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Urban Violence

Mothers Help Curb Gun Violence in Troubled Chicago Neighborhood

A group of neighborhood moms began camping out on a South Side street corner after a shooting there in late June. Since then, there hasn't been a single shooting in the area.

On a recent Tuesday evening, Tamar Manasseh arrives at a corner in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, a low-income, African-American area on the city’s South Side. Exiting a big blue SUV, she shouts greetings at passersby, her hair bouncing as she runs to check on an elderly neighbor. Moments later, she’s back and in a flurry of activity: unloading folding chairs, talking to her mother, and squirting Listerine from a spray bottle to ward off mosquitos.

Manasseh and a dozen other women in hot-pink T-shirts labeled “Moms On Patrol” have been camping out every afternoon at the corner of 75th Street and Stewart Avenue since June 23, when an apparently random walk-by shooting here left 34-year-old Lucille Barnes dead and two other women seriously injured. Manasseh formed Mothers Against Senseless Killings (MASK) thinking that the watchful eyes of neighborhood moms could help prevent another shooting at the corner, which has long been a hotspot for gun violence.

So far, it’s worked. Though Englewood is in the top 10 of Chicago’s 77 community areas for rates of violent crime (which mostly occurs on the street), 75th and Stewart has not seen a single shooting since the women took up residence on the corner. They also patrol a mile radius around the area on foot, and try to connect with local kids, holding barbecues and pizza parties and even teaching yoga.

Over 40 percent of Englewood’s residents live below the poverty line, and nearly a third have no high school diploma. A fifth of the community is unemployed, and many of the area’s young men have criminal records for minor offenses. Much to the chagrin of longtime residents like Manasseh, the name of their neighborhood has become synonymous with violence in recent years.

The corner of 75th and Stewart is a place where the difficult realities of life here sometimes combust into altercations. It is a high-traffic intersection where drug deals are known to happen, people stay out drinking late into the night, and tempers tend to flare, especially in the summer. Of the ten shooting incidents in Englewood over the last year, two were at or around this intersection.

Sixteen-year-old Anthony Davis, the nephew of Lucille Barnes, lives nearby and says typically the intersection was not a place for him to hang out. “I wouldn’t sit on the corner like this, letting my head down. I was watching my back,” he explains. But since MASK started coming out, the atmosphere is less charged, Davis says, and young people seem calmer. “Now I feel safe,” he says.

Most of all, Davis is impressed by the changes in the older guys he looks up to in the neighborhood. A few of them have even started volunteering with MASK. “You see the big guys, they’re dressed differently now, they pull up their pants, they speak different.”

The decline in shootings in this area counters the overall trend in the city, which has experienced a surge in gun violence this year: By the beginning of August, the city had seen 1,633 shootings, up from 1,469 in the same period last year, and some 270 homicides. In response, police Superintendent Garry McCarthy has called for tougher gun sentencing laws, but MASK does not believe the police can curb the city’s gun violence, as the group see law enforcement as part of the problem. A recent study showed that Chicago police officers have killed more Chicago residents over the last five years than police in any other city. Recently, CPD even tweeted a list —“Tips to Stay Safe in Any Neighborhood” — that was interpreted as a guide on how not to get shot by officers.

Manasseh says MASK keeps an eye not only on area residents but also on the police. She recalls a recent episode that typifies what she describes as a “contentious” relationship between the two camps.

“They had six police cars out here because they said a 14-year-old dropped the F-bomb toward the police. They pulled up right here, on the curb, threw him on the car, radioed for backup,” she says. “They swarmed the area, and all we’re trying to do is make some dinner.”

But Chicago Police Department Director of Communications & News Affairs Anthony Guglielmi tells The Trace that the relationship between police and the community in Englewood has improved. He pointed to recent efforts by CPD to engage with poor black communities, and described how gang members, after alleged encouragement from McCarthy, put up signs around Englewood asking residents to stop shooting one another.

Guglielmi wouldn’t attribute the recent decline in shootings in Englewood to MASK’s work, but he does praise their efforts. “We are cautiously optimistic. This conceivably is how policing is designed to work,” he says. “This is a good example of what we need to do to make neighborhoods safer. We need to have people engaged, finding creative things to do with young people.”

Another group called MASK Men joined up with Manasseh and her team of moms shortly after the media started reporting on their work. Founder Marquinn McDonald says, “The problem that we have is emotional issues. Before [MASK began to work with kids on this block], they’d be ready to fight in a heartbeat when somebody say something crazy.” McDonald says that helping kids control their emotions and avoid rash decisions is at the core of his work as a life-skills teacher at a nearby school. MASK operates on the same principle.

“We have provided them with the biggest things that they need — consistency, emotional support, food, and recently [we] started helping them get jobs,” McDonald says.

MASK believes a hug and a slice of pizza can go a long way to help diffuse tensions that can lead to violence. “Women bring a special kind of sensitivity to the neighborhood.” Manasseh explains, as an older man nicknamed Triple OG strolls over to embrace her. “Everybody is, dare I say it, kinder and gentler,” she says, grinning.

MASK plans to continue camping out on this corner until at least Labor Day. Shootings in the city tend to drop when school is in session. But Manasseh says the group will rent space in a nearby building to continue their outreach program year-round.

As the sun begins to set, pizza boxes show up and neighborhood children trickle over. “Kids first!” one of the volunteers yells as several adults shuffle over from the liquor store across the street. The summer air is thick with the smell of grilling hot dogs.

“It’s just love when we’re out here now,” says Manasseh. Around her, young men in lawn chairs laugh together, while kids ride their bikes up and down the block.

[Photo: Maya Dukmasova]