CHICAGO – Four toddlers have been shot in the past two weeks during what has been one of the deadliest periods in Chicago's history of violence against children, sparking community outrage over a lack of accountability and a long history of disinvestment in Black and brown neighborhoods.
"What was called the Windy City is now turning into the Bloody City. If we don’t stop this, then Chicago’s going to become known as not a safe place for children. Once that happens, we’ve lost the soul of our city," said Rev. Michael Pfleger, an anti-gun violence activist and priest at Saint Sabina Church in the South Side Auburn Gresham neighborhood.
"I've been here 45 years, and I’ve never seen the meshing together of hopelessness, despair and anger all together at this level. Because of that, we have the fallout of unacceptable behavior," Pfleger said.
More than 100 people were shot over Father's Day weekend, including at least 12 minors, five of whom died, according to data maintained by the Chicago Sun-Times. The Sun-Times weekend totals include incidents that happen on Mondays, while Chicago police weekend totals do not.
Jasean Francis, 17, and Charles Riley, 16, were fatally shot that Saturday evening in South Chicago, according to police. About an hour later, Mekhi James, 3, was fatally shot while sitting in the backseat of his father's car in Austin. Amaria Jones, 13, was fatally shot inside her South Austin home while showing her mother a TikTok dance, according to family. Michael Ike, 15, was fatally shot in Smith Park. That Monday, another 3-year-old girl was also shot in Chicago Lawn.
"Our city's collective heart breaks to hear the unfathomable news of a 3-year-old boy who was shot and killed tonight on Chicago's West Side," Mayor Lori Lightfoot wrote on Twitter. "There are simply no words to describe such a heinous, unconscionable act of cowardice to shoot at a toddler."
James had been returning home from getting a haircut, according to Cynthia Williams, CEO of The Austin People's Action Center.
"I heard the gunshots ringing out, thinking they were fireworks – never did I imagine that one of those bullets took the life of a 3-year-old innocent baby," Williams said in a statement. "I cannot get the sound of those gunshots out of my head."
Jones was the youngest of five children and wanted to be a lawyer, according to her family. West Side Pastor Ira Acree was expected to deliver Jones' eulogy Friday.
"She had vision. She had ambition. And she was able to see beyond the challenges of her own immediate context. She wanted to be a lawyer and showed promise in school," Acree said. "But her life was taken away. The hope thief came and took her away before she really began to live."
The violence continued last weekend – when more than 63 people were shot, 16 of them fatally – and into this week, according to the Sun-Times tracker.
On Saturday, Sincere Gaston, 20 months old, was shot and killed while riding in a car with his mother on the way home from the laundromat. Hours later, Lena Nunez, 10, was killed by a stray bullet that went through her grandmother’s apartment window in Logan Square. Late that night, an 8-year-old girl was sitting on a couch in West Englewood when a stray bullet came through the window and grazed her head.
"The pain of losing a child never goes away," Lightfoot said on Twitter Saturday. "As a mother, I am tired of the funerals. I am tired of burying our children."
The mayor wrote that it's "on all of us to double down on our all-hands-on-deck public safety efforts" and to work with police officers, street outreach teams, trauma support workers, community and faith-based partners.
Gaston's father is a member of Chicago CRED, one of the many community organizations working to combat gun violence in the city.
"The heartbreaking murder of a one-year-old child whose father is in our program is forcing us to reflect on just how broken our society has become. The economy, the criminal justice system, and the community have all failed this innocent child and far too many others caught in the cross-fire of gun violence," Chicago CRED said in a statement.
The violence continued this week. On Tuesday night, a 3-year-old girl was playing in a yard in West Englewood when she was shot in the chest as a gunman in a passing car opened fire, minutes after a 15-year-old boy was shot blocks away.
Earlier in June, a 9-year-old girl was among four people shot in Auburn Gresham, and a 5-year-old boy was shot in the buttocks in Back of the Yards.
"I'm not surprised about all of the violence over the last couple weeks because nothing happened over the winter months to change the outcome," said Tamar Manasseh, founder of Mothers Against Senseless Killings, an anti-gun violence group based in Englewood. "Did anybody think COVID would stop violence in the city of Chicago? No. It actually made poor people poorer."
Ken Johnson, Director of Programs for I Grow Chicago, a group working to address the root causes of violence, said he visited the home of the wounded 8-year-old on Wednesday, the girl's ninth birthday, to deliver some food and a gift. When he arrived at the home, he could hear people singing "happy birthday" inside, Johnson said. The girl came to the door to greet him.
"Upon leaving the home, I thought about how frighteningly close this family came to possibly not being able to sing that particular song today and how many families will not be able to laugh and celebrate their loved ones after these past two violent weekends," Johnson said.
Family and community members have decried the lack of arrests in the murders. Jones' mother, Lawanda, is calling for her killer to turn themselves in. Two $25,000 rewards are are being offered for information that leads to arrests in the James and Gaston cases. Last week, a 19-year-old man was arrested and charged in the murder of the two teen boys killed over Father's Day weekend – one of the few cases to see an arrest thus far.
In advance of Fourth of July weekend, which has been historically violent, the Chicago Police Department announced plans Monday to deploy an additional 1,200 officers to "hot spots" around the city. New Police Superintendent David Brown said officers would also be arresting young people at "drug corners" in an effort to stem the surge of shootings.
"The street corner open-air drug market is the pipeline to shootings and murders in Chicago," Brown said in a press conference Monday. "When they have no consequence, violence continues. Full stop."
Brown's comments spurred backlash from activists and city residents.
"That’s unacceptable," Pfleger said. "That’s the same old policing, military mentality of locking people up. No. Just do the police job they’re supposed to do. Be vigilant in the communities. But don’t take away people’s human rights by holding them in jail til Monday."
While criminal sexual assault, robbery, aggravated battery and theft are all down this year compared to the same time last year, murder is up 34%, and shootings are up 45%, according to police data as of June 28. At least 1,364 people have been shot so far this year, and 324 people have been murdered, police report. Those numbers parallel the violence rates that Chicago saw in 2016, when the city saw an historic rise in murders.
Arrests, street stops and traffic stops all declined in June compared to the same time last year, according to police statistics. That's because fewer people have been on the streets due to the coronavirus, Brown said in the Monday press conference. While officers continued to patrol the streets, "everything else came to a stop, and these murdering, evil bastards have taken advantage of that," he said.
Officer morale has also been down in recent weeks, as a result of heightened tensions amid police brutality protests, increased confrontations involving firearms and the murders of children, First Deputy Anthony Riccio said.
'We must address the root issues'
On Wednesday, communities on the South and West sides came together to mourn the children lost and discuss how to address the surge in gun violence.
Residents of the Austin neighborhood held a discussion with faith and community leaders to brainstorm solutions. Community members in Auburn Gresham painted the words "demand justice" along the street. In Englewood, Gaston's family and community organizations came together for a vigil, where they released doves and balloons in his memory.
"The shootings, violence and deaths in communities within and outside of Englewood are the result of much more than drug/gang conflicts or the proliferation of illegal guns or criminal sentencing and bond amounts," Johnson said. "I believe that we must address the root issues that continue to plague our most challenged communities; poverty, lack of education, jobs resources and the resultant social inequality."
Anti-gun violence activists, led by Pfleger, planned to hold a rally Thursday night to "demand killings of all black lives stop."
"We believe that, number one, federal, state, county and city governments fail to give the investment and the resources that our communities need – that they’re killing us. We can’t continue to have abandoned and neglected neighborhoods that look like third-world countries," Pfleger said. "People are no longer going to tolerate this neglect, which was put in our face again with COVID-19."
More than 52,000 people have tested positive for the coronavirus in Chicago, and 2,611 have died. A USA TODAY analysis of ZIP code data found that, in Chicago and nationwide, low-income and minority communities have been disproportionately affected by the virus.
Pfleger said the activists were also demanding an end to police brutality and calling on communities to "speak out and take responsibility for our blocks."
"This July Fourth weekend, we got to start here. This has always been a bad weekend in violence. We must turn that around. The last two weekends have been absolutely horrible and unacceptable," he said. "The community must draw a line."
Chicago CRED said it planned to have hundreds of people on the streets this weekend to mediate disputes, protect families and create a "positive presence" in our neighborhoods.
"It's time to rethink public safety, refocus police on only the most violent crimes and use social service agencies and outreach workers to help address community issues," CRED said. "We hope not only to save lives this weekend but also to help steer young men at risk towards a safer path in life."
As part of her plan to invest in the city's South and West sides, Lightfoot this week announced the recipients of $11 million in grant funding to support projects in two neighborhoods. She also announced project finalists for $5.4 million in grants to small businesses; nearly 90% are minority-owned, and half are located along commercial corridors being targeted through the investment program, according to the mayor's office.
"For all of our focus on this weekend of public safety, (it) doesn't end this weekend, or this summer, or this year," Lightfoot said in a press conference Thursday. "If we are truly to reduce the epidemic of gun violence and make every neighborhood safe and secure, we need to continue working to reverse the circumstances that underpin it – the circumstances that lead people to feel like their only option is the street, gangs and drugs."
Chicago's beaches were expected to remain closed over the weekend, when temperatures could climb into the 90s, and all firework shows were cancelled.