Time to sound the alarm

It could have been Drew. That thought has been my personal preoccupation lately. I think often about my younger brother, who could have been a casualty of multiple wars—in Afghanistan, Iraq, and right at our back door—on the South Side of Chicago.

Drew could be just another number, one of the 506 people killed in Chicago last year.

On Dec. 31, Sgt. First Class Andrew N. Washington Jr. officially retired with an honorable discharge after 21 years in the U.S. Army. Our family embraced the moment with ecstatic relief.

He did a stint in Afghanistan in 2002. In 2003, he was dispatched to Iraq to help launch a war. After that, South Korea. He managed to survive those tours unscathed. I am relieved, but also proud, especially of his 12-year assignment to the 160th Soar (A), the elite Army helicopter unit famously involved in the “Black Hawk Down” operation and the Osama bin Laden mission.

Back in 1991, Drew enlisted to escape the economically depressed, perilous streets of the South Side neighborhoods where he grew up. He is not alone. Many minorities choose the military as an alternative to urban poverty and violence.

Ironically, if he had stayed in his youthful stomping grounds—Chatham, South Shore, or Woodlawn, he might well be dead today.

For too many young people, the Windy City has earned a tragic, new nickname: Murder Central.

That’s the chilling conclusion from a new installment in The Chicago Reporter’s ongoing “Too Young to Die” series, featured in this issue.

During the past five years, the number of Chicagoans murdered before their 25th birthday surpassed 1,000. In 2012, 243 homicide victims were under 25, a 26 percent increase from 2010, shows a timely analysis by Alden K. Loury, a former Reporter publisher and now a senior investigator for the Better Government Association.

Most of the victims of this “epidemic” of violence are African Americans and Latinos on the city’s South and West sides, Loury reports. Sadly, they are killing each other.

Those same neighborhoods break the scales when it comes to the all-too-familiar measurements of urban maladies: low-performing schools, rampant foreclosure rates, high unemployment, and teenage pregnancies.

On Feb. 15, the carnage finally brought President Barack Obama back home to appear at Hyde Park Career Academy on Chicago’s South Side.

In his speech, Obama offered up his own set of numbers to describe a city buckling under the scourge of gun violence. He compared Chicago’s trauma to the mass murders at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. “Last year, there were 443 murders with a firearm on the streets of this city, and 65 of those victims were 18 and under,” the president said. “So that’s the equivalent of a Newtown every four months.”

He called for more “ladders of opportunity,” like jobs, economic development and educational enrichment programs. He urged more focus on the promotion of marriage and parental responsibility, and renewed his push for more gun control.

Obama was eloquent as ever, but I have seen this movie before. The politicians have been talking programs and community cohesion for the last 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years—back to the Great Society. Untold millions of government and private dollars have been invested in our inner cities.

I don’t know the answers. I do know those old solutions didn’t help Drew decades ago, and I fear they are just as inadequate today.

We need to “sound the alarm,” Loury writes. We must change the conversation and acknowledge that we have created and tolerated a culture of violence. The entire community must step up, claim long-term responsibility and act to abolish it.

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