A Gang War Destroys Lives and Prods Peacemakers

DON TERRY
April 30, 2010

The old Marine looked around the sanctuary and got nervous. As a veteran of the first Persian Gulf war and of some of the cruelest corners of Chicago’s West Side, Tyrone Carr could easily see that once the funeral service for his 20-year-old stepson ended, someone in the church was going to pick up a gun and seek revenge.

Andrea Fabre, girlfriend of Novada Robinson, who was killed, with Mr. Robinson’s mother, Veleda Wallace, and son Navonte, 3.

“My son’s friends looked mad, frustrated, defeated,” Mr. Carr said the other day, recalling the funeral last month for Novada Robinson, who was killed during an outbreak of street gang violence that besieged the Austin neighborhood in March and April. “I know that look. Back in the day, before I joined the military, I used to have that look. I used to live that life.”

As the mourners filled the pews and leaned against the walls at Joshua Missionary Baptist Church, Mr. Carr, 50, leaned over and whispered into his wife’s ear, “Baby, you’ve got to say something.”

Veleda Wallace, 39, nodded, then mustered the strength to stand in front of her son’s coffin, hold her minister’s hand and speak about her “jokester” son with the megawatt smile.

“I told them, I don’t want any more killing, not in my name and not in my son’s name,” Ms. Wallace said last week, as she stroked the head of a young grandson who is now left without a father. “I told them that my son wouldn’t want any more killing either.”

Afterward, her son’s friends hugged her and said they understood.

“What she said helped a lot,” said Karl Bell, a supervisor with CeaseFire, a violence prevention organization based at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “What she said probably saved some lives.”

The recent bloodletting started with an old-fashioned fistfight over gang turf and quickly spun out of control. By the time it was over, the shootings that made walking some streets of the Austin neighborhood like a game of Russian roulette had lasted about three weeks, Mr. Bell said.

“It seemed like a lot longer,” he said. “Bodies kept dropping.”

This is a story about how a seemingly minor incident can spark a gang war and its devastating consequences.

Chicago Avenue is more than a busy thoroughfare running through Austin. It is a dividing line, invisible and sometimes deadly, that separates one gang from another. When rival factions observe the unwritten etiquette of the border, serious trouble is usually avoided.

But on the evening of March 18, a group of young men breached the code of conduct. Four members of one gang confronted three members of another for being on Chicago Avenue, according to Mr. Bell and the Rev. Robbie Wilkerson, a local pastor who had later helped broker a peace.

“The one group was only supposed to be on the avenue one or two at a time,” Mr. Bell said. “Any more than that was trouble.”

Heated words quickly turned into angry fists, and the three intruders retreated across the border, only to return with reinforcements shortly after 9 p.m. The fighting resumed. Suddenly, a battered brawler pulled a gun and started shooting.

“Everybody ran,” Mr. Bell said, “even the guys who were with him. Everybody swears they didn’t know he had a gun.”

One 22-year-old man could not run fast enough. He was shot and killed. A 21-year-old was wounded. In the next 90 minutes, four people — three men and a woman — were shot and wounded nearby, Mr. Bell said. No arrests have been made, the police said.

The next day, Mr. Bell and Mr. Wilkerson sought out the gang leaders and tried to persuade them to prevent more acts of retaliation. The chieftains said that it was out of their control, that the young guys on both sides were too angry.

A week later, Novada Robinson, the father of two boys, ages 3 and 2, became a casualty of the war. He was shot several times after he parked his girlfriend’s car and walked toward his mother’s home, just a few hundred feet from where he was hit. He died two days later.

Mr. Robinson was a noncombatant, Mr. Bell said. He had quit the street life when his first son was born.

“He was turning his life around, taking care of his children, being a responsible man, a good guy,” Mr. Bell said. “But that didn’t change where he lived.”

Up to eight other people were wounded during the outbreak of violence — combatants and noncombatants. Some were sitting on their porches when they were shot, others walking down the street, and one, a 14-year-old boy, was coming out of a grocery store early in the morning while on his way to school, holding a sucker. The boy, Danny Gilmore, was shot twice and paralyzed. He turned 15 on Tuesday — in a wheelchair.

Karl Bell, a supervisor with CeaseFire, works the streets of the Austin neighborhood to try to prevent gang violence.

“There was no excuse to shoot that child,” said Tio Hardiman, director of CeaseFire Illinois. “He just happened to be on that block, and those guys weren’t having it that day.”

Danny’s grandfather Larry Harris said there was a slight chance the boy might walk again. In the meantime, Danny is working with a therapist to build his upper body strength so he can wheel himself around.

“You shouldn’t get killed or crippled because you happen to live some place,” Mr. Harris, 50, said. “The community is falling into ruin. The children are shooting each other to the last man standing. That’s not natural.”

As the conflict continued, the peacemakers kept going back to the gang leaders, seeking a truce. Mr. Hardiman would meet with one side. Mr. Bell and Mr. Wilkerson would meet with the other in Mr. Wilkerson’s Austin church, New Birth Christian Center. After about three weeks, the gang leaders agreed to negotiate.

Mr. Wilkerson said he and Mr. Bell told the gang leaders that the violence was making the community look bad and that, more importantly, innocent people were being killed and wounded.

“That’s a big tool we used, innocent people,” Mr. Wilkerson said. “It worked.”

For now, at least, a fragile peace has settled over Austin. But the CeaseFire workers and the Rev. Wilkerson said another war could break out at any time for any reason — just like the last one. Warmer weather is coming, and with it, people will be out in the streets.

Meanwhile, the killing of her son has turned Ms. Wallace and her family into refugees. They live crowded into her grandmother’s apartment, too heartbroken and afraid to return to their home near where her son was gunned down.

They are waiting for approval of their lease application on a new apartment. Her son’s fiancée, Andrea Fabre, 21, plans to move in with Ms. Wallace, bringing with her Ms. Wallace’s two grandsons.

While waiting, Ms. Fabre is trying to understand what happened so she can explain it someday to her toddler boys.

“When I look at my kids,” she said, “I know their daddy is still with me.”

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1 Comment for “A Gang War Destroys Lives and Prods Peacemakers”

  1. […] A Gang War Destroys Lives and Prods Peacemakers DON TERRY April 30, 2010 The old Marine looked around… […]

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