With all the sensational media coverage on murders in Chicago, some of which labeling the city as the "murder capital of the world," one point is often clearly missing: compared to 20 years ago, murders in Chicago have considerably decreased. In spite of 2012 being the first year since 2008 that Chicago recorded over 500 murders, something seems to be working to keep Chicago murders from being over 900 as they sometimes were in the early 1990s.
On average, there were 470 victims of homicide per year from 2007-2011, compared to the average of 899 per year they killed in the first five years of the 1990s— an average decline of 48 percent. In fact, of all Chicago's 25 police districts, only District 8 (the West Lawn area) recorded an increase in murders over those periods: an average of 21 murders in the earlier period compared to 32 murders in the more recent period. While these numbers are hardly cause for celebration, an important question is raised: what are the factors behind the decline in the murder rate?
Here, I spoke with citicizens who are very familiar with Chicago’s mean streets to find out what they see as the reasons behind the changing trend. Requests to interview Chicago Police Superintendent Garry Mccarthy on this matter have been unanswered.
After I watched his wheelchair basketball game against firefighters in Cicero, IL, Eric Watkins introduce me to Dirk Alkin, better known as Don Dirk. “I am one of the founders of the Black Disciples. I replaced David Barksdale in the nation, after he died,” Don eventually said. He returned from prison over two years ago after serving 5 years for what he calls, “a narcotic sales setup; conspiracy to distribute.”
When asked why he believes murders in Chicago have decreased over the last 20 years, he offered, “It seems like the organization that we were once a part of, took a wrong turn when they incarcerated most of the founders and the leaders…They provided needed services to our community, and protection by keeping order…Black Disciples, El Rukn, Vice Lords, GDs, BDs, all of them.”
Arthur "Bo" Stringer, also a member of the Black Disciples, and founder of local non-profit Developers of Dreams, agreed with Don Dirk: “It was an influx of drugs coming in our communities; drugs, guns, and street organizations don't mix…We first received government grants to help the community, and when that money ran out, we turned to the drugs that flooded our communities to feed our families."
"Fathers were grabbed from the homes and jailed for what they did to feed their families, and that led to further chaos and murders from misguided youth.”
Don explained, “In jail, we had a universal communication among brothers. I don't care what organization you was in, we came together as a united nation. We had peace in jail, and a lot of us that got out brought out most of that peace to the streets with us…. We are telling the brothers to grab your nieces and nephews, your children, let's be community again.”
Both men asserted that community organizations and individuals who help ex-offenders have done a lot to help bring down the rate of violence in our neighborhoods. According to Don: “We have the Stones, Lords, BDs, GDs working together; Kenny Parker or KP, he's been out there, getting with all the organizations that he could, to bring about peace; you got the Nation of Islam doing the same thing; Marilyn Pitchford on the outreach part of [the] Ceasefire organization; Maurice Perkins of Inner City Youth and Adult Foundation, Audrey Wright of Gordie's Foundation, and many others [are doing the work.]"
A few days after we first spoke, Don and Bo took me to tour Gordie's Foundation in Englewood, and the Inner City Youth and Adult Foundation located a few blocks away from the former Robert Taylor Homes, a housing project that was located in the Bronzeville neighborhood. Don credits both of those organizations for helping him rebuild his life after prison, and being able to promote peace in Chicago communities.
Audrey Wright started Gordie's Foundation in 1998 after her son, Gordie, was shot and killed in a drive by on Chicago's streets.
“I did not feel the hatred and vengeance after my son was killed…I help ex-felons to get off the streets to train, and get a job, and be somebody, because everybody want to put them in a cage…We can be a better world to get those people out of a cage, to get back on the streets, and stop the killing; the younger generation up under them. Be a role model….”
My tour of Gordie's Foundation revealed Englewood's diamond in the rough, in Englewood with capacities for sewing, computer repair, t-shirt printing, and other skills. I spoke with one woman who had spent 17 years in prison for murder, and learning how to repair computers. “I can now learn a skill as I try to build my life back,” she said as she began reassembling a desktop.
A visit to the Inner City Youth and Adult Foundation revealed yet another neighborhood gem working to help formerly incarcerated persons rebuild their lives. There I met Anthony Porter, a formerly wrongfully incarcerated Black man who was placed on death row, Maurice Perkins and his wife who run the organization, and Marilyn Pitchford, program manager and outreach worker for Ceasefire. They, too, agreed that there is a quiet revolution currently going on in Chicago, where heroes have been coming together to provide life building services to the formerly incarcerated, and youth with the intentions of preventing violence, especially those that lead to homicides.
However, most of the organization are straining on limited funds and resources and are calling for assistance. “We are putting our lives on the line to do the work that needs to be done on the streets. We need people to join us and invest in our communities to save the lives of our children,” Pitchford stressed.
NOTE: On Tuesday, April 9th, the author will be leading a discussion on why murders have declined in Chicago. All are invited to attend. The event will take place at Chicago State University's Douglas Hall in Room 103 from 12:30-2:00pm.
Dr. Peter K. B. St. Jean is the Executive Director and Founder of Peaceful World Movement, an adjunct professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Governors State University and University at Buffalo Department of Sociology, and the Coordinator of Pathways to Responsible Fatherhood at Haymarket Center, Chicago. He is also the author of Pockets of Crime: Broken Windows, Collective Efficacy and the Criminal Point of View.