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Chicago Kids Say They're Assigned To Gangs


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll take a trip to Puerto Rico. The economy is struggling, but the music there is thriving. We'll hear more about that in just a few minutes.

But first, we turn to Chicago, where the recent shooting death of honor student Hadiya Pendleton has put that city's battle with gun violence, especially affecting the youngest victims, back into the national headlines.

More than 500 people were murdered in the city last year and as awful as that is to hear, that's nothing compared to having to live it, something we were reminded of last week when we spoke to Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, Hadiya's mother.

Today, though, we want to try to really get behind the numbers and really try to understand how this all happens, why this is happening, and the effect that this is having on the people who are living through it.

We're going to focus on one school, Harper High School, where no fewer than 29 recent and current students have been shot over the last school year. Our guides are two journalists who've been writing about important issues in Chicago for years.

I'm joined now by WBEZ's education reporter, Linda Lutton. Linda, thanks for joining us once again.

LINDA LUTTON: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: And journalist, author and filmmaker Alex Kotlowitz. You might know him from his critically acclaimed nonfiction, including the work "There Are No Children Here." Along with a third colleague, Ben Calhoun, they spent a semester at Harper reporting for the public radio show THIS AMERICAN LIFE, which is running a two-part series about their work.

Alex, welcome back to you, as well. Thanks for joining us.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, Linda, this all started with a local story you did for WBEZ where you spoke to the principal at Harper High School, Leonetta Sanders, and she told you how she keeps a list of all the kids who've been shot in the past school year. And I just want to play a little bit of that from the piece. We're going to hear Principal Sanders' voice and we're going to hear your voice and here it is.


LEONETTA SANDERS: LaMont Goggins, Marcus Nunn, Deandre Alexander...

LUTTON: Sanders' list stretches across two sheets of paper - it's 27 names total, all current or former Harper students, 19 shot, eight dead, one school year. Near each student's name, Sanders marks down gang affiliations if she knows of any, or details about the death, like shot sitting on porch.

SANDERS: Demari Ward(ph), Ja Gresham(ph). As I wrote the list, I mean I just - tears just ran down my face - Raymond Fuller(ph) - because it's different when you see it like this, when you see the total number of students in one high school that have been affected by gun violence. Kamal Brown(ph), Trishan Thomas(ph), Excel Moore(ph). And I sit back and I just say, wow. Like, does anyone - is anyone else looking at this data? Because every couple of weeks, I'm adding another name.

MARTIN: Linda, one of the points that you and Alex and Ben made in your reporting is that, you know, many people from the outside might have an image that this is just a high school in total chaos and that this is just, you know, as I think the host, Ira, put it, you know - you know, this is just kind of ghettofied, graffiti everywhere, nobody really in charge. And you're saying it's not like that at all.

LUTTON: Yeah. Not at all. It's a terrific place. I mean it feels good. You can listen to Principal Sanders in the THIS AMERICAN LIFE stories' hours, or you can - I think it even comes through when she's desperately, you know, grieving in that clip we just heard. I mean in that clip I'm talking to her in the basement of a South Side church. She's at the funeral for the third student and the 27th, at that point 27th student shot sort of on her list.

Her strength - I mean she, for one, you know, just sets the tone for the school. She's extremely positive, sort of a force of nature, and yeah, the school is a very happy place. It's a place where adults sort of approach the students as - you know, hey, we're here to help you on your way and when you mess up, we're going to put you back on the right path. We're going to correct you. But it doesn't feel sort of like a prison at all, and it really feels like a very happy school.

MARTIN: And so I think the point that you're making is they are competent. They are capable. They are trying to do their best. But I just have to play another scene, where the assistant principal asks a new student, Jordan, about what's going on with him and Jordan tells him that he's with a gang. It's called Face World(ph), and he explains the - sort of the territory, and here it is. Let me just play that clip.


JORDAN: Well, we clicked out with (unintelligible) right there on 69th.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Who else are you all clicked out with?

JORDAN: Hoodville(ph), Low Block(ph), (unintelligible) COB(ph). We got a lot of people want to get into it with us, though. I ain't going to lie.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I know. Your name was hot last spring. What was going on last spring?

JORDAN: It's a warzone around. I can't lie. It's just a warzone. People like us - we so close to each other, it don't make no sense because we right - our opposition is right down the street. Literally, it's on the next block, so, like, we on 70 at the Rockwell(ph) and they on 71st, the Rockwell. That's how close we is.

MARTIN: So, Linda, to that point - Alex, I want to hear from you on this too, but Linda, I want you to start. Why is it a warzone?

LUTTON: Well, in part, for what this boy is describing, you know, this sort of block by block gang configuration, you know, what you have is essentially a completely sort of Balkanized situation. We found more than 15 gangs operating in just the attendance area around Harper alone.

In the police district, for instance, where this school sits, there are - the police record more than 22 gangs operating and they're - you know, not everyone would call these gangs. They're factions of what used to be called the gangster disciples, a big gang with a structure and a hierarchy. This is sort of now a block by block situation where sometimes the oldest kids in charge are actually just in high school and the one common denominator they have is they've got guns and, you know, they're shooting, and kids find themselves very caught up in this.

You know, one of the key things we found that comes across in that first hour of "This American Life" is that, you know, kids are essentially assigned a gang affiliation. One boy told me a very - a serious kid, a serious athlete, serious about school, he told me, look, I can't do anything about that. It's based on where I live. He said I do everything I can to try to minimize it, but I know that I can't get rid of it. And when that kid goes to get a donut or a hot chocolate at the store, that confronts him. When he goes to school, it confronts him.

MARTIN: Well, in fact, Linda, you actually talked to the police officer assigned to Harper and you asked him, if you're a kid and you want nothing to do with this gang stuff and you don't want to be a part of it - just say no is what they, you know, used to say. What do you do? And this is what he said.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You can't. It's not going to happen. It used to be, if you played sports or you were academically better than the average kid, they didn't bother you. Now it's different. It doesn't matter. If you live here, you're part of them. You know, you live on that block or you live in that area, you're one of them. The way they get to school, they have to come to school with one of these factions, one of these gangs. They're going to come to school with them. They don't have a choice.

MARTIN: Alex, you've been writing about this, doing reporting on this issue for a very long time. I think a lot of people may remember the film "The Interrupters" that you produced that was about a group of former gang members who were trying to literally interrupt and get in the middle of kind of conflicts.

What else is it that people, you think, outside of the area just don't get about this?

KOTLOWITZ: Right. Well, I think there's a really telling moment in that first clip you played when the high school student says it just doesn't make any sense, and I think there's something to that. I mean I think what was clear to us - and it was also clear when I was working on "The Interrupters" - is that so much of the fighting is over such petty, seemingly petty matters. You know, somebody looked at a girl wrong. Somebody stepped on somebody's toe or they cut in line.

And I think what has become clear to me is that there's just all this anger built up in these kids that really have nothing to do with the moment. You know, maybe something going on at home. Maybe it's a moment of violence that they've witnessed themselves and haven't really sort of really begun to sort of understand and grapple with.

But it was - I mean I think that the notion that it doesn't make any sense is really an important one, because really in the end it's really over nothing.

MARTIN: So the image that a lot of people have, like these are essentially sort of organized groups fighting over drug territory, for example, where there's like a hierarchy, a leadership giving orders, even almost uniforms. You're saying throw that out the window. That's not really true.

KOTLOWITZ: Right, right. And that used to be the case 20, 25 years ago, but it's no longer, and I think it's one of the things that is somewhat frightening about the violence too today, is it feels so much more random, and you certainly saw that with the death of Hadiya Pendleton. You know, what was apparently, you know, two young men who mistook these group of kids for a rival gang and just started shooting, and it turns out that they were wrong and ended up killing this really, you know - I mean they're all innocent, but this girl who had absolutely no involvement in these clicks.

MARTIN: Well, one of the things that you also talked about in the piece is that retaliation for earlier incidents also becomes a part of the cycle. It seems that apparently one of the people involved in the Hadiya Pendleton shooting thought that one of the people that she was in the park with was somebody who had shot him a year earlier.

KOTLOWITZ: Right. And in fact Ben Calhoun has this remarkable piece in the second hour about a shooting that took place a number of years ago and sort of how this one shooting has taken on this kind of mythic proportions in the neighborhood and has led to a number of other killings as a result, and yet nobody can really sort of pinpoint why it all began.

MARTIN: We're speaking with journalist Alex Kotlowitz and Linda Lutton, who spent a semester, along with her colleague, Ben Calhoun, reporting on Chicago's Harper High School for the public radio program THIS AMERICAN LIFE. They've produced a two-part series about this and they're reporting on all the things that people think are true about gang violence and youth violence that apparently are not.

And Alex, one of the other points that you've made is you've compared people who've seen violence like this to soldiers coming home with PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Let's talk a little bit about that, if you would.

KOTLOWITZ: Right. So I embedded myself with the two social workers in the school, these two remarkable women, Crystal Smith and Anita Stewart, and as Linda had suggested, I mean one of the things is you walk into that school building and it's clear that it's a refuge, and more than that, it's clear that the adults in that building really care about those kids. And this is a place where kids would go into the social work room just to hang out.

And so I spent the four months with Anita and Crystal as they worked with two young men, both who had been privy to the violence, and one of the boys in the piece coming up in this next hour is a kid who's witnessed an incredible amount of violence. In fact, he was with that girl whose funeral we're at in that first piece of tape you played. Shakaki Aspi(ph) - and he's on a porch with her when a gunman comes up and starts shooting and kills her and he's just traumatized.

And what becomes clear over the course of the semester is he's got this incredible anger and he talks about how he wants to hurt someone. It's just constant. He wants to hurt someone, and it becomes quite apparent it's the only way he can find any relief.

And so you're absolutely right. I mean, you see the very same kind of symptoms that you see in veterans returning from combat. You know, kids who have flashbacks, who have hallucinations, who are depressed, who are filled with this kind of uncontrollable rage.

MARTIN: And it's not just people who are victims of intentional violence who are suffering. I also want to play now a clip of tape where you hear from a student, Devonte, who accidentally shot and killed his younger brother when they found a gun in their home and he's talking to two social workers. And let's listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: So what about sleeping and all of that, Devonte? Are you sleeping OK?


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: What do you do at night to help you, though?

DEVONTE: To go to sleep?


DEVONTE: I take some Nyquil.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: You still taking Nyquil?

DEVONTE: Man, I take it on a regular basis, if I need to go to sleep, man.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: So we need to talk about...

DEVONTE: I need to sleep tight.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: What happens if you don't take the Nyquil?

DEVONTE: I don't go to sleep.

MARTIN: So, Alex, talk about this. I mean, with all that we've been talking about, about how many people who've been affected by this and this is his only recourse, even though he's got people around him who care. What does that say?

KOTLOWITZ: Right. I mean this is just a horrific story. I mean, Devonte, at the age of 15, is a tragic story. In fiddling around with a gun accidentally shot and killed his 14-year-old brother and he's just filled, as you can imagine, with all this guilt. And his one lifeline - his one lifeline are these two social workers and hearing that piece of tape, you hear how he - not surprisingly - has trouble sleeping. That's the only way he can put himself to sleep is to drink Nyquil. He's a kid who sort of has begun not to believe in himself. He talks at one point about just how much he hates who he is and somehow we've got - I mean fortunately he's got Crystal and Anita working with him, but even that isn't enough.

But the truth of the matter is I think we've kind of neglected the trauma that these kids experience. I mean it erodes, I think, their very soul and I think we ignore it at our own peril.

MARTIN: Linda, we can't let you go without asking, where do the kids get the guns?

LUTTON: Well, that's a question we're going to answer this next hour, and you know, I talked to a group of kids and essentially there are guns everywhere. I mean, I got the impression after reporting there and specifically talking to kids about that question, it's just an ocean of guns out there. Kids can get guns almost anywhere. I had boys tell me they could get guns by making a phone call. Almost everybody is connected to some gang and all these gangs have guns.

We detail a kid - we talked to a kid who finds a gun. At age 12 he finds a gun laying in the alley, so you'll hear that story this week, on this week's THIS AMERICAN LIFE.

MARTIN: Alex, before we let you go, I feel that I can ask you this because you've done a lot of, you know, independent reporting work as well. What do you hope will happen as a result of more people knowing about this? Because, obviously, the people living with this have known this for some time.

KOTLOWITZ: Right. And it's...

MARTIN: What do you hope is going to happen?

KOTLOWITZ: Right. Well, you hope that that resignation somehow dissipates, and it's not only the resignation of people living in these neighborhoods, but I think the resignation of the rest of us, and I think, you know, spending time at a place like Harper or spending time with the individuals we did with "The Interrupters," it's clear - it's clear that there are ways out of this, and everything from mentoring to greater gun control laws to opening that window of opportunity in these communities to somehow dealing with the trauma, there are ways into it, but I feel like if we're really serious in this country about dealing with the kind of profound poverty we see in our cities, we've got to figure out a way to tackle this violence.

MARTIN: Alex Kotlowitz is an author and journalist. He joined us from member station WCQS in Ashville, North Carolina. Linda Lutton is an education reporter at WBEZ in Chicago. She joined us from their studios there. They're reporting on Harper High School for THIS AMERICAN LIFE airs on most stations this weekend.

Thank you both so much, and your colleague, Ben Calhoun, for your reporting on this.

KOTLOWITZ: Thanks for having us, Michel.

LUTTON: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.