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Editorial: A girl dies of asthma — another way violence kills

Jessica Williams, 16, died from an asthma attack early Thursday after witnessing a shooting. "She had to have been so scared and frightened to go into an asthma attack like that. She had to been," said her father, Wesley Williams, outside his home in the West Pullman neighborhood. "And now she's gone. I don't have my baby no more. | Provided photo

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Chicago should worry less about its image and more about how prevalent crime eats away at the very health of its citizens.

Last week, Ald. Patrick D. Thompson (11th) told Sun-Times columnist Mike Sneed he is not happy Chicago has been portrayed unfairly as the nation’s crime capital. We understand his frustration. Some other cities in fact have worse crime numbers than Chicago does. But that’s not the point, or it shouldn’t be. The point should be that violence here is not only serious, it also is insidious, eroding the physical and mental well-being even of residents who are not direct victims. Until we can get that violence under control, we much worry about any label that folks elsewhere in the nation care to paste on us.

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When Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, mother of Hadiya Pendleton, took her emotional appeal to fight gun violence along with other mothers at the Democratic National Convention Tuesday night, she wasn’t trying to undercut Chicago’s image. Hers was a call to Chicago — and America — to do more to help residents who live in neighborhoods where bullets fly all too often, where it’s not safe either day or night, where people virtually hide in their homes. Hadiya — a lasting symbol of that violence — was gunned down in in a park 2013, shortly after she had traveled to President Barack Obama’s second inauguration to perform as a drum majorette.

Hadiya Pendleton (AP Photo/Courtesy of Damon Stewart, File)
Hadiya Pendleton (AP Photo/Courtesy of Damon Stewart, File)

The larger public impact of urban violence was on display again this week when Jessica Williams, 16, suffered a fatal asthma attack as she ran for cover from gunfire that erupted in a dispute over a parking spot in the Back of the Yards. We’ll never know how many cases of hypertension, heart attacks, asthma and other illnesses can be traced back to violence in the streets. But Jessica Williams clearly was one of those unmarked casualties.

Study after study has showed that living in a violence-plagued environment takes a toll on health, even among people who are never actually shot, knifed or beaten. The American Psychological Association says post-traumatic stress disorder is “a common product of exposure to violence.” The U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine says researchers have demonstrated “a consistent link” between individuals’ perceptions of their neighborhood and their physical and mental health.

“Community violence is a leading mental health hazard in urban neighborhoods with well-documented effects on psychological functioning and behavior among urban youth,” the library said. A 2014 MacArthur Foundation study concluded: “There is a direct line from exposure to neighborhood violence and pollution to poorer health.” Other studies have linked exposure to violence to hypertension, coronary disease and strokes.

Given those links, imagine what is happening to the health of people in a city with more than 2,300 shootings this year and a number of homicides that is closing in on 400. A city where the shootings never stop. A boy was shot and critically wounded Thursday afternoon on the Lower West Side. A 17-year-old boy was shot late Thursday in North Lawndale. Late Thursday, a man and teen boy were shot in Austin and two men were shot in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood. Early on Friday, a man was shot in South Chicago. On Friday afternoon, one man was shot Friday afternoon in West Garfield Park and another was shot in Albany Park.

Jessica Williams’s father, Wesley Williams, has no doubt his daughter was a victim of gunfire, even though no bullet ever touched her.

“She had to have been so scared and frightened to go into an asthma attack like that,” Williams said Thursday. “And now she’s gone. I don’t have my baby no more. At 2:05 this morning, they pronounced her dead. My baby is gone. My baby is gone.”

The best way to improve Chicago’s image is not to argue over statistics. It’s to make this city safer for all of its citizens.

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