I’m from a different generation than Derrion Albert, the young man from Fenger High School in Chicago who was beat to death after school. But I grew up just blocks away from where he was killed.
I wish I could say that what happened to Derrion was a new phenomenon. Unfortunately, such acts of violence are business as usual for people who live in the underbelly of the inner city.
Violence at Fenger High, or the South Side for that matter, didn’t just become a problem. It’s been a problem. Fenger High School and the neighborhood where it’s located, my neighborhood, has been considered rough for at least 30 years. It’s the chief reason why I attended Morgan Park and my brother went to Corliss – other public high schools on the South Side of Chicago.
Yet those quoted on news broadcasts and in newspapers have been slow to acknowledge this history of violence. Instead, we are getting the band-aid coverage and outrage that allows this problem to escalate. Since the early 1990s at least, this area has been known as the Wild Hundreds.
It’s an area that’s no stranger to the crack cocaine epidemic or the gang violence that have been Chicago hallmarks since the 1960s. Two of my brother’s best friends were murdered by drive-by shootings before the age of 17. So many young boys, in particular, were dying at such an alarming rate that a nearby funeral home began offering drive-by visitations. Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I would not have believed it.
Guns have never been hard to get on the South Side. Our currency exchanges, which stay open 24 hours, have had bulletproof glass since I was a kid in the 1980s. Places get robbed. People get hurt. That’s how I grew up. And nobody is immune. Look at what happened to Jennifer Hudson’s family. People didn’t ask, “How this could happen?” Instead, they wondered why Jennifer’s family still lived in that neighborhood.
And that’s at the core of the problem. We keep moving away, trying to outrun the crime and it keeps catching up with us. Until the 1960s, Roseland, where Fenger is located, wasn’t even a place where black people were welcomed. We live there pretty much exclusively now because of white flight.
There was a time, however, when moving to Roseland meant you were moving on up, holding the same significance as relocation to surrounding areas like Markham, Dolton and Hazelcrest did in my era. But for a long time now, many people who live in Roseland have felt stuck. Imprisoned by violence due to endless gang activity, many have exhausted their options. They’ve set up neighborhood watch associations, begged for greater police protection, held vigils like the one for Derrion, only to find that no one else cares.
The current wave of national outrage is déjà vu for Roseland. Remember Robert “Yummy” Sandifer, the 11-year-old gangbanger who dropped out of school at age 8 and had amassed 23 felonies and 5 misdemeanors before his own gang executed him? The gang reportedly deemed such action necessary because they feared Sandifer would snitch once he was apprehended for brazenly shooting 15-year-old Kianta Britten who, by his own admission, was not gang affiliated, with a semi-automatic weapon – paralyzing him. Later that day, 14-year-old Shavon Dean would die in the crossfire as Sandifer shot at rival gang members. Time magazine made this tragedy its cover story on September 19, 1994. Fifteen years later, it’s Derrion Albert.
Richard M. Daley was the mayor then too. Harold Washington, who served from 1983 until 1987, mysteriously died in office during his second term, making Eugene Sawyer an interim mayor. Those are the only two black mayors Chicago has ever known and that experiment lasted less than a decade. Just four years ago, Time magazine hailed Richard M. Daley, whose father ruled Chicago for almost 25 years, as one of “The 5 Best Big City Mayors.” He’s still being toasted today. No one has asked him the hard questions of why, in his two decades of leading Chicago, young kids like Derrion Albert are still dying.
Until Mayor Daley and the mayors of other big cities are truly held accountable, it will be as it’s always been: people like myself fending for themselves, hoping they can make it out.