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Chicago’s gang violence makes all of us less safe, and kids are paying the price

While the nation focuses on a racial reckoning, communities of color are still losing too many lives to gang shootings.

A 14-year-old girl shot in the head Wednesday in Back of the Yards is another victim of Chicago’s gang violence.
A 14-year-old girl shot in the head Wednesday in Back of the Yards is another victim of Chicago’s gang violence. Sources say the shooting was linked to an ongoing conflict between two gangs
Anthony Vázquez / Sun-Times

If a child were drowning in Lake Michigan, an adult would jump in to help without a second thought.

Nothing is more urgent than saving the lives of our children.

But we can’t figure out how to save children growing up in neighborhoods in the grip of gang violence?

That seems absurd.

At this moment, when the nation’s focus — at least the focus of those people who want to change the world for the better — is on healing the racial wounds inflicted on Black and Brown people, we are still losing too many lives in communities of color due to gang violence.

And before you go there, it’s not Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s fault or the Chicago Police Department’s fault or the alderman’s fault that the gang structure still exists in Chicago.

During the past three decades, the city has tried targeting gang members with measures including the passage of the Chicago Gang Congregation Ordinance, which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled was unconstitutional, finding that it violated the 14th amendment and due process.

After the feds’ sweeping prosecution of Chicago’s gang leaders on drug conspiracy charges in the early 1990s, things seemed to get worse, not better.

With open-air drug markets flourishing on the West Side and South Side and territorial disputes being settled with guns, the city’s aggressive policing strategy led to taxpayers being out millions of dollars to settle police brutality lawsuits.

Now, children as young as toddlers are getting caught in gang crossfire.

The latest victim of this gang violence is a 14-year-old girl who was with her boyfriend walking her dog Wednesday in Back of the Yards when three gang members confronted her, asking whether if she was in a gang.

When she answered no but that a relative is in what turned out to be a rival gang, they chased her down, and one of them shot her in the head. The girl remained hospitalized in critical condition Friday.

Is this really the best we can do?

Young people trying to navigate the pitfalls in their neighborhoods too often are at risk because of other young people who have chosen a different path.

What about them? What more can be done to help them? Don’t they deserve more of a chance to reach their dreams?

We’ve heard enough about gang culture to know that neglected or abused children are at risk for joining a gang.

Unfortunately, some children are growing up in homes where the gang culture is passed down as an inheritance, and others join a gang for the street protection it offers.

But like poor housing, lack of jobs and bad schools, gang violence is turning people away.

On Wednesday evening, I celebrated my granddaughter’s 14th birthday with family at an excellent restaurant in the suburbs. A couple of years ago, the celebration would have taken place at a downtown or neighborhood restaurant.

But when something as horrible as the 14-year-old girl being shot in the head happens, it brings you face to face with your own vulnerability.

I have never heard of gang members shooting a girl over a gang affiliation, let alone one who said she’s not a gang member.

Throughout the dinner, I kept thinking about how blessed I am. My granddaughter is safe. But I worry: For how long?

I don’t have the answers to ending gang violence. The only people who might are the people involved.

What I do know is that when children feel they are loved and protected at home, they are less likely to pick up a gun in the street.

I salute Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), who has stood up and confronted gang violence in his ward even though that could put him in the line of fire.

It takes courage to put your own well-being at risk to save someone else.