‘Lil Neil had survived two shootings. But he was about to get shot again.
The 32-year-old West Humboldt Park man burglarized an apartment in another part of the West Side, known as K-Town. He stole some guns from one of the guys who lived there.
But the gun owner and his friends knew where he lived. One day in late April, they came to his home.
‘Lil Neil says he wasn’t there, but a cousin was. The men threatened to shoot ‘Lil Neil if he didn’t make good on the guns he stole.
‘Lil Neil is no pushover. He’s in one of the many gang “cliques” on the West Side. Guns and violence are part of his life. A close friend recently was gunned down on Chicago Avenue.
He has a reputation as being someone with “backbone,” a guy you don’t mess with.
Rumors were going around on the West Side about the standoff between ‘Lil Neil and the guys he stole from.
That’s when Tio Hardiman stepped in.
Hardiman, former executive director of CeaseFire Illinois, the well-known anti-violence program, has started his own organization, Violence Interrupters. He says its mission is to prevent shootings. Which he says is a little different than what he was doing in his last job: trying to stop retaliation after shootings.
Hardiman says he’s trying to get an audience with the mayor and the governor to explain his strategy, which is centered on restorative justice and “peace circles.” Peace circles have been tried recently in the Chicago Public Schools to resolve conflicts among kids. According to Hardiman, the concept originated long ago among Native Americans and New Zealand and Australian aboriginals.
Hardiman says he’s used peace circles this year to mediate 24 potentially deadly conflicts among gang members on the South Side and the West Side.
This past week, ‘Lil Neil and two other young men from different West Humboldt Park gang cliques agreed to talk with a Chicago Sun-Times reporter at a West Side community center about how peace circles kept ‘Lil Neil from being killed — or killing someone else. They asked not to have their last names published but allowed their photos to be taken.
‘It’s f—ed up over here’
‘Lil Neil’s home and the apartment he burglarized are both in the Chicago Police Department’s Harrison District. Of the city’s 22 police districts, Harrison has had the most murders this year: 25 as of a week ago. Even though killings are down citywide this year compared with the same period of 2018, murders are up 25 percent in Harrison.
“It’s f—ed up over here,” says Chris, one of the gang members, sitting at a table with ‘Lil Neil and Jermaine.
Shootings can be touched off by even a perceived slight, Chris says. Young guys on the West Side are walking around angry, some suffering from post-traumatic stress, he says.
“Black people go through so much pain, losing m———–s, going to jail, seeing their mamas struggle,” he says.
‘Lil Neil says a guy might shoot somebody just for calling him a “b—-.”
“You can’t stop it all, but you can stop a lot of it because a lot of it is senseless,” he says.
‘Lil Neil starts counting on his fingers the number of friends who’ve been killed. He stops and says, “So many.”
He says he’s trying to learn to restrain himself. He says a while back that guy was walking toward him on Chicago Avenue, and he could see the bulge of a gun under his hoodie.
“He was trying to show how tough he was because, when he walked past, he bumped me. I felt disrespected, but I ain’t say nothing.”
Quelling potentially deadly conflict
Hardiman has mediated two conflicts lately involving ‘Lil Neil. The first was about a squabble between two other guys over drugs. ‘Lil Neil was backing one of the two rivals. They sat down together, Hardiman says, and “squashed the beef.”
The mediation over the stolen guns was more dramatic.
“A lot of threats were going back and forth,” Hardiman says. “That ‘man stuff’ kicked in. These guys were talking crazy, wanting to kill him. Literally.”
‘Lil Neil says this wasn’t just about getting the guns back. “It was about the principle, like, ‘You gonna just take my s—, huh?’ ”
Hardiman says ‘Lil Neil’s father made some calls from jail to try to get the two sides to work things out.
“This could have spiraled out of control,” he says. “It was very intense.”
A deal was cut: ‘Lil Neil and his friends and family raised $600 to pay to the guys he took the guns from. And they shook hands.
“Once you agree, that’s it,” Hardiman says. “Your word’s got to be your bond.”
‘Lil Neil says he’s “cool” now with the guys in K-Town, the part of West Garfield Park where he stole the guns.
A way to ‘save face’
Hardiman, who also teaches a class on restorative justice at North Park University, says young guys like ‘Lil Neil need an outlet to talk about conflicts in a way they can “save face.”
“You don’t want nobody thinking they can come and take something from you with no consequences,” he says.
He says he and his staff follow up a few months after each peace circle to make sure things are still OK.
“We try our best to stop things before there is a shooting,” Hardiman says. “I got tired of going to families after someone was shot already.”
‘Lil Neil, Jermaine and Chris say they trust Hardiman. They say he shows up in the worst parts of the toughest neighborhoods.
“My aunties, feel me, they voted for him,” ‘Lil Neil says of Hardiman and his run for governor in 2014, when he got 28% of the vote in the Democratic primary against incumbent Pat Quinn.
“You always see him on TV. A lot of guys be like that but don’t really be interactive. I can’t name too many peoples like Tio.”