbecuing chicken in her backyard.

Since June 2011, there have been two murders and 11 shootings all within a couple of blocks of the brick two-flat that has been Foulkes’ home for 41 years.

She doesn’t talk about being fearful. But the violence has affected her. “I’m just always cautious,” she says. “More cautious than most people.”

She won’t, for instance, drive past 66th and Marshfield — a shooting hot spot around the corner from her home — where 35-year-old Gerald Fisher was killed in November and where there have been two other shootings since last summer.

Weekend mornings, Foulkes prays that she won’t wake to find her cellphone packed with text messages from police commanders detailing the body count from the hours she slept. Too often, she

says, those prayers go unanswered.

In all since June 2011, there have been 31 killings and 136 shootings in the 15th Ward, according to the Sun-Times tally.

When Foulkes was elected alderman in 2007, she says, she would “lose it” every time she would hear of another neighbor being killed. Now, the onetime Jewel bakery worker says she no longer cries for every victim.

“It’s not that I’ve become immune to it,” she says. “I think it’s me being desensitized.”

And she’s tired of hearing parents blame aldermen when they lose a child who’s been running with a gang to gang violence.

“It’s your son out there, and he’s a gang-banger with a gun on him,” Foulkes says. “How is that my fault? I didn’t raise him. I just get pissed off when they say, ‘Where are these no-good aldermen?’ I’m like, ‘Hey, we’re living in this environment, too.’ ”

Foulkes doesn’t have children of her own but says she makes a point to get to know neighborhood kids. She visits Harper High School so often that some students know it’s OK to knock on her door if they need her.

“One Sunday,” Foulkes says, “I heard a tap on my window.”

It was a boy with a reputation for trouble.

“What do you want?” she asked.

“Miss Toni,” the boy replied respectfully, “do you have any butter cookies?”

Last Halloween, that same boy, Marcus Nunn, 17, was shot dead while robbing a barbershop at 63rd and Albany, down the street from Foulkes’ ward office.

“I don’t live in a bubble,” she says. “And you can’t really control what goes on when kids get guns.”

Like Foulkes, Ald. JoAnn Thompson (16th) has spent most of her life in Englewood, where there’s been one murder and nine shootings within blocks of her front door since June 2011 and, across her ward, a total of 37 killings and 79 shootings.

“It makes me ill sometimes,” Thompson says. “I feel bad for someone who loses loved ones to senseless violence. It concerns me about shooting in the city, period. But it’s not just where I live, not just Englewood.

“Overall in Englewood, the good people outweigh the bad,” she says. “I get on the defensive because I’m always getting asked how I can stop the violence. If I could stop the violence, it would have been done a long time ago. All I can do is put trust and faith that the police department will somehow put an end to it.

“I’m not afraid of the people of Englewood. I want to show kids that we can have good things like they do in other places,” Thompson says. “I love Englewood.”

‘Promise, no shootings today’

Ald. James Cappleman lives with his partner, Richard Thale, in Uptown a short walk from the Aragon Ballroom and the area Mayor Rahm Emanuel hopes one day will become a rock ’n’ roll tourist mecca. It’s just as close to a shooting gallery of warring gangs.

In the immediate vicinity of their elegant, century-old condo, there have been nine shootings and two murders since the summer of 2011. That’s more violence close to home than for any other Chicago alderman outside of Englewood.

That amounts to nearly half the shootings and one-third of the murders in Cappleman’s entire North Side ward, where the police say three gangs battle for turf amid a highly visible population of public drinkers, aggressive panhandlers and drug addicts, many of whom suffer from mental illness.

Cappleman (46th) and Thale moved to Uptown in 1999. Their first summer, a stray bullet ricocheted off a Dumpster as the couple walked their black Labrador nearby. That was one of the things that pushed Cappleman, a former social worker, and Thale to become community activists.

“Bullets missed us by a couple of feet,” Cappleman says. “Kids were telling everybody to run and duck. So we ran in the alley to escape.”

Things haven’t changed much near the house they’ve shared for eight years. Last Dec. 4, about a block from their home, a drive-by shooting took the life of 20-year-old Edward Clark. On June 18, 19-year-old Henry Soyege was killed in what the police called a gang-related shooting nearby. On Aug. 24, Cappleman got chased by a woman he claims had a knife.

“There have been times I’ve panicked,” Cappleman says. “I don’t want people to think the area isn’t safe and they move out. But if I don’t feel safe walking home, I’ll go into a store.”

The alderman looks at his partner and says, “It’s more I’m panicking about you.”

Still, Cappleman confronts gang-bangers. And he calls the police when he sees drug deals going down. “I’ve gone up to P-stones and said, ‘Will you make me a promise, no shootings today?’ ” Cappleman says. “. . . I don’t approach people in gangs as evil. But I’m not going to tolerate this violence. And they know that.”

‘These guys are terrorists’

Ald. Willie Cochran (20th), a former Chicago cop, bought his house near 61st and Woodlawn in 1982. It was a boarded-up 1880 graystone built for the Columbian Exposition.

At the time, Cochran patrolled the neighborhood that Jeff Fort and his notorious El Rukn gang claimed as their turf. He recalls the University of Chicago warning students about the area.

“They’d take students up to the corner on orientation and say, ‘If you go across 61st Street, you’re going to get killed,’” Cochran says.

There have been six shootings within a few blocks of Cochran’s home since the start of the summer of 2011. Compared to how things once were, he sees that as an improvement.

Still, Cochran says, “Of course, I worry. You have to worry. These guys are terrorists. Terrorists create terror. And even people who don’t have shootings around them are terrified.

“It affects me, it affects my family, and it affects you when you see certain people driving up in cars and on bikes giving certain looks. . . . And when you look how shootings have gone up it the 20th Ward and around the city over the last year, you have to ask, ‘What went wrong?’ ”

He answers his own question.

“We’ve been forgotten,” Coch­ran says. “We’ve been forgotten in Englewood. We have been forgotten in Woodlawn. We have been forgotten in Washington Park.”

More than new police strategies, Cochran says the neighborhoods plagued by shootings need the attention of city planners and university think tanks. They need strategies to boost economic development and improve housing, ways to revive hope in places where it largely has been lost.

Absent such measures, Coch­ran says, the criminal subculture thrives.

“I go into conflict zones and talk to people very much part of the violence going on,” Coch­ran says. “Many of them don’t want to be there. But because of unemployment, lack of education, because they have to survive on their blocks, they join in on a certain level. And then they’re caught.”

Getting home early

Back in Mississippi, Betty Russ gave birth to 16 children, including a future Chicago alderman.

In 1955, her family moved to Helena, Ark., out of fear after a black teenager from Chicago named Emmitt Till was brutally murdered next door to her auntie’s house.

When her kids got old enough, most of them moved to Chicago. A few years ago, Russ, now 86, reluctantly followed them to the city. Ald. Emma Mitts, her daughter, made up a room for her.

Russ still hasn’t adjusted to the pace of things — or the late-night noise — in the Austin neighborhood her daughter represents.

“Oh, Lord, all my life, as old as I am. I ain’t never been anywhere you don’t rest so good,” Russ says. “There’s so much shooting. The kids getting killed for no reason. It’s heartbreaking. Ain’t your child getting killed. But it feels like it.”

There were five shootings within a quarter mile of the brick house that Mitts and her mother share since the start of last summer and 65 shootings and 19 murders across her entire ward.

Mitts has seen plenty since she moved to her home on Rice Street in 1978. A few years back, a neighbor broke into her house to steal the flat-screen TV she had gotten up early to buy at Wal-Mart’s Black Friday post-Thanksgiving sale.

“TV wasn’t even out of the box,” Mitts says. “Saw me bring it in. I left for a wedding. They came and took it.”

Any time Mitts is out late, her mother says she can’t stop worrying. “I can’t talk to the Lord about protecting her enough,” Russ says, choking back tears.

So, for her mama’s sake, Mitts tries to make sure she’s home early. “I can’t stay out late, and I keep an account of where I am,” Mitts says. “At a certain age, she don’t like to be at the house by herself. So I try to make my stops . . . before it gets dark.”

The violence gets to her, Mitts says.

“I’m a human being, like everyone else,” she says. “I have feelings. I go to funerals. I don’t even know them, but I cry with the families.

“Seemed like last week I got an email from a commander every day saying there were more shootings. I do get tired of all the shooting. I would like it to be peaceful. But that’s not the city we’re living in.”

‘It’s so crazy. So out of control’

Ald. Sandi Jackson represents “Terror Town,” a neighborhood that lived up to its name Aug. 23 when eight people were wounded in what the police say was a gang-related retaliation shooting.

In recent years, terror has crept closer to the Jackson home. Since June 2011, there has been one murder and one shooting within two blocks of the eight-foot-high, wrought-iron gate that surrounds her house. And just across the South Shore Line railroad tracks near the route Jackson walks to her ward office, there were three more shootings and two more murders, according to police data.

“I walk to work on 72nd and Exchange, where gunfire is a reality,” she says. “There’s shootings near our neighborhood coffee shop and Kennedy Chicken, where we sometimes buy lunch for our staff. It angers me that you can’t walk outside without being on guard.”

Her lakefront neighborhood of South Shore has become a blighted version of what it once was — the solidly working-class southerly neighbor of Hyde Park.

“It’s destabilized to some degree with people around us that do not care who they hurt,” Jackson says. “It’s so crazy, so out of control. It feels like it’s erupting in ways that it hasn’t in the past.”

Like Jackson, Ald. Leslie Hairston, a lifelong South Shore resident who represents the adjacent 5th Ward, lives within a quarter mile of where one murder and one shooting took place since June 2011. Hairston has lived in her family home for 40 years.

She has seen her front window get shot up, and a burglar once broke into her home. Last year, she was the first person on the scene when someone was gunned down on her corner. When there’s trouble, she calls the police. For that, she sometimes feels like there’s a bull’s-eye on her back.

“I’m not immune to the violence. In fact, I’m already a target,” Hairston says. “But as a leader in the community, I have faith in people. I’ve been here, and I’m not going anywhere. And that’s my attitude. I don’t want gang-bangers and people committing acts of violence and drug dealers on the street.”

There were a total of 28 murders and 162 shootings in Jackson and Hairston’s wards between June 2011 and June 2012.

“What that does for an alderman like me is you feel the same angst that folks in the community feel,” Jackson says. “When we say we need more help down here, it’s because our blood pressure goes up, and you feel it go up, and you know it’s going up. And all the people around you feel theirs go up, too.”

‘They don’t know
what it’s like’

Violence is still something that mostly happens somewhere else — not in my neighborhood — for many aldermen and also for Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Among them: Ald. Mary O’Connor (41st), who didn’t have a single shooting or murder in her entire Northwest Side ward, where the city meets the suburbs.

Seven aldermen each had one shooting within a couple of blocks of their homes in the period the Sun-Times analysis covered.

“They don’t know what it’s like, and they never will,” Austin says. “They don’t have to live the life that we live.”

The May 26 shooting death of her grandson’s friend Jaylin Johnson, a college student who ducked headfirst into a bullet, hit Austin hard. From her back porch, she can see the memorial to him, which his mother tends every night.

“My grandson called me: ‘Granny, you gonna be upset. Jaylin got shot down the street,’ ” Austin says. “That boy just came home from school. That was devastating. I didn’t even know

anything to tell the mother . . . to any mother.”

The police haven’t caught Johnson’s killer, the investigation stymied in part because a police surveillance camera nearby wasn’t working. “Why wasn’t it working?” Austin asks. “We pay all this money for it. You got every traffic red-light camera working. Why was that one not working?”

Austin says she’s scared for her safety, angry with the gang-bangers and frustrated that City Hall doesn’t do enough.

“You know there’s a great need for jobs and nothing for these young people, but all these gang members don’t want to work,” Austin says. “They say they want work. They lie. If you want a job, you want training, you can go anywhere in the city and get it. So don’t fall back on that lie. They don’t wanna work. They want that fast-life money.”

Austin doesn’t believe the police in the 5th District are given enough resources to stop retaliation shootings, solve murders and squash crime. “Out here, oh, ‘They’re just killing one another,’ ” Austin says. “But they don’t squash diddly-squat out here.”

Collectively, the shootings amount to “mass murder,” she says. And that has her changing her thinking in at least one way.

“I never believed in the death penalty before, never, because we don’t have the right to the power of life or death,” Austin says. “But I’m changing my mind. There’s no severe consequence to killing somebody. . . . A shooter knows that if he gets caught, they can’t do nothing but send me to jail. Wow, that doesn’t frighten them, not at all. Going to jail means nothing.

“If it was one of my grandchildren or my children that got shot, I’m almost positive I would be in the penitentiary because I’m not gonna leave it up to society to get me any justice. I would find that person,” Austin says.

She takes a breath and exhales hard. She considers her own words and gives herself a scolding. “Oh, you shouldn’t have said that,” she says. “Well, I’m sure I shouldn’t have. But I’m speaking now from a broken heart.”

‘Time for us to deliver’

Aldermen say their neighbors ask: Why can’t they do something to stop the shooting?

Those feeling the impact of violence close to home say: We’re trying.

Cochran says he goes to murder scenes, sees what he can find out and passes that on to the police.

Cappleman says he organizes “positive loitering” gatherings on Friday nights. The aim: to disrupt things on the corners where gang members and drug dealers do their street business.

A few years back, Mitts successfully lobbied the City Council to get Chicago’s first Wal-Mart built in her ward. This summer, she followed Hairston’s lead by accepting the help of Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, who has directed his “Fruit of Islam” members to get out in numbers in an effort to slow the violence.

Austin points to a strip mall, anchored by a Target and a Jewel, at 119th and I-57 that brought jobs and neighborhood amenities.

Foulkes and Thompson point to the revived Kennedy-King College campus they hope will fuel more job growth in Englewood.

But none of that has put a dent in the shooting culture that surrounds them. They say they don’t have the clout to do that.

And when you ask Austin if she feels let down, she vigorously directs her answer to a man who isn’t in the room, a guy who will never live the life she lives.

“Mr. Mayor, if you want a longer school day, then we want more safety. If you want better education, then you should provide the safety for our kids to go to school to get that better education. An economic engine should be created in an area that has a lot of violence, so you can say, ‘I have created an avenue for you.’ That hasn’t happened. Violence is taking a toll on a community that expects more from the administration. They expect more from us. And we’re not delivering that. It’s about time for us to deliver.”

Won’t move away

Awhile back, Mitts was planning to move to a new condo. It was a place where people’s daily lives aren’t dominated by worries about violence and vice. The sale fell through. Now, her neighbors beg her not to move.

Hairston, Foulkes and Thompson say they have too much time, too many memories and too much neighborhood pride to give up and move away.

Cochran says he bought his house as an investment and believes the work he’s doing to improve housing, push for economic growth and stymie the shooters eventually will pay off.

Austin says she once considered moving out of Roseland, maybe to a high-rise condo downtown. That was in 1994, after her husband, Ald. Lemuel Austin, died of a heart attack. Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed her to replace him.

She has been re-elected four times since and says she has never thought about leaving again.

“I ain’t gonna let nobody run me away,” Austin says. “Even with the economy on the low, the people God blessed me to represent have zeal. They have a sense of pride. We’re not gonna let you run us away. . . .

“Am I ready to die? No. But I’m not gonna let you get away with the things you do.”



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