Monday, March 13, 2006

Mourning for Siretha, Chicago, all of us...

I hardly know what to write. I now live, almost literally, half a world away. And yet there is a part of me that still lives in Chicago, and always will. And a big part of that part, for whatever reason, identifies with Chicago's South Side.

I just read that two kids in eight days have been shot dead in crossfire in Englewood, one of the most hardscrabble of the South Side neighbourhoods. A week ago Friday, Starkesia Reed was shot at her home through a window. And then on Saturday, Siretha White was shot at her own surprise birthday party.

(Stories on Chicago Tribune here and here. Sorry, I think you need to register. Here's a Chicago Sun-Times article that I don't think requires registration; it also has pictures.)

I hardly know how to respond other than 'Lord, have mercy'.

How does it get this bad? How is it that entire generations of people, in this neighbourhood and others in Chicago, and in similar neighbourhoods in cities throughout the world, grow up in such desperation -- when they're allowed to grow up? How do we all, as Chicagoans, as Americans, as citizens of the Western World, as Christians -- heck, as humans -- allow this to go on? How can we look at ourselves in the mirror and even dare to think things are alright?

How can we look at our own children and think that?

Or is part of the problem that we don't look?

Is it possible that, through well-deployed forms of racism and subtly (and not-so-subtly) enforced segregation, we have the luxury of being thankful we don't live there, don't have to live there, but beyond that not being troubled by these faces, and not needing to push to change things? Is it their problem, and not ours? Are we eager to reduce the names and faces to abstract traits and numbers -- not Siretha White, but poor, African-American, murder #85 for the year* -- and so distance ourselves from these harsh realities and the fears (and guilt) they would stir up in us?

Not that we don't have fears and guilts of our own, the world is good at giving us those (sometimes in order to sell us things). But we easily become wrapped up in ourselves and the scale of the suffering in those around us, or not quite so near us, can be forgotten.

But most us probably don't have to pat down 13 year old kids when they come to our daughter's birthday party to see if they're packing heat. Most of us don't have to worry about teaching our kids to hit the floor at an instant's notice when they hear gunfire outside our house. Most of us won't have to worry about taking a call that our daughter or son has been shot, or that they have shot someone -- and that's a good thing, a very good thing.

But instead of guility (or smugly) turning away, how might we be present to those who routinely have to endure this? These people are our brothers and sisters, our aunts and uncles, our children, too. How can we make a change? How can we build bridges that defy the ways we've constructed our environment to keep us apart from each other?

Friends, I don't have any answers, except that these seem to be crucial questions.

Please, pray for Siretha, Starkesia, their families, Chicago, and all of us.

*But let's run the numbers, why not? The number 85 for Siretha was based on an extrapolation of a yearly total of 445 murder victims for 2006, based on 2004 numbers. Yes, really, 445 murders -- and the thing is, the numbers are way down from previous years. I'm serious. In 2001, it was 665. In 1992, it was 943. 2003 was the first year since 1967 that there were fewer than 600 -- there were 599. Happy?

I didn't think so.

For comparison, in 2002 I was in Toronto, roughly the size of Chicago, and the Globe and Mail newspaper was reporting with alarm that the murder rate was unacceptably high in Toronto. They had 60 murders that year. Don't get me wrong -- I think the Globe and Mail was right, 60 is 60 too many. But compared with Chicago, Toronto is Shangri-La.

And just since we're running numbers, if you're wondering, the most recent statistics (March 2003-March 2004) for the murder rate in the United Kingdom, where I live now, is 853 for that year. Which sounds like a lot until you consider that the UK has a population of around 60 million. In that same time, Chicago had more than half as many murders (445), but a population only around 5% as large (2.9 million).

Here's a helpful article on Chicago's homicide rate, which also points out the racial and geographical component.


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