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Our first American shooting…(updated)

October 14, 2017

For those of you who don’t know, for most of the last 25 years I have been a crisis youth counselor working in Toronto and Halifax with homeless youth, imprisoned youth, gang-involved youth, and young men needing anger management support. In that time I developed a pretty good sense for abuse, potential violence, a broken spirit, and such things. Like a seasoned cop, I can feel something not right in a situation, before I even know “what’s not right”.

So, today, when I cycled down to Morse Street (north Chicago) to go to the grocery store and my spider senses suddenly started tinkling, I instinctively looked around to see what was happening.

Any street worker who has been in their job for any length of time will tell you, that you develop spider senses for “bad vibes” on the street. Most people never have any street sense because they are merely going about their business, lost in thought, never giving the people around them two seconds worth of thought. Because people are busy living their urban lives, they rarely see even 5% of what is happening on the streets at the best of times.

But it is often the “street” that I see first. I’m not saying this to be righteous or anything, it’s just a fact of my many years at a particular job where I was trained to see the streets through the eyes of the marginalized.

Morse Street is an otherwise inconspicuous north-end Chicago street that was at one time quite tough, but is now about 95% gentrified and therefore an otherwise innocuous place.

When  the news popped today that Chicago has been ranked as one of the safest cities in the world, it was with streets like Morse that they must have had in mind. It now has cafes, restaurants, trendy food markets, a weekend farmer’s market, a refurbished theatre house, art shops, a subway stop, tons of pedestrians – all the things that a regular and safe city street has.

So it was with this nothingness in mind, that I was locking my bike to a stand outside a café on a beautiful sunny 26C Friday afternoon and I was thinking of little else but the iced latte I was about to get before walking across the street to the market (to get some ricotta cheese) when my spider sense started to tingle.

I looked up just as 5 or 6 young men – maybe 18 to 23 years of age – came walking around the corner of the street opposite the café. At first glance, they were just a bunch of young men who could be going to one of the sports pubs on the street. They were jovial, at ease with the afternoon.

But I realized that they weren’t actually going anywhere. They were milling. They were congregating actually. Others soon joined them. The one standing in the middle of the group was obviously in charge. He was dressed better, he was being deferred to. I then watched as other young men came over, greeted the man in the middle, and then they went to various corners on our block and stood watch – sentinels.

Gang-bangers I thought to myself. What are they doing on Morse at 4 o’clock on a Friday afternoon?

Two possibilities: they are either waiting for something, or someone.

When I come out of the market I see that they are still there, standing and laughing with each other across the street. I scan the length of the street and see that the sentinels have not moved. I watch as people walk right past them, no clue or thought that they are even there.

Not my problem, I think to myself, and there’s nothing I could do anyway, even if I did know what they are, or might be, up to.

~~~~~

There is a second level of interpretation I can also bring to this scene.

They were all Black young men. They were not dressed in any particular gang-affiliated way that one could readily access. To my untrained eye they were dressed as typical young men we see everywhere in Chicago. (I know absolutely nothing about the gang situation in Chicago.)

So I run a litany of self-questions through my head. Am I attaching stereotypes to this group of young men? Am I projecting? Where’s my privilege?

So what wasn’t right about the scene?

What struck me was that they all had a casual comfort with owning that particular spot on the street where they had grouped that you wouldn’t see from typical young  men of their age. This is hard to explain, but makes more sense when you get older. Their comfort told me that they knew they had each other’s back, that they moved and reacted as a group, that they did not need to worry about anything from anyone.

As young men we are usually just not that comfortable with ourselves, or with the public spaces we are in. It’s mostly just part of being that age: awkward, horny, angry, fidgety, in competition with ourselves, with our peers, with everyone else around us, that we usually don’t know how to relax. Triple that for young Black men. They are watched more closely, they are exponentially hassled that much more by authority figures, no on trusts them.

These guys, however, were way chill.

Too chill.

Anyway, I got on my bike and I came home.

And by the time I had put my bike away, I had forgotten all about them.

~~~~~

An hour later my partner gets a text to meet some university cohorts for a drink. They happen to be in our neighborhood and come meet them at a pub on Morse for a beer.

Sure, why not, she says, and I agree to walk with her to the bar, and then maybe I’ll walk over to the boardwalk – it’s a great night for a stroll.

We are three blocks from Morse and Glenwood when we see 3-4 cop cars and their swirling blue lights. A helicopter appears overhead, shredding the early evening air, hovering over everything like a giant insect.

When we get to Morse, the subway underpass is taped off, cops are yelling at pedestrians to stay back from the red crime scene tape, plain clothes detectives are looking around and taking notes. The ambulance has already left. There are little numbered markers beside the numerous bullet casings. Our first instinct is to look for cameras, as it looks like a scene straight out of NYPD, or some such TV cop show.

I overhear someone ask what happened, someone else responds that there had been a gang shooting.

People who must have witnessed it are talking to police officers. They have those vacant eyes one gets at such times of trauma, and they have that far-away stare, like they are looking down into Middle Earth or something. “There but for the grace of God”… their eyes seem to be saying.

On adjacent side streets other cop cars buzz this way and that.

Coincidence? Statistically possible, but I doubt it.

~~~~~

Everyone stops to gawk for a few minutes, then realize they were going somewhere. They snap out of the moment and realize they have to get on with their business. What else can you do in a city of 5 million? People are expecting us.

I hear people complain that they now have to walk to the other subway entrance as this one has been taped off. Cars angrily honk at each other because drivers are quickly confused as to how to get around the suddenly taped off street. We wonder aloud if the pub might be still open, or did it have to close? My wife checks for any text updates. I see an old Black woman crying under the street light across from us. Another woman stops and hugs her.

This whole drama plays out amongst total strangers.

~~~~~

Ironically, I had just posted to Facebook that ridiculous Economist Intelligence Unit article that had proclaimed Chicago to be one of the safest cities in the world (who the hell is the EIU anyway? Chicago actually ranked 19th of 60 cities surveyed. Toronto was #4).

I assume that their findings do not include the south side of Chicago. (That’s okay, because we have learned already that for most people south-side does not really exist. Well, except for University of Chicago, or maybe Soldier Field. Otherwise it may as well be on another planet.)

Coming to Chicago, the general advice we got was that you want to avoid the south-side as much as possible. Sure, there are neighborhoods there that are gentrifying, and have some groovy new restaurants, but generally speaking, cab yourself directly to where you want to go down there, and cab yourself out. For, as we are led to believe, vast stretches of it are a wasteland, are gang controlled, and where the Boogie Man lives.

The south side is considered a non-space – both physically and psychically – a nothingness, a shadowland, the dark side of the moon for most other Chicagoans.

~~~~~

It’s a different tingle one gets from the air in the aftermath of a violent crime. I have read of how empaths are overcome with a deep sense of sorrow; sensory overload from all the fear and trepidation and sadness that permeates the people in the vicinity.

The air is a little bit like just after a lightning blast – it smells and tastes different. It is quiet, because there are no passing cars (the street has been closed), yet people speak in murmurs. Some mothers are crying. Children look up at their parents in confusion.

~~~~~

The helicopter is still smashing at the air as I leave my partner at the bar with her new friends, and I go for a walk along the boardwalk.

I notice that 12 and 14 year olds playing basketball occasionally stop and look up at the helicopter.

An elderly Black lady, sitting on a bench watches it to. As I pass she asks “Is that what I think it means?”

I stop and look at the helicopter. I nod affirmatively. “Yea, there was a shooting outside the Morse Station,” I say to her.

“Awh, that’s too bad,” she says. She goes on looking at the copter.

“The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, don’t he?” she says quietly, almost as if she was speaking to herself.

“Yea, I suppose He does… Have a nice evening,” I say to her and walk on.

“Thank you. And you to,” she says to me as I walk off.

South-side homicides barely make the news here. A recent quadruple daylight execution only got about two inches of coverage on page 15 of the daily newspaper.

I think to myself that I should pick up a newspaper tomorrow, see how they spin this.

I doubt that they will care much about the Black men involved, but I bet people will be plenty pissed that it happened up here.


The morning after update: It seems the intended targets were at least three youths. Two of the targets escaped in a car, the third, a 13 year-old boy, though in serious condition, is expected to survive. However, a 64 year-old White woman, a area resident and long-time teacher at the local Waldorf school, who was walking to the subway with her husband of 29 years, was fatally shot in the spray of bullets from the automatic weapon used in the attack (thank you NRA). She died almost immediately in her husband’s arms. This is the story now. There is no other story. (Oh, and these were just two of ten shootings that occurred in Chicago between 3:30 and 6:30 pm Friday evening…3 people dead, 7 wounded. )

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 16, 2017 12:13 am

    well done.

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