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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. This has been a summer of blood, sweat and tears in Chicago. This week alone, at least 14 people were killed in Chicago, more than the number of those killed in the Colorado movie theater shooting.
The city has been scorched by historic heat, and the homicide rate has soared. Three hundred and two people - many of them teenagers and children - have been killed as of today. That's nearly a 40 percent increase over last year. When the sun goes down behind the glimmering Lakeshore skyline, blocks on the south and west side of the city can ring with shots and sirens...
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SIMON: ...while the streets of neighborhoods like Englewood, Grand Crossing, and Garfield Park are empty, even during the day.
In the middle of this summer, it is rare to see a child ride a bike or walk a dog. A woman named Michelle Harris told us at a community meeting at the Englewood police station:
MICHELLE HARRIS: A child should not have to say I can't go out because I might get shot. That's bad, that's bad.
SIMON: Chicago's street gangs span generations. The Black P. Stone Nation and Gangster Disciples gangs are older enterprises than Microsoft or Yahoo. You can see some of those same names on police blotters this summer. But they may be names that smaller gangs just put on, like a Yankees or White Sox cap. The word most people now use is cliques.
Jeff Williams is a former gang member. Tattoos roll from his wrists to his shoulders. He now works in the streets for Ceasefire, a group that tries to quell gang violence, and sees a lot of this summer's killings as personal.
JEFF WILLIAMS: A lot of cliques, getting into it with each other basically over, you know, real senseless things. You know, it can range from somebody stepped on the shoe to a guy swerving in the street, somebody got wet with a water gun and didn't want to get wet with a water gun. It's just anything. Anything can spark at any given time.
SUDHIR VENKATESH: Those shootings are often for jealousies at school, fighting over a girlfriend, or fighting over something that someone might have said on a street corner.
SIMON: Sudhir Venkatesh, who now teaches at Columbia University, spent several years of research in Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes housing project. He wrote the bestselling "Gang Leader for a Day," in which he ran with the Black Kings gang and analyzed their business model. He says large gangs that grew rich and treacherous selling drugs were scattered when many gangbangers were jailed - or killed by each other.
VENKATESH: Ironically, you went from a situation in which gangs for a long time had an interest in keeping the neighborhood safe, because if you didn't have violence you have a thriving drug market, no police were around, you weren't getting arrested to the situation now where just the basic thrill for a lot of these young people of having a gun, of being able to act like a man as it were.
SIMON: Jeff Williams says:
WILLIAMS: I wouldn't actually call it a gang thing because there's no structure in what they have going on, because at any given time they can just randomly shoot somebody or hurt somebody because he's not from around here. It's just random acts of violence, period.
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SIMON: We were in the Ceasefire office when they got an urgent call. A grandmother had called a few days before to say she was worried for her grandson because he was in a dispute with a gang member. Tio Hardiman, Ceasefire's director, said the group sent a team of former gang members to the scene to mediate. They thought they had an agreement for everyone to cool off. But Tio Hardiman said:
TIO HARDIMAN: I just found out that somebody came over and burnt up the grandmother's car and one of the grandson's - somebody burnt up one of the grandson's girlfriend's car.
SIMON: The grandmother had informed on the gang, and the gang burned her car. Each side now had a new reason to be angry. More sparks for a new crime in this hot summer.
HARDIMAN: Oh, yeah, it's beyond anger now because the grandmother, she's innocent in this whole situation, and the word we're getting now from the one side is, look, now you've really crossed the line. That's my grandmother's car, man.
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SIMON: Dusk is about an hour away in Englewood when we hear the thump and swish of kids shooting baskets. The heat still hovers near a hundred. Little boys in thin shorts and tattered tee-shirts seem to work the ball toward a broad-shouldered, bare-chested young man who ducks his head when we ask if anyone is in a gang. We had been told that he is. When we asked why kids join gangs, they say to get respect, to be known.
One of the little girls says people are looking to find a way to fit they can fit in so they won't get jumped on. People join gangs because they think it will make you safer, live longer.
We asked Dave Rivers who also works for Ceasefire why so many children who have seen that gangs do not make them safer or live longer, still join.
DAVE RIVERS: OK, let's define gang, right. In a 13-year-old mind there is no negative as far as this can lead me to jail or a funeral home. In their mind, this can lead me to prosperity, this can lead me to not being hungry when my mother can't afford food.
SIMON: There's a young man down this street who's about to turn 16. He's a good student at Paul Robeson high school nearby and says that gangs have tried to drag him in. He's been able to stay free - so far. We agreed not to use his name.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There's some - most people do it for popularity because being in a gang does get you a lot of cool points.
SIMON: It gets you a lot of cool points?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
SIMON: Why so many more murders this summer, do you think?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There is supposedly a war going on in Englewood.
SIMON: Who's the war between?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Between the Gangster Disciples and the Black Disciples.
SIMON: And what are they about?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Power, but other than that I don't know power over what, over like territory. Only this block is BDs and then the next block is GDs. So I mean, like, that's stupid, I mean, that's crazy, they're fighting over, like, blocks. And that's stupid.
SIMON: Neighborhoods like Englewood have been beset with crime and joblessness for decades. Why has the murder rate jumped so much this year? It may partly be what military intelligence experts sometimes call blowback; actions that have unintended consequences. The sprawling Chicago public housing skyscraper projects - Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini Green - built in a burst of 1960s enthusiasm were torn down over the past decade. They had become high-rise hothouses for drugs, gangs and crime.
But Sandra Hobbs of Englewood, who has two sons, a daughter and two grandchildren at home in her apartment, says that when the projects came down, crime and gangs gushed into neighborhoods.
SANDRA HOBBS: They were killing each other and breaking into people's homes. And so when they tore that down, that filtered right into the Englewood community. I've never seen so many killers, but when they took down them projects, it just went chaotic.
SIMON: Mike Shields, a Chicago patrolman who's now president of the Federation of Police, believes another reason may be that the police successfully rounded up many street gang leaders in recent years.
MIKE SHEILDS: And now some of those gangs are, you know, out there without a true hierarchy or a leader and each corner, you know, is their own turf and they're fighting over different corners and, you know, people are getting killed over who's controlling, you know, what dope spot on some of these corners in Chicago.
SIMON: He says police could protect world leaders at the NATO Summit meeting, where President Obama invited them to talk about security in Afghanistan. But it's harder to safeguard people who live in South Side neighborhoods that are the president's home turf than heads of state.
SHEILDS: We were a well-oiled machine during that event. Every other night though, you know, we are out gunned we are out staffed they know, the gangbangers know there are more gangbangers out there than there are Chicago police officers.
SIMON: Chicago's city government is tearing down hundreds of abandoned buildings this summer to prevent them from being used to sell drugs or store weapons. And Mayor Emanuel has pledged to hire another 500 police officers, despite a city budget deficit of $600 million dollars. But police say it's hard to deter crime with patrols when so many of the murders seem random, wild altercations over shoes, girls or insults.
Alderman Rod Sawyer, whose 6th Ward includes part of Englewood, says he believes more police might help chase away gangs. So would more jobs, and better housing.
ROD SAWYER: Just like, you know, when you turn off the light, roaches come. You know, you turn on the light. When it's bright and vibrant and clean, they don't want to have anything to do with it because they can't eat.
SIMON: But he doesn't hold the police or City Hall solely responsible.
SAWYER: I want to make sure that the neighbors understand that we have to stand up, we have to positively loiter. We have to be outside watering our grass, walking our dogs, you know, playing with our children at night in order for us to continue the American dream.
SIMON: Despite the shooting and sirens she can hear, Sandra Hobbs sits in her window each night in Englewood. She barks what are you doing? at young men who walk by. She commands her two sons to get home. And if they don't, she rolls into the streets in her wheelchair to look. She was in the Insane Gangsters gang herself when she was 14.
HOBBS: Gangs like girls, and we was the girls. That's was what it was about.
SIMON: But someone in the gang threw Sandra Hobbs off of a balcony. It was an act of savagery that crippled her for life, but saved her from gang life.
HOBBS: You know, I don't sit on that pity pot and worry about what took place back then. I worry about what's taking place now and how to keep my kids from getting into the ruck of things that I had got myself into and that's how come I stay close-knit with my boys. I wanna know everything.
SIMON: As dusk settled down, we asked Sandra Hobbs what she was going to do this night in Englewood.
HOBBS: What am I gonna do tonight? I'm gonna triple lock my door here, I'm gonna lock this door here, I'm gonna triple lock the door in the back, and lock my other door. And me and my kids are gonna get into bed and we're gonna just look at TV. We look at TV, we play video games...
SIMON: Sandra Hobbs says she tells her sons to get out of Englewood during the day, go downtown, see the lake, the safe parks and skyscrapers, see people laughing. She tells them, don't let the world around you be your whole world.
HOBBS: My son ain't gonna tell you, but one of his things, he just smacked me and said, mom, I wants to go off into criminal justice because it's good money and coming to clean up the bodies in Englewood. Then he say, Mama, people are going to die all the time and I wanna be able to be the one to come and pick up the bodies.
SIMON: And many in Chicago worry that the bloodshed won't end with the summer's heat, but will just keep boiling. This story was produced by Claudine Ebeid with the assistance of Natalie Moore of WBEZ in Chicago. You're listening to NPR News.