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Crime in Chicago: Where gangs, guns and drugs rule

United States President Donald Trump calls it 'American carnage' - inner cities riddled with violence and hopelessness. In the first of a two-part series, The Sunday Times travels to Chicago to see if things are really as bad as Trump says. The nonchalant murder of a toddler in daylight sends a chill up residents' spines in vibrant heart of America's Midwest

On a cold but sunny afternoon on Valentine's Day, two-year-old Lavontay White Jr is sitting in the back seat of a car driven by his pregnant 20-year-old aunt - she and a young man next to her singing along to rap music, live-streaming themselves on Facebook.

Abruptly, a series of gunshots erupt like sharp hammer blows.

The mobile phone tumbles, the woman screams. She stumbles out of the car with phone in hand, and into a nearby house gasping: "Call 911! They killed him... I have a bullet in my stomach."

Little Lavontay had taken a bullet to his head. Mr Lazarec Collins, 26, the apparent target of a gang hit, had also been shot. Both died.

The video turned the stomachs of Mr Clifton "Booney" McFowler, 56, and two friends as they viewed it a few hours later, a few blocks away. All knew the woman, who miraculously survived, along with her baby.


Abandoned houses are common in South Austin, Chicago. The city is just a 20-minute ride down Interstate 290 from the bustling business district and bluesy nightlife of a downtown Chicago of soaring high-rises. PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

 

One of the men cursed as he ground his cigarette out under his boot. "She's just 20, she's a baby," he told The Sunday Times. "And she's pregnant. See, that's another thing that's so messed up around here - you have babies having babies."

Even by the usual measure of violence in Chicago, the vibrant heart of America's Midwest where gangsters like Al Capone once ruled and raked the streets with machine gunfire, the nonchalant murder of a toddler in broad daylight sent a chill up residents' spines.

It also put a loud punctuation mark on US President Donald Trump's inauguration speech just three weeks earlier in which he pledged to end America's "carnage" of inner-city drugs and violence, and dreary, small, post-manufacturing, post-mining towns.

Neighbourhoods like Lawndale, where Lavontay was killed, Garfield Park and Austin, are just a 20-minute ride down Interstate 290 from the bustling business district and bluesy nightlife of a downtown Chicago of soaring high-rises - and, yes, a Trump Tower.

There were 762 homicides in Chicago last year - nearly 300 more than in 2015, and more than in New York and Los Angeles combined. This year, January ended with 51 homicides, the most in almost two decades.


The police at the scene of a killing at a liquor store in Chicago (above); loot recovered in a raid; and Mr Clifton McFowler, a former gang leader who is now trying to keep youth off the streets and away from gang activity through his nongovernmental organisation, Build, that reaches out to and counsels youth. ''I want to leave a legacy as someone who fights to save the kids from gangs,''he says. PHOTOS: NIRMAL GHOSH, CHICAGO POLICE DEPARTMENT

Despite all the blood spilt, Chicago is not even the murder capital of the US - on a per capita basis, New Orleans, St Louis, Detroit, Baltimore and Newark all had higher homicide rates. In fact, the US' big cities, more often than not, have poorer sides that breed deadly crime.

Chicago's violence is overwhelmingly centred in just five out of 22 police districts on the sprawling city's west and south sides, largely home to lower-income African Americans and Latinos.

Austin, in the west and more than 85 per cent black, is in one of those five districts. Stray cats prowl its overgrown vacant lots littered with tiny discarded plastic sachets used to dispense crack cocaine or heroin, giving Interstate 290 its nickname - "Heroin Highway". Here, groups loosely called gangs but really more like cliques, rule over row after row of ramshackle houses.

"Three or four guys form a clique and within a one-block radius, they fight each other even over half a block," said Mr McFowler, himself a reformed criminal.

He founded a gang but spent 27 years in jail for killing a man in a gunfight over a turf and drugs dispute.

After his release in 2011, Mr McFowler and a team of other former gang leaders, who had also done time, joined an Austin non-governmental organisation, Build, to reach out and counsel youth to keep them off the streets and out of gang activity.

As Mr McFowler and his friends were looking at the video of the attack that left tiny Lavontay dead, a young man was killed at a liquor store a few streets away. "A guy in a black BMW drove by and shot him," a police officer on the scene said. The body had been removed. Under the yellow street lamps, a yellow police tape around the scene fluttered in the breeze.


The police at the scene of a killing at a liquor store in Chicago (above); loot recovered in a raid; and Mr Clifton McFowler, a former gang leader who is now trying to keep youth off the streets and away from gang activity through his nongovernmental organisation, Build, that reaches out to and counsels youth. ''I want to leave a legacy as someone who fights to save the kids from gangs,''he says. PHOTOS: NIRMAL GHOSH, CHICAGO POLICE DEPARTMENT

A couple of days before, in another neighbourhood nearby, a bullet had lodged near the brainstem of 11-year-old Takiya Holmes when she was shot while riding in a minivan with her mother. That same day, 12-year-old Kanari Gentry Bowers was shot in the head as she was playing basketball. Both bullets were meant for other people. Takiya died in hospital in her mother's arms on Valentine's Day. The next day, Kanari died in hospital.

The police picked up a 19-year-old on suspicion of Takiya's killing. Shooters, like their victims, are getting younger and younger, Mr Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesman for the Chicago Police Department, told The Sunday Times in a phone interview. And the shooters of today are often the victims of tomorrow or vice versa, he said.

The easy availability of guns is part of the problem. For about US$150 (S$213), you can buy a gun on the street, the Build team members said.

Nearly half of those arrested for murder last year had prior gun arrests in their backgrounds, the police spokesman said. In fact, 80 per cent of victims last year had prior criminal histories and had been identified by the department as victims or suspects in gun violence.

But what preys on the minds of the communities here are the random deaths by stray bullets.

"The (kids) can't even come outside and play on their block, let alone go to a playground, because there's so much going on in our community," Austin resident David Goins, 58, told The Sunday Times in one of a series of interviews on the streets that same night. "Just the other day, two girls were shot. One was playing basketball. How do you answer that?" he said, shaking his head, in a reference to Kanari.


The police at the scene of a killing at a liquor store in Chicago; loot recovered in a raid; and Mr Clifton McFowler (above), a former gang leader who is now trying to keep youth off the streets and away from gang activity through his nongovernmental organisation, Build, that reaches out to aand counsels youth. ''I want to leave a legacy as someone who fights to save the kids from gangs,''he says. PHOTOS: NIRMAL GHOSH, CHICAGO POLICE DEPARTMENT

In a grim assessment of what admittedly is carnage, Mr McFowler said: "Kids here can't think beyond the next six months."

To him, the problem is deeply personal. Mr McFowler was not around for his own son who, at the age of 17, was also jailed for murder. That son is now 35 and still in prison.

NO SAFE ZONES

The (kids) can't even come outside and play on their block, let alone go to a playground, because there's so much going on in our community. Just the other day two girls were shot. One was playing basketball. How do you answer that?

'' AUSTIN RESIDENT DAVID GOINS, 58, on the incidents of stray bullets hitting children.

Mr McFowler blames himself. "I was a bad dude and he was trying to live up to my name," he said. "He did tell me, just last month, that it wasn't my fault. But I missed all his life. I think that's what kind of motivates me to do what I do. I was a part of messing things up. I was a gang leader. But I don't want to be remembered as a gang leader," he said. "I want to leave a legacy as someone who fights to save the kids from gangs."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 19, 2017, with the headline 'Where gangs, guns and drugs rule'. Print Edition | Subscribe