Disheartening week — and year — for Mothers Against Senseless Killings, but their work continues

Founder Tamar Manasseh lashed out at police after she warned them — to no avail — in an attempt to stop violence at a funeral where 15 people were shot. It comes a year after two of her volunteers were slain.

SHARE Disheartening week — and year — for Mothers Against Senseless Killings, but their work continues
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Tamar Manasseh (center) speaks with a contractor at small classroom set up in shipping containers by Mothers/Men Against Senseless Killings at 7500 W. Stewart Ave.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

For Mothers/Men Against Senseless Killings’ founder Tamar Manasseh, the last several days, and months, have been disheartening, to say the least.

The creator of the nationally recognized anti-violence group put her life on the line in hopes of stopping violence in Gresham and Englewood by tipping police to potential retaliation at a funeral Tuesday.

But although police were posted outside the funeral, they weren’t able to stop one of the most violent incidents in memory from taking place after 15 people were struck by bullets in a shootout between rival gang members.

To Manasseh, the police department’s inability to prevent the incident even after she gave them multiple warnings is a huge failure — and a signal to the community that they’re on their own.

“I’m going to the police saying, ‘We both don’t want kids to get killed, we want them to have a life, so I need your help,’ and they still let this happen,” Manasseh said in an interview.

“I’m shocked, I’m appalled,” she said.

That the incident happened almost a year after two of her volunteers were killed, and just a little over a mile away, was all the more jarring. That double murder of two moms, which she believes might be connected to the incident Tuesday as well as another slaying less than a block from MASK’s base, remains unsolved.

“None of this even had to happen,” she wrote in a series of emotional posts on Facebook this past week. “If the police won’t protect us, then what? Seriously, we just wait to die or move out of the city?”

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Tamar Manasseh

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Manasseh said the situation is having an impact on recruiting people to stand up to the violence — like she has done for years.

“That joy of people wanting to volunteer for something good is gone,” she said. “People are scared to come outside because everyone knows who the murderers are, but the police are not getting them.”

Police Supt. David Brown denied his department ignored her warnings and said police assigned two squad cars to the funeral and a full tactical team was in the area, the same security provided for any funeral where gang conflict could flare up. He said the fact the funeral was for Donnie Weathersby, killed in a drive-by shooting earlier in July, also put police on alert.

“Every gang funeral with any evidence of any kind of gang affiliation is treated similarly. ... Regardless of the warnings given, if we didn’t even get a warning, we treat every funeral or wake or repass the same way, so it’s not an accurate account,” he said at a news conference.

Ending the cycle of violence

It’s not that Manasseh is naive about the violence that plagues the South Side and other parts of the city.

She started MASK, which some dubbed the “Army of Moms,” in 2015 after a murder in the neighborhood led her to team up with moms in an effort to “occupy” a lot on the southwest corner of 75th Street and Stewart Avenue in hopes of preventing retaliation.

Since then, the moms held the corner down, holding sometimes daily barbecues and watching neighborhood kids ride bikes and play while encouraging young men to stay out of the cycle of violence.

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Neighbors attended a Mothers Against Senseless Killings block party on Sunday August 26, 2018

Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times

While the volunteers’ presence was largely successful in minimizing violence, things took a turn for the worse a year ago Sunday. That night a blue SUV rolled by the corner and someone inside shot into a crowd, just a couple hours after a MASK barbecue. Chantell Grant and Andrea Stoudemire, two mothers who volunteered with MASK, were gunned down while on their weekly neighborhood watch.

The shooting happened just five days before MASK was set to open Peace of Pizza, a restaurant in Beverly aimed at giving jobs to youth and helping fund some of the group’s education programming.

Making things worse, Metra unexpectedly closed off the street where the storefront was located to make repairs to a rail crossing, derailing the opening. A freezer also went bad. The business lost more than $13,000 during the 10-day closure.

Then, Manasseh was diagnosed with cancer (she’s currently getting treatment), and she decided to close the restaurant and focus on building a neighborhood learning center, a longtime goal for many MASK volunteers.

“I had to concentrate on getting through this new thing I’m dealing with, and I was beginning to stretch myself thin,” she said. “So I made the decision to focus on building our school on the corner.”

In mid-December a shipping container filled with gifts for a neighborhood Christmas party was wrongfully towed from in front of MASK’s headquarters.

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One of the classrooms run by MASK.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

But despite the setbacks, in March, the construction of the learning center was completed. Four metal shipping containers were transformed into classrooms that will be used by kids who need computer access, tutoring or a place to study. At night they can be used for GED classes.

The project was completed after MASK had helped two young men from the neighborhood go to trade school. Once they were done, the men led the construction of the project. Now, Manasseh hopes the classrooms can be a pipeline for more neighborhood kids to to go into the trades.

But attracting families to the program has been a challenge, first with the outbreak of the coronavirus and now with the heightened violence. The reality that few murders end up in an arrest is also a deterrent, as it leaves adults in the neighborhood in fear of young teens with guns, she said.

The city’s murder clearance rate in 2019 was about 53%, according to CPD figures — up more than 50% in three years. But last year, NPR reported the police murder clearance rate for Black victims was less than 22%.

“People are also scared to leave their kids at our school now with people shooting indiscriminately here,” Manasseh said. “We can’t help 4th and 5th graders if no one is signing up and if those kids aren’t being taught important lessons, like learning a trade early, those kids can turn to be one of those murderers — it’s just a cycle.”

Moving ahead

But despite everything going on, Manasseh and MASK have vowed to continue doing their vital work.

They are leading the “People and Pets Pantry,” a food drive for residents because “danger or not, people and their pets need to eat.” The next pantry is Aug. 15 at 75th and Stewart.

And despite her fears, Manasseh said MASK will be pushing forward with opening classrooms in September, since children whose parents cannot work from home may have nowhere else to go on the days where they are slotted to take classes remotely.

So far, 60 kids are enrolled.

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Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

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