Englewood death prompts call for peace

  • By Greg Trotter
  • Medill News Service
  • October 30, 2007 @ 5:28 AM

There is an exposed vein that runs through Englewood, coursing blood yet to be spilled. It is a metaphor and it is real - a thin line between life and death.

It's called 55th Street, the longtime divider between rival gangs, the Gangster Disciples and the Black P-Stones.

At the corner of 55th and Halsted, flowers and stuffed animals mark the spot where a bullet tore through the head of child who was on his way to get candy from the store.

That single act has the community rocked by a deadly reality.

"Englewood is in a state of emergency," said Ameena Matthews, Englewood resident and outreach worker for CeaseFire, an anti-violence organization.

Members of the Stones allegedly killed 10-year-old Arthur "A.J" Jones after school last week while taking aim at members of the Gangster Disciples.

As Matthews tells it, one day after A.J. was shot to death, violence consumed the streets again.

About 20 fights broke out, Matthews said, between members of the two neighboring gangs. A female member of the Gangster Disciples broke the nose of one of her enemies. People were pulled from buses and thrown to the ground.

Some 13- and 14-year-old boys were drinking Hennessy and smoking blunts. Police stood by with riot gear as CeaseFire workers tried to talk gang members down and defuse the situation, she said.

It was total chaos, Matthews said.

Another CeaseFire worker, Stephen White, said, "We were there trying to create a calm."

"Arthur Jones," White said, "was well-loved even though he only had 10 years on this earth."

Hundreds packed the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church on Wednesday to mourn him and celebrate his life. The tearful prayers mixed with joyous songs, clapping and foot-stomping. Talk of peace prevailed from the pulpit and among the crowd after the two-hour service.

But opinions of who were to blame and what needed to change in Englewood varied.

"This happened because of the two gangs in conflict with each other in Englewood," said Debbie Blair, chief of staff for Ald. Joann Thompson (16th). "Parents need to take responsibility for their children, and the community needs to reject the negativity."

But the CeaseFire workers who helped stopped the fights between the two gangs saw it differently.

"This was not really a gang thing, this was a clique thing," Matthews said. Cliques are smaller and less organized than gangs, she said, and might be nothing more than a group of friends.

White said that A.J.'s death was not a gang killing, but he did point out that 55th Street has been a volatile divider between the two groups for a long time.

"There has always been a rift in the community, but there's not as much structure now in the different organizations," White said. "There are more cliques now operating under the auspices of the organizations."

Both agreed that that Englewood needs more community outreach resources and better education - and, not surprisingly, more CeaseFire.

White, like many CeaseFire violence interrupters, was formerly affiliated with a Chicago gang. Their criminal pasts allow them to have street credibility with gang members and help attempt to defuse conflicts between gang members before they happen, White said.

CeaseFire had $6.2 million cut from its funding by state legislators in August - about two-thirds of its budget - and have laid off more than half of their violence interrupters as a result.

"There's no doubt in my mind that we could have prevented it if we had our funding," White said. "We would have been in the community every day doing violence intervention, but instead we're running on a skeleton crew."

Wallace "Gator" Bradley, once an enforcer for the Gangster Disciples and spokesman for their leader, Larry Hoover, also did not attribute A.J.'s death to the two gangs.

"His death is the result of three individuals who had no right to have a gun," Bradley said. "They may have been fighting someone else, but they still had no right to have a gun."

But Bradley said the change that needs to occur to stop the violence comes from within the community, and within the gangs themselves.

The solution to the unnecessary violence, Bradley said, is that the elders of different gang organizations need to discipline any young gang members who resort to violence without permission from the elders.

"We're going to lay down the law within the law," Bradley said. "We're going to work with the law enforcement, the ministers and everybody else, to let the youngsters know - you don't have to kill one another … Don't make a move until you talk to someone."

Two young members of the Gangster Disciples stood on the sidewalk in front of the church after A.J.'s funeral.

Television news vans filed down the block. Police looked on as people spilled out of the church and mingled. One of the two, a 20-year-old woman, wore a hooded sweatshirt and blue jeans and wringed her hands as she pointed out that Englewood had too many guns and not enough community resources, such as after-school programs.

She then echoed Bradley's contention: The real change, she said, had to come from within the people.

"My mom got shot. She used to gang-bang. She just got out of jail," she said. "But I don't want to go the way that she went. I'm not ready to feel no bullet yet."

Her companion, a young man, wore a camouflage jacket and sported multiple piercings in his ears and nose. He nodded continually as he listened to the woman talk of how she was tired of the gang-banging and the deaths.

"We need to learn to look out for each other instead of hating and going against each other," he said, "and if we can't do that, it will just be more people steady dying."

Arthur Jones was the third child to die by gunfire within a week in Chicago. According to Monique Bond, Chicago Police Department spokeswoman, 54 people aged 19 or younger have been killed by gunfire so far this year.