They’ve gathered, more than 50 friends and family members, forming a prayer circle in a parking lot at 93rd and South Halsted in Washington Heights. Outside a convenience store there, a single balloon bounces in the wind.
It’s a memorial to a man shot to death at the store last Aug. 18. Two men walked in and started shooting around 2:30 p.m. that day, and Oyedele Olupitan was killed. He was 42.
Now, drummers play traditional African music on djembes, and chatter fills the air. Some of those present wear traditional African attire and a man waves an African flag.
The music stops. Pastor Donovan Price walks to the center of the group and starts to pray.
“We pray also today that we can remain holding onto the Oye in all of us, to the Oye in the community, the Oye in our neighborhood, the Oye at the dinner table, the Oye taking their children from the laundromat safely, the Oye that knows that all the glitters ain’t gold out there,” Price tells them. “So we better dig for some gold on our own.”
As part of Operation Wake Up, which brings together police, activists, and community leaders, Price began to lead prayers in 2016 for the victims of violence in Chicago. Hearing story after story of lives lost to violence, he dedicated himself to help their families cope.
“Some of the parents that I’ve worked with still talk about the fact that I was there before they were, you know,” says Price, 54, a street pastor and minister at New Progressive MB Church, “In some cases, I was there, and they never were, you know. They’d never got to the scene.
“One mom found out the next morning that her daughter had been killed. But I was there and saw her daughter dead in the car, you know, prayed for her daughter at that level. And then, of course, there’s a feeling of comfort to know that, ‘Yeah, my daughter died, and I wasn’t there to take care of my baby, but there’s this guy. He prayed for her.’ ”
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, widespread job losses, and the civil unrest that followed the death of an African American man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white Minneapolis cop, Chicago saw a surge in murders this past year. Coming after three straight years of declining violence, it prompted new efforts by the police and Mayor Lori Lightfoot, including new police Supt. David Brown forming new units to address the rise in violence and try to improve community relationships with the police.
Community groups including My Block My Hood My City, GoodKids MadCity and others are pushing for better opportunities, especially in education, as another tool.
And there are individuals, dissatisfied with the rise in violence, who have stepped up to do their part — people like Price. And Olumide Olupitan. And Tyrone Muhammad. And Derrick Durr. In the face of the violence the city has seen and continues to experience, each has stepped up to do something to help people — to cope with loss, to stay off the streets, to find a better way.
In July 2016, Price, who had seen the effects of all of the shooting on the South Side, visited the family of Tacarra Morgan at their home in Englewood. Tacarra, just 6, had survived being shot in the stomach.
She was sitting on the porch when her house was riddled with bullets. Witnesses said people inside two passing vehicles started shooting at each other. One of their bullets hit Tacarra. More gunshots struck her house and neighboring homes.
“I was able to go and pray with their family at her house while she was in the hospital and notice the holes in the windows and walls of their house,” Price says. “Afterwards, I felt God saying to me, ‘You know what, the event was really kind of cute, but that’s not gonna help.’ ”
He decided to try to do something that would. Now, Price dedicates many nights to the streets, heading out after getting a call or text that someone has been shot. He goes to the crime scene, and he prays. Sometimes, he’ll see the victim’s family there.
He offers his help, with funeral arrangements, burial rites, or anything to provide comfort to the family.
Facing so much violence and grief exacts a toll.
“My life is this, and so, 24 hours a day it is constantly affecting me,” Price says. “You’re on your way finally home, and you think, ‘OK, now I’m home,’ and you start thinking about how bad off the pillow is going to be. But, for me, that stops at a certain level, even in coming home because it’s, like, ‘Well, I hope I can stay in bed all night.’ ”
Olumide Olupitan, 52, the older brother of Oyedele Olupitan, for whom Price prayed last summer after he was killed, grew up in a household that held strong to its Nigerian roots. Their father Pa David Olupitan was the founder of The Africa International House in Chicago and served on the African Chamber of Commerce.
Olumide Olupitan says he and his brother didn’t always see eye to eye, but their bond as brothers was strong.
“I was the first one to show him a lot of things,” Olupitan says. “I was the first one to inspire him, you know, the first one to protect him in the streets, the first one to kick his ass if he f----d up, if you understand what I’m saying. I was a real big brother.”
His brother wasn’t the intended target of the shooting. But what’s tragic, Olupitan says is that the violence that took his life is ever-present in some communities.
“That is not supposed to happen, man, not there in a place that in the community you grew up with, with people you are familiar with, a place that you’re familiar with, you know, that’s the last place that you will feel that you might lose your life,” he says. “And the chances are — just like that, anywhere, that any shooter decides to shoot.”
One day last summer in Englewood, Tyrone Muhammad, 49, stood at a vigil with the family of Vernado Jones, a 14-year-old boy who was shot and killed on the Fourth of July. Family members and friends gathered to remember Jones’ too-short life and to speak about how another life has been lost to guns and violence.
But go back more than 20 years, and Muhammad wouldn’t have been able to be in such a position. It was 1997, and, at 27, he was facing a future that held two decades and a year in prison — his sentence for killing a 21-year-old gang member named Robert Jones in retaliation for an earlier attack. Muhammad served his full 21 years and got out in 2017.
“Once arriving to prison, my first two years was about ‘woe is me,’ self-pity type stuff, trying to figure out, suicidal in nature,” Muhammad says. “I’m not doing 20 years. I can’t even see that, I can’t fathom the depths of 20 years and in a nine-by-12 cell. I think I want to run or jump over the gate and make them shoot me.”
He watched the constant flow of young men entering the prison system.
“I got tired and grew tired of watching 18- to 24-year-old young men coming in and out of prison, 20, 30, 40, 60, 80 years and never knowing or never thinking that they will have an opportunity towards life,” he says.
When Muhammad walked out of prison, he found himself in a different world. The city had changed drastically. The public housing projects were gone. Every time he headed downtown, he discovered new buildings, new developments. Englewood had changed, too.
He slowly learned to grasp the intricacies of things like the smartphone.
At the same time, he was grappling with trying to understand why it seemed the only thing that had stayed the same was the neglect of the communities where he grew up.
“The whole city seemed to have changed,” Muhammad says — except for “our communities, ours. So it’s more demoralized, it’s more blight, it’s more abandoned buildings, with the exception of the gentrified areas.
“So I’m seeing those dynamics, and I’m looking, like, ‘Wow, it’s worse than when I left.’ ”
Muhammad made a decision. He wanted to mentor young men. But he realized that first he needed to do something on the streets to ease the tensions he saw between gang members, to try, in the face of a shooting, to talk them out of retaliation.
He came up with a way to provide young men an alternative to selling drugs, to instead give them a chance for an alternative education, a way to get job experience, and an opportunity to volunteer themselves, all in hopes of guiding them toward a path of nonviolence.
“I got tired of young men, as I say, coming in and out, and the recidivism rate like a revolving door,” Muhammad says. “You know what, we got to change this because these people, it’s not that they don’t want to know or don’t want to listen. It’s just that we haven’t presented them an opportunity to be served.”
Muhammad founded an organization he called Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change. It offers programs that include mental health and drug counseling, help getting a GED, and reentering the normal world after prison.
He says he acted “on the basis of not waiting for outsiders to do for us what we are more than capable of doing for us. And it starts with us. We perpetrated, as I said, the violence. It’s on us to clean it up.”
At 10, Derrick Durr, 32, was dribbling a basketball in West Englewood when his neighbor got shot in the stomach. He saw it happen.
There was always a threat of violence growing up. It was something that was normalized. Schoolyard cliques translated to rival gangs and Durr could see where his future was leading.
“Just growing up poor, my idol was the dope dealer because I can’t touch Michael Jordan even though how great and a beautiful athlete and a well-spoken person he was,” he says. “I can’t touch him. But the guy making four, five thousand dollars a day? He goin’ to talk to me. That’s who I idolized, that’s who I can touch, that’s who can talk to me back.”
He sees his childhood as growing up in a war zone, with little choice but to become a soldier. By the time he was 16, Durr says he had already lost several friends to gang violence. He says he grew distant, the trauma of loss, violence, and poverty burying him deep in a dark hole he could see no way out of.
“I was in the shower one day,” Durr says. “And I had a cat. The cat knocked over a chair, and it made a pop. When it made that pop, I broke down in the tub, and I cried for two hours. Because you’re always on the defense out there on the streets.”
He says he began to look for an outlet to help handle the anxiety he always felt. And that brought him to a different, more-controlled form of violence: boxing. Durr started boxing in his early 20s, well past the age for anyone looking to be a pro fighter. But he was dedicated and he was motivated. He ended up winning two Golden Gloves championships and competed at an Olympic trials qualifier.
Boxing wasn’t an immediate way out, though. Durr says he still found himself pulled into violent behavior on the streets at times.
But he says boxing ultimately gave him the tools to move on from that life. Now, he uses that and boxing to try to help others even as he confronts his own past and how the trauma affected his mental health.
Durr knows from his own experience how important it is to help children and young adults cope with the violence they witness and the trauma they experience. He says he wants to motivate kids to find alternative forms of inspiration and goals and also wants to do what he can to help ensure that there is a safe space for victims of trauma in Englewood.
“We need a crisis counselor on hand for our children, there is no other way to go,” he says. “Just to reboot the brain while we still got them because, when I turned 24, I had nothing to do with my life. I didn’t expect to see 21. So, when I was 24, I’m on the street corner, hanging out, you know, doing whatever because I didn’t expect to get this far.
“We need to reboot the kids’ brains, motivate them, inspire and get them some crisis counseling. These kids have seen a lot, and it’s overlooked. Their trauma and healing is overlooked as well.”
At the visitation and funeral for Oyedele Olupitan, the casket is surrounded by flowers. His brother Olumide Olupitan asks that a piece of Nigerian clothing that belonged to their father be placed in the casket.
“We have so much PTSD right now, unconsciously,” Olupitan says. “People don’t even know what it is. So the plan is to let them know that lives can be lost forever, including yours. Or maybe your loved one, like I’ve just suffered, right?
“But know that, for you to send somebody to the morgue, you should visit the morgue yourself as a shooter, right? See some of the damage that you do, right? Then, maybe listen to a little Bible scripture, right? And then go talk to somebody for real for real.
“That is somebody that’s your neighbor or family member that just took a serious loss that might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Feel the emotion, but harness the energy, and understand that we pretty much killing ourselves.”
Oyedele Olupitan’s daughter Jasmine looks at the body of her dead father. She is holding her 3-year-old son Tacari in her arms. Olumide Olupitan reaches out to his great-nephew. Tacari glances at him, then looks back at the casket.
“That’s you,” the boy says, confusing his great-uncle with his dead grandfather.
Olupitan smiles and takes the boy everywhere he goes that day. They play outside. They try to do pushups. They take photos. He looks at Tacari and knows he needs to help ensure his nephew doesn’t end up taking the wrong path in life.
“You can follow this path and be a part of crime in the streets,” Olupitan says. “Or you can be a person who witnesses crimes, and those that witness are not always, therefore, a part of.
“But they are in the same place at the same time. So I want him to have the right perspective about who he is in the streets of Chicago.
“And if he knows the knowledge of his grandfather being killed by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, then maybe that might have an effect on how he moves.”
Anthony Vazquez covers the South Side and West Side for the Chicago Sun-Times. This dispatch is part of a series called “On the Ground” with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.
- Oyedele’s hands lie in rest under a piece of clothing placed by Olumide on the day of visitation that is based on Nigerian tradition that his father once wore. Oyedele’s family shared its proud history and roots in Nigerian tradition and to Olumide there was nothing more fitting than having his brother have those as a reminder. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
- A lone balloon is tied to a guardrail in front of the convenience store where Oyedele Olupitan was shot and killed the afternoon of the 18th of August, 2020. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
- Olumide Olupitan and his family are comforted as they mourn his brother’s death over an open casket at the funeral home, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
- Tyronne Muhammed listens to potential investors speak about the potential of building up the basement level of the building to classrooms where students could potentially learn trades such as electrical, construction, and auto work on Wednesday, July 15, 2020. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
- Basement of Ex-Cons for Community Service and Change where Tyronne and other members of the organization hop to build out an area of classrooms where students could potentially learn trades such as electrical, construction, and auto work in hopes of taking away some of the lure of street life. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
- A poster with photos of 14-year-old Vernado Jones Jr. who was one of eight people shot near 61st and Carpenter shortly after 11:30 p.m. on the Fourth of July held up at a vigil where members of the family and activists ask for help identify the shooter and pleaded for change in the community to prevent further gun violence in the community. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
- Posters dedicated to 14-year-old Vernado Jones Jr. who was one of eight people shot near 61st and Carpenter shortly after 11:30 p.m. on the Fourth of July. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
- Nancy Wardlaw-Williams, aunt of slain 14-year-old Vernado Jones Jr. who was one of eight people shot near 61st and Carpenter shortly after 11:30 p.m. on the Fourth of July. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
- Derrick Durr wraps his hand prior to sparring match during training. Though an escape from street life, Durr’s back and forth from the streets to boxing had a toll on his potential career. The stress, anxiety, and PTSD of the streets and his friends caused him stop boxing for months or years at a time as he dealt with the consequences of street life. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
- Derrick Durr stands in front of a vacant lot where his family used to live in Englewood. Hardship lead to the loss of house but luckily a family member was able to obtain the property rights. He hopes to be able to buy the lot back and build up his own home and live on the same block he grew up. September 30, 2020. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
- Pastor Donovan Price prays inside a prayer circle in the parking lot in front the convenience store where Oyedele Olupitan was shot and killed on August 18th. The prayer circle was formed as an ode to the Olupitan’s Nigerian roots August 25, 2020. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
- Olumide Olupitan holds balloons in the air after a prayer circle and vigil for his younger brother Oyedele Olupitan. The two brothers didn’t always see eye to eye but the death hurt Olumide. August 25, 2020. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times