CHICAGO — When he woke July 5 to news that more than 100 people had been shot in the city of Chicago over the long Independence Day holiday weekend — 15 of them fatally — 16-year-old Carlos Yanez shrugged it off.
“After a while, you just get used to it,” Carlos said. “I mean, what can you do? We don’t have no one helping us. What can we do?”
Gun violence plagues Chicago, a city of more than 2.7 million, where nearly 2,000 people have been shot so far this year.
Though the number of shootings is slightly down from last year, the problem has caught the attention of the Trump administration, which has ordered more federal agents to assist state and local law enforcement in the Midwestern city. But Carlos said an increased police presence and a national spotlight on the violence have not helped those living in these South Chicago neighborhoods.
‘Gets worse and worse’
“It’s been going on and it just gets worse and worse,” he said, the resignation clear in his voice. “Chicago’s broke, CPS (Chicago Public Schools) is broke and yet they are funding all these cameras on every street corner, all these speed bumps, all these turnabouts. All these new cop cars, all this new equipment, but yet they still can’t fix the violence.”
It is violence Carlos himself has narrowly avoided. He said even though he’s not affiliated with a gang, he’s dodged bullets five times. Many of those around him have been injured, or died.
“Just a couple of months ago, a 28-year-old man was killed right on this block,” said Berto Aguayo, standing outside a church in the predominantly Hispanic Back of the Yards neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.
Aguayo is a community organizer with The Resurrection Project, a nonprofit organization that, among other things, is trying to work at the grassroots level to combat the violence.
“I lived two blocks away from here. I was a gang member in this community back in my younger days. I’ve lost friends to gang violence. I lost my first friend when I was 13 years old. And that’s a typical story of people here on the South Side of Chicago. Death is a constant fear.”
But on a balmy Friday evening, fear seems far away from these streets in the neighborhood Aguayo grew up in.
‘Increase the peace’
Instead of gunshots, drumbeats and chants fill the air as he leads a group, mostly of young people, on a protest march to “increase the peace.”
“This idea originated back in October 2016, when a 16-year-old girl was killed in front of our office,” Aguayo explained. “It became a point of the community being fed up. Young people were fed up with the violence they were witnessing.”
He said that became a catalyst for the Increase the Peace campaign.
“Youth decided, hey, why don’t we camp out on a street corner on a Friday night that is usually plagued by violence on a Friday night. What we try to do here is really stay on a block, and have a positive presence, and promote peace through our young people,” Aguayo said.
“It’s bringing people together, not ostracizing anyone,” Deztinee Geiger said. “The ostracization is what causes people to pick up a gun a lot of the time.”
Geiger is one of the youth leaders of this event at St. Joseph’s church, the first of several planned for Fridays this summer throughout different neighborhoods.
‘Respond with positive energy’
Carlos, the 16-year-old who also is one of the youth organizers of the Increase the Peace campaign, said the message is simple: “You don’t always have to respond with violence. You can respond with positive energy.”
But Carlos and Geiger both realize that marches and backyard cookouts can only go so far.
“The root of the problem is lack of resources, which results in violence,” Geiger said. “So therefore to fix the fact that violence exists, you have to fix the fact that there are a lack of resources.”
One resource Geiger thinks would help is a youth or community center, so those most at risk have a permanent place to go for positive activities. But with or without those resources, Geiger said the primary goal is to “change the narrative” of the violence shaping the city.
“I don’t think the violence will shape us. I think the leadership by young people is going to shape us. I think that what’s beautiful about this is that it’s not focused on violence,” Geiger said.
But it is violence that continues. On the weekend Geiger spoke to VOA, 41 people were shot in the city, three fatally, underscoring the need to “increase the peace.”
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