After Chicago shooting of girl, a fresh look at gang gun violence

The tragic shooting of an innocent and promising Chicago teenager must reinforce attention on the best ways to curb urban gang violence. One key approach: police-clergy coalitions.

AP Photo
A boy watches a basketball tournament for reputed gang members and associates at a church on Chicago's South Side last year. The 12-week basketball league is aimed at cooling gang hostilities.

When she was in a Chicago elementary school, Hadiya Pendleton took part in a video against gang violence. “So many children are out there in gangs,” she said in the 54-second clip. “And it is your job as students to say no to gangs and yes to a great future.”

Last Tuesday in a city park, Hadiya was randomly killed in what police say was a mistaken, gang-related shooting. Just days before, Hadiya had performed with her high school band at President Obama’s inauguration.

Coming only weeks after the shooting of 20 children in Newtown, Conn., this tragic killing of another innocent child has thrown a fresh national spotlight on the fact that an average of 16 kids under the age of 24 are murdered every day in the United States, mostly by guns and many in gang violence. And most are urban blacks or Hispanics.

The problem is particularly acute in Chicago, where gangs are larger and more organized than in most other cities. And despite various innovative anti-gang and anti-gun programs, city officials appear even more frustrated after Hadiya’s death. This January was the city’s most violent January since 2002.

Mr. Obama, too, has been frustrated with national efforts to reduce urban violence. Despite government programs to improve the quality of life, he said last June, “all this matters little if these young people can’t walk the streets of their neighborhood safely; if we can’t send our kids to school without worrying they might get shot.”

Urban leaders, he added, must “push through all the doubt and the cynicism and the weariness.”

This frustration in Chicago and elsewhere comes in part from seeing cities that have been able to demonstrate success in reducing gun and gang violence. But transferring these approaches to different communities isn’t always easy.

The US Justice Department is now working with state and local officials to apply the best ideas. One of the most popular techniques is to identity the small percentage of gang members who are instigators of violence and then change their behavior, either by using peer pressure or offering them positive alternatives to gang life, often with the help of an ex-gang member mentor.

But even that approach can be shortlived if gang-infested communities don’t have one key actor: local clergy.

In the 1990s, Boston pioneered the approach of having black church leaders cooperate with police to patrol streets, work with delinquent youth, and enlist congregations in crime fighting. In weekly meetings with police, for example, clergy can learn about current hot spots in gang tension and then pass on that information in church meetings.

After adding this moral and spiritual component to battling gangs, crime fell 60 percent in Boston in the ’90s.

“Black and Latino churches have been critical to creating peaceful urban communities, speaking better than any other institution in the voice of both righteousness and forgiveness, both of which are critical to the struggle,” says David Kennedy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a leader on solving urban violence.

More cities are now enlisting faith-based institutions in tackling violence. But each police-clergy coalition will need to find the unique community dynamics needed to make their effort succeed.

As Obama told urban leaders last year, “We have to understand that when a child opens fire on another child, there’s a hole in that child’s heart that government alone can’t fill. It’s up to us, as parents and as neighbors and as teachers and as mentors, to make sure our young people don’t have that void inside them. It’s up to us to spend more time with them, to pay more attention to them, to show them more love so that they learn to love themselves, so that they learn to love one another, so that they grow up knowing what it is to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes and to view the world through somebody else’s eyes.”

Or as Hadiya said in that video:

“Say ... yes to a great future.”

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