UK & World News
Chicago: Everyday Violence In US Murder Capital
An anonymous room in a quiet wing of a Chicago hospital - a dimly lit room is slowly filling up. Couples arrive holding hands. Others come alone, looking tentative and lost. None of them want to be here.
The sign on the door reads "Parents of Murdered Children Support Group". Over the next two hours they share their stories. They are shocking and heart-breaking.
Talk of gunshots, blood, violence, anger and revenge swirls around the room. What they're all bound by is a deep sense of loss. This is the seldom-seen side of an epidemic of violence.
The Windy City has plenty to brag about - pristine skyscrapers, a celebrated basketball team, Kanye West and another local guy who became president. Less illustrious are the latest FBI figures, which earned Chicago the title of America's murder capital.
A few miles from the gleaming architecture is Chicago's Southside - home to some of the most deadly gangs in America. A total of 506 people were murdered here in 2012 - more than in any other city in the United States.
For a nation overwhelmed by gun violence, daily shootings have become unremarkable. But for those who call these streets home, the cry for the killing to stop has rarely been louder.
During several trips to Chicago's Southside we tried to unravel the "murder capital" headline. Why are people killing each other at such a rate? How are the people left behind dealing with this American tragedy?
Bad traffic and lost lunchboxes are the chief worries on most school runs, but for Curtis Elementary parents the concerns are far graver.
At the end of the school day the school dean does a perimeter check. He's looking for that suspiciously parked car, the row in the street that could boil over - any sign whatsoever of gang activity.
Only when he's satisfied things look OK are the children allowed to leave. The streets they spill onto are some of the most dangerous in the country.
It is then up to the armed police to see the children home safely. Patrol cars cruise the area and officers line the way home.
Fluorescent-jacketed volunteers tell the children to button their coats or tie their shoelaces. What they are actually trained to do is spot a situation that could and has extinguished a carefree life.
This daily operation is called Safe Passage. It's the city's attempt to stop children as young as five from being shot.
Mother-of-two Susan Mace says guns are a constant worry.
"Sometimes you will hear gunshots early in the morning and I'll be like 'oh my god'," she said.
"In the morning time, before school hours for them. I worry something will happen to them. So that's a big issue for me."
Chicago's violence touches all ages, but overwhelmingly the victims are young black men in their late teens and early 20s. Not all of them are involved in gangs.
Dionte Maxwell was a bright boy with a promising future. His 23-year-old uncle, Chris, has to face the spot where his nephew was killed every single day.
They were at a party in his back yard when an armed gang tried to force their way in. Dionte's family know his killers because they live on the next block. I ask Chris if he ever feels like seeking revenge:
"Of course," he says.
"The easy way out was like to go and shoot them back, kill them in a worse way, like in their face, so their parents can't have an open-casket funeral. You think those thoughts."
His mother, Dionte's grandmother, Brenda interrupts.
"We don't want to retaliate and the reason is what good does that do?" she says.
"It might make you feel good for a few minutes, but you've got to think about this every day, like if we went back and killed his mother, and every day we have to live with that? And when does it stop?"
Local unsigned rap group the Loud Pack Team say their lyrics are about real life. For them, that includes drugs and guns.
Their reluctance to admit carrying a gun disappears in their music videos in which they proudly display their weapons. They rap about getting their first gun and the age of 12.
"We nicknamed it Chiraq, like Iraq, all that shooting and killing, a lot of guns out here," one member says.
"We call it Chiraq because that's how we feel, like we're in a war zone right now. People (are) dying every day."
Chicago's streets are dominated by a mind-boggling number of warring gangs and cliques.
They inhabit a world where standing on the wrong street corner can get you killed, where petty personal disputes are waged with guns.
Everyone is constantly watching their back. Insult someone on Facebook and you could wind up dead the next day.
We're repeatedly told it's easier to get a gun than a computer. Every year Chicago's Police recover more guns than any other city in the country: three times more than Los Angeles, nine times more than New York.
But there's no official way of tracking how so many guns are getting onto Chicago's streets.
Current laws allow straw purchases, which means one person could walk into a gun shop, buy 10 guns and then hand them out to their friends.
Church offers a sanctuary away from violence. Father Michael Pfleger is known and respected by pretty much everyone in this community, mainly because he isn't afraid to speak out.
"Guns are easy to come by," he says.
"I go to a grammar school and ask people who could get a gun and every hand goes up. So, if you don't find your self-esteem from school, from a job, from family, or from your neighbourhood, then you look for ways to feel valued, respected and important on the street.
"So what's one thing everyone can be? It's a shooter. So you don't need a job, you don't need an education to be a shooter. So you're out here and you're a shooter, you've got a name on the street.
"Maybe for a week, you've got a name on the street - 'you bad, you shot somebody'."
Father Pfleger runs an initiative called Peacemakers basketball, where rival gangs come together and play on the same team.
A year ago this was unthinkable, but now players say that on the street they will nod at guys they once would have pointed a gun at.
The programme is given kudos by the involvement of former gang members like Curtis, who used to lead the notorious Black P Stones.
"I try to tell them you only get one chance," he says.
"What I do is try to go to that inner part of their heart and ask them who is that one person in the world that you would give your life for. How would if feel for them to see you dead?
"You can't live your life like Black Ops. It's not a videogame. You don't get an extra life. Once you're dead, you're dead. Once you kill someone, they don't come back to life.
"And once you go out on that retaliation mission you only get that sense of fulfilment for a small amount of time."
As America remembers the shooting that shocked the nation - which saw 20 pupils and six staff members massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School - the man who runs this league says the plight of Chicago's Southsiders is being ignored.
"Newtown was horrific," he says.
"My problem was we were suddenly confronting violence in America after 20 white babies get killed. Five hundred and six children in Chicago get killed (and) it's just another day in Chicago, so race is definitely a part of it.
"If white children were being killed as much as black and brown children are getting killed, then we wouldn't be sat here talking about this violence."
This is a national problem. So far no one has a solution.
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