AMONG THE DEAD: An 18-year-old walking on a sidewalk. A 36-year-old at a backyard party. A 28-year-old in a car two blocks from the police station. A 40-year-old convenience store clerk, on the job just two months.
In a storefront on 79th, Curtis Toler has a map of the street and surrounding area with 10 stick pins. Each represents a homicide in 2012.
Toler, a former gang member, spent much of his life causing chaos. Now, he’s preaching calm. As a supervisor at CeaseFire, his job is to ease tensions and defuse disputes before they explode.
Violence, he says, has become so commonplace, people are desensitized to death.
“I don’t think we take it as hard as we should,” he says. “When someone gets killed, there should be an uproar. But the ambulance comes, scoops them up, nobody says anything and it’s back to business.”
Toler’s own life was shaped by guns and drugs. “In the early ’90s, I was going to funerals back to back to back,” he says. “When you’re out there, you think you pretty much got it coming. It’s a kill-or-be-killed mentality.”
As he tells it, he was in a gang (in another neighborhood) from ages 9 to 30, including a six-year prison stint for involuntary manslaughter. He was shot six times, he says; he lifts a gray stocking cap pulled low over his head and presses a thumb over his right eyebrow to show the spot where a bullet struck. “I was blessed” to survive, he says, with a gap-toothed smile.
He was once so notorious, Toler says, that one day about a decade ago his grandmother returned from a community policing gathering and began crying. “She said, ‘The whole meeting was about you. … You and your friends are destroying the whole community. … You’re my grandson, but they’re talking about you like you’re an animal.'”
Now a 35-year-old father of four, Toler says he decided to go straight about five years ago. He knows some police don’t believe his transformation. He regrets things he’s done, he says, and for a time had trouble sleeping. “Life has its way of getting back at you one way or another,” he says. “I believe in the law of reciprocity.”
Toler’s message to a new generation on the streets: I keep asking them,’ What’s the net worth on your life? There is no price…. You only get one. It’s not a video game.'”
“You get some guys who listen,” Toler says, “and some who really don’t care. … They say, ‘I’m going to die anyway.'”
Two blocks east in another storefront on 79th, Carlos Nelson works to bring a different kind of stability to Gresham.
As head of the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corp., he lures businesses to a community that despite its problems, has well-established merchants and middle-class residents who’ve lived here for decades.
But Nelson, a 49-year-old engineering graduate raised in Gresham, sees changes since he was a kid, most notably the easy access to guns. “These aren’t six-shooters,” he says. “These are automatic weapons.”
Police say they’ve seized more than 7,000 guns in arrests this year. Strict gun control measures in Chicago and Illinois have been tossed out by federal courts, most recently the state ban on carrying concealed weapons.
Nelson says he sees limited progress despite new crime-fighting approaches. “The Chicago police department is a lot like a rat on a wheel,” he says. “They’re getting nowhere. They put metal detectors in the schools but they don’t put that same amount of money in to educate our kids.”
But Nelson also believes the problem goes beyond policing. A cultural shift is needed, he says, to break the cycle of generations of young men seeing no options.
“It’s almost like the walking dead,” he says. “They’re emotionless about shootings or death or drugs. They think that’s all that’s expected of them … that they will die or end up in jail. That’s a hell of an existence. That’s truly sad.”
AMONG THE LIVING: A 17-year-old hit in the leg, wrist and foot while in a park. A 13-year-old struck in the back while riding his bicycle, A 38-year-old shot in the face while driving.
Cerria McComb tried to run when the bullet exploded in her leg, but she didn’t get far.
Someone heard her screams, her mother says, and rushed outside to help her make a call.
“Mommy, mommy, I’ve been shot!” Cerria cried into the phone.
Bobbie McComb ran six blocks, her husband outpacing her. “I’m panicking,” she recalls. “I can’t catch my breath. All I could think of was I didn’t want it to be the last time I heard her voice, the last time I saw her.”
Cerria and a 14-year-old male friend were wounded. The bullet lodged just an inch (2.5 centimeters) from an artery in the back of Cerria’s right knee, according to her mother, who says her daughter is afraid to go out since the early December shooting.
Police questioned a reputed gang member they believe was the intended target; Cerria, they say, just happened to be in the wrong place.
“I’m angry,” McComb says. “I’m frustrated. I’m tired of them shooting our kids, killing our kids, thinking they can get away with it. … If it was my son or my daughter standing out there with a gun, I would call the police on them.”
A few blocks west, on 78th Place, another mother, Pam Bosley, sits at the youth center of St. Sabina Church, trying to keep teens on track. The parish is run by the Rev. Michael Pfleger, a firebrand white priest in an overwhelmingly black congregation whose crusades against violence, drugs and liquor and cigarette billboards are a staple of local news.
Bosley’s 18-year-old son, Terrell, a college freshman and gospel bass player, was killed in 2006 when he and friends were shot while unloading musical equipment outside a church on the far South Side. A man charged was acquitted.
“I think about him all day and all night,” Bosley says of her son. “If I stop, I’ll lose my mind.”
Bosley works with kids 14 to 21, teaching them life and leadership skills and ways to reduce violence. Sometimes, she says, neglectful parents are the problem; often it’s gangs who just don’t value life.
“You know how you have duck (hunting) season in the woods?” she asks. “In urban communities, it’s duck season for us every day. You never know when you’re going to get shot.”
In December, Bosley phoned to console the grieving mother of Porshe Foster, 15, who was shot a few miles (kilometers) away while standing outside with other kids. A young man in the group has said he believed the gunman was aiming at him.
“I know how it feels to wake up in your house without your child, and you don’t want to get out of bed, you don’t feel like living,” Bosley says.
St. Sabina is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. Bosley sent balloons to the girl’s funeral.
On Dec. 6, hundreds celebrated the A-student who liked architecture and played on her school’s volleyball and basketball teams.
Her brother, Robert, 22, says his sister “knew what was going on in the streets as well as we did,” but he didn’t worry because she was either at school, home or church.
“She was always a good girl,” he says. “She didn’t have to look over her shoulder. She was a 15-year-old girl. She didn’t ever do any wrong to anybody.”
In March, St. Sabina parishioners, led by the Rev. Pfleger, marched through the streets in protest, calling out gang factions by name. They planted the “Stop Killing” cross on 79th.
In April, the priest and other pastors returned to 79th to successfully stop the reopening of a store where there was a mass shooting; they condemned it as a haven for gangs.
In December, Pfleger stood in his church gym, watching gang members hustle down the basketball court.
On this Monday night, in this gym, it was hard to tell who was who.
The basketball teams wore different colored T-shirts with the same word: Peacemaker. They’re all part of Pfleger’s 12-week basketball league, aimed at cooling gang hostilities by having rivals face each other on the court. Many players, from 16 to 27, have criminal records.
The league grew out of a single successful game this fall and has high-profile supporters, including Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls.
Pfleger says the games have helped players build relationships, see beyond gang affiliation and stop shooting each other, at least for now.
“I have people tell me I’m naive, I’m stupid, I should be ashamed of myself working with these gangs,” he says. “I could care less. We’ve demonized them so much we forget they’re human beings.”
But Pfleger also says games alone won’t change anything. These young men need jobs and an education, and he’s working on that.
“When there’s no alternative,” he says, “you’ll continue to do what you do.”
Sharon Cohen is a Chicago-based national writer. She can be reached at scohen(at)ap.org.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.