Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives - Gary Younge (2016)
Chapter 8. TYSHON ANDERSON (18)
11:50 P.M. CST
SHORTLY AFTER I MOVED TO CHICAGO, IN 2011, I WENT TO A meeting on traffic awareness at my son’s day care. The director advised us that to help children orient themselves, we should try to be consistent with the routes we took when walking to familiar places so the kids would have a fighting chance of finding their way home if lost. To illustrate the point, he outlined the routes the day care center took on regular outings. One of the parents asked whether they would continue to pass the site by the subway where there had been a recent shoot-out. The teacher smiled. “I knew that would come up,” he sighed. “It’s a good point, and we are really going to have to get on top of it. We must talk to the children about how to handle situations like that, because the big problem in those moments is that they panic.”
I thought this was odd. Panic in the presence of gunfire seems a perfectly rational response, whether you’re four or forty-four. The problem, it seemed to me, wasn’t the panic but the shooting. On the way home that day, I saw posters on the window of the youth club at the end of our street. I passed them every day, but this was the first time I’d really stopped to look at them. “Stop Killing People,” it read. It seemed like the kind of suggestion you shouldn’t need a poster for.
Most major cities have, at different times, gained notoriety for their high murder rates. Los Angeles, New York, Washington, DC, New Orleans, Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Miami, to name but a few, have all been there. For the last few years—as it happens, when I was living there—it has been Chicago’s turn. These reputations can rarely keep up with their actual statistical ranking. Kansas City, Oakland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Detroit, and New Orleans all had higher rates of homicide than Chicago in the year this book was set.1 But none of them were the third-largest city in the country or the hometown of the sitting president.
In any case, the infamy was deserved. It is estimated that between 20 percent and 30 percent of Chicago children in public schools have witnessed a shooting.2 In 2012, there were 500 murders in the city—a 16 percent increase over the year before.3 On Memorial Day weekend of that year, there were 53 shootings, resulting in 10 deaths.4 In 8 of the 10 years prior to when this book was written, the number of murders in Chicago was greater than the number of US fatalities in Afghanistan.5 The city became disparagingly known as Chiraq, a variation on which (Chi-Raq) would later become the title of a Spike Lee film about gun violence in the city. When the snow melted during the spring before my family and I left for England, one gun was found in an alley near our local park and another behind my son’s school.
The city became a gory journalistic trove for a slew of stories that were tragic, epic, or brutal—and sometimes all three. By the age of fifty-four, one mother, Shirley Chambers, had lost all four of her children to gun violence in separate incidents. “I only have one child left,” she said after the third child was shot dead, “and I’m afraid that [the killing] won’t stop until he’s gone too.”6 When the last one was shot, the killing still continued.
On November 26, 2012, almost a year to the day before this book is set, Sherman Miller, twenty-one, attended the funeral of James Holman, thirty-two, at St. Columbanus Church. Holman had been shot dead a week earlier. From the pews, Miller texted a friend about how the service was affecting him. “Dis preacher like he talkin straight to me,” he wrote. “He talkin bout hurts and pain. I cant run from the pain cause its gone hurt me worse if I’m by myself because I gotta think about everything.” Minutes later, Miller was shot dead on the steps of the church as mourners scattered and wailed.7
Whereas Chicago as a whole earned a reputation for gun violence, the shootings were not evenly distributed throughout the city. The overwhelming majority were concentrated in a handful of neighborhoods in the south and west—predominantly black and Latino areas, respectively. As the response to Samuel Brightmon’s shooting in the previous chapter illustrated, the concentration of poor, black, and Latino people in American cities happened by design, not default. “Residential segregation is the principal organizational feature of American society that is responsible for the creation of the urban underclass,” write Massey and Denton in American Apartheid.8 As Dallas did, Chicago perfected that design over the years. By most measures it is, and has long been, the most segregated big city in America.9 Where shootings were concerned this had two main connected consequences.
First, in the rest of the city, one experienced precious little of this mayhem. Nowhere was completely insulated. I lived on the North Side and still have tales to tell. Yet the episodes were noteworthy where I lived precisely because they happened comparatively rarely. (It’s all relative—had a tenth that number of shootings occurred where I now live in London, we would have talked of nothing else.) But occasionally, when reports of particularly murderous weekends in Chicago reached friends in other cities or even abroad, they would contact me to ask if I was okay. If I hadn’t watched the local news the previous night or read the paper that morning, I might know nothing about it. It really might as well have happened in another city or even another country.
Second, for those who live on the South and West Sides, there was no escaping it. On the tenth floor of the University of Illinois’s School of Public Health, Dr. Gary Slutkin points to a map of Chicago with round stickers showing where murders have taken place. Lake Michigan lies to the east, the north is mostly clear, but you can’t see some of the South Side for dots. “It’s the same pattern on a map showing the incidence of cholera in Bangladesh. It’s an infective process,” he says.
I was interviewing Dr. Slutkin after a spate of shootings in the city had once again piqued the attention of my editors. Dr. Slutkin, the executive director of Cure Violence, specializes in infectious-disease control and reversing epidemics. He used to work for the World Health Organization. He thinks violence behaves like tuberculosis or AIDS and sees it as an infectious disease that can be stamped out by challenging and changing behavioral norms. Across the room, a graph shows fatal shootings in Chicago over several years—a roller-coaster of peaks and troughs. “It’s the same curve for almost every city,” he explains. “It’s an epidemic curve.”
The most blighted communities existed as though in a state of siege. In Lawndale, on the South Side, one local woman told the Chicago Tribune that even some of the dogs had ceased barking at the sound of gunfire.10 Charles Brown, a retired police officer in the neighboring area of Englewood, told me he’d tuned out the deadly crackling and popping that echoed around his house. “I don’t even hear it anymore,” he said. “It’s just part of your existence here.”
When I started this book, I assumed that whatever day I picked there was a reasonable chance that one of the children slain would be in my hometown, that he would be a young man of color, and that he would be killed on the South or West Side. Sadly, I was right on all counts.
TYSHON ANDERSON, EIGHTEEN, LIVED and died in South Chicago, which should not be mistaken for the South Side of Chicago. The South Side is an entire area of the city; South Chicago is its own neighborhood within that area. It sits thirteen miles south of the Loop—the downtown shopping district—on the city’s eastern flank. Bordered by the I-90 interstate to the west, Highway 12/90 to the south, the commercial thoroughfare of E. 79th to the north, and Lake Michigan to the east, its proximity to so many transport hubs once made it an ideal location for heavy industry. During the mid-nineteenth century, huge steel and iron works set up there, bringing migrant workers primarily from Poland, Italy, and Ireland. In 1911, South Works, which owned U.S. Steel and was based there, employed eleven thousand people. African Americans soon arrived with the Great Migration, along with Latinos from Mexico and the American West.
“Growing up, the mornings here would be busy with people going to work,” one elderly African American who grew up, and still lives, in South Chicago told me. She did not want to be named. Her father and uncles had worked in the mill. “You’d see parents taking their kids to school and saying, ‘Hurry up, or I’m gonna be late for work.’ Back then, in the summer, the streets were so clean you could take your shoes off if you were too hot and walk in bare feet.”
Racism transformed the neighborhood in the fifties and sixties as many of the descendants of European immigrants fled at speed, fearing the arrival of blacks and Latinos. In The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson describes the breathtaking pace and scale of the transformation of neighboring South Shore after Ida Mae Gladney, originally from Mississippi, bought a house there. “The whites left so fast Ida Mae didn’t get a chance to know any of them or their kids or what they did for a living. . . . They didn’t stick around long enough to explain.”11
In subsequent years, white people would relate their version of that process. “It happened slowly, and then all of a sudden, boom,” one white homemaker on the South Side told the writer Louis Rosen. “Everyone gone. Everything changed. Before you know it, this one, that one. . . . People didn’t want to be the last.”12
And what racism did not change, economics did. The decimation of America’s manufacturing sector devastated South Chicago. Through the eighties the factories closed. What remains on that site is a postindustrial wilderness—huge concrete barriers, maybe thirty feet high, tower over shrub and bush; railway tracks, which used to ferry steel from the old site, are eroded by time and weather. On a weekday morning the only sounds are the wind and the waves as Lake Michigan slaps the rusting foot of what was once a giant. In its absence, South Chicago became an impoverished residential area wedged between busy roads and the shore-side. Abandoned and derelict homes and shops now pockmark what was once a thriving community. No one in his or her right mind would walk barefoot down these streets anymore.
“The neighborhood has been in a collective depression since the steel mills closed down and left lots of people suddenly unemployed,” explains Olga Bautista, a community organizer who was born and raised in South Chicago. “The depression manifests itself in the alcoholism, the domestic violence, the drug addictions. There are no mental health clinics here. So that’s how you see it.”
This was one of the first areas where the young Barack Obama was taken as a community organizer during the mid-eighties. “It expressed some of the robust, brutal spirit of Chicago’s industrial past, metal beams and concrete rammed together,” he wrote in Dreams of My Father after visiting the old Wisconsin Steel Plant. “Only now it was empty and rust-stained, like an abandoned wreck.”13
I’d been reporting in Chicago for several years when I started writing this book, and I knew several community organizers and union activists. But almost no one knew anyone in South Chicago. It was almost as if they felt there was not enough going on down there to organize. “We’re a forgotten people,” says one local campaigner. “Honestly, I think a lot of people don’t even know we’re here.”
Today, half of those in the small patch where Tyshon lived earn $30,000 a year or less (roughly two-thirds the national average), and a quarter of the housing units are vacant.14 And the hollowing out is not yet over. The area lost an eighth of its population between 2005 and 2009, and those who remained saw their median income plummet by 22 percent.15
To the naked eye, this economic trauma is evident but not striking in the few blocks where Tyshon lived and died. Each surrounding block has at least one boarded-up home. East 79th Street, the main drag that marks the border between South Chicago and South Shore, offers standard strip-mall fare for a working-class urban area—a Family Dollar, a beauty parlor, a Dollar General, a laundromat, a pizzeria. The windows on the nearby bodegas are defended with metal grills.
But the lawns are clipped and the hedges tended, and for every abandoned home there are at least two that, from the outside at least, look comfortable. The census shows that for all the hard times, a sizeable minority here is doing well. One in ten has a bachelor’s degree or higher and earns between $75,000 $100,000 a year.16 These statistics illustrate the longstanding struggle within what were once solid middle-class communities to resist the decimation of urban black American life and the pathologies and pathos that come with it.
It’s a trend Obama witnessed three decades earlier in similar neighborhoods. “Despite the deserved sense of accomplishment these men and women felt,” he writes, “despite the irrefutable evidence of their own progress, our conversations were marked by another, more ominous strain. The boarded-up houses, the decaying storefronts, the aging church rolls, kids from unknown families who swaggered down the streets—loud congregations of teenage boys, teenage girls feeding potato chips to crying toddlers, the discarded wrappers tumbling down the block—all of it whispered painful truths, told them the progress they’d found was ephemeral, rooted in thin soil; that it might not even last their lifetimes.”17
THE WEIGHT OF SOUTH Chicago’s troubles seems to have settled on Tyshon Anderson’s eyelids. In most pictures his eyes appear as two narrow slits struggling to make their presence felt as the lids head south in search of slumber. His Facebook pictures show an oval face with a weak chin and a high brow that owes its definition to the dreads cascading from the center of his scalp and hanging symmetrically to the middle of his neck. They frame a handsome, full-lipped face.
One of his parents was particularly taken with his smile—“his mouth would twist a little, it was cute,” they told a local reporter.18 But in the pictures he posted of himself, it is rarely evident; in some he looks pensive, in others wasted (the most likely explanation for those heavy eyelids is that he was often high). “Even as a little kid he was an old soul,” says his godmother, Regina Gray. For the most part, his Facebook page attests to an unremarkable if somewhat rambunctious teenage existence. In one picture, like Pedro he’s clutching a bottle of Hennessy in one hand while the other arm is wrapped around a girl. In others, as on Edwin’s page, there are depictions of weed. Elsewhere the occasional kitten and puppy and a range of other girls. If his trousers are in the shot, then the seat is generally halfway down his bottom and his boxers are on full display. His favorite films were Rambo and The Hills Have Eyes. His favorite TV shows included Futurama, Family Guy, and Twerkers Exposed, a softporn site of sorts on which mostly barely dressed women take selfies of their sizable behinds.
Many pictures have him posing without a shirt; he was a slender-built teen with a lean but not particularly well-defined torso of which he was nonetheless clearly proud. On his police mug shots (of which there are quite a selection), he looks quite different. Dreads that are more tousled expose a jawline more defined. His lips have lost their pout; his eyes have clawed back some space from the lids. The stats—five feet eight inches and 145 pounds—indicate that physically, at least, he was an all-American boy: average in every way.
AT AROUND 11:05 P.M. on November 23, on the echoey, rank first-floor stairway of a four-story walkup on East 80th Street, just around the corner from his home, someone walked up to Tyshon, shot him in the head, and left. Whoever called 911—the Chicago Police Department won’t release the recording—found him bleeding on the landing. An ambulance took him on a twenty-five-minute drive to Northwestern Memorial Hospital. When they picked him up he was in critical condition; by 11:50 p.m. he was pronounced dead.
In the forty-five minutes between Tyshon’s getting shot and his dying, a seventeen-year-old boy was shot and injured less than a block away in what may have been a retaliation.
It was less than a year after Sandy Hook, and with the public still sensitized to the ubiquity of such tragedies, there remained a strong civic interest in reporting the victim of every gun death. The New York Times still ran its daily “Gun Report,” and Tyshon was on it; Slate still ran its Gun-Death Tally, and Tyshon was on that, too. Locally, a website called DNAinfo.com had a mission to report on each homicide, and so the next day a young reporter, Erica Demarest, went to Tyshon’s home.
Erica had met the families of many victims while working on this project. Even three months after Tyshon’s death, when we met in a coffee shop near my son’s school, she recalled his family as being one of the more challenging. By the time she’d arrived, relatives had gathered to offer condolences. She spoke briefly with the grandfather, who would not be named. Then a parent arrived and said they would only speak to her with the proviso that neither their name nor gender be revealed—the latter being a stipulation I have never come across in my twenty-one years of reporting. Even then, Erica was in and out of the house within eight minutes—she timed it.
In that time, she learned the following: “Tyshon was ‘joyous,’ ‘playful’ and ‘a typical teenager.’ He liked tinkering with electronics, they said, and could often be found watching TV or playing video games with his siblings. [He] had had trouble in school . . . and was looking into alternative education programs. He was planning to get a state ID this Monday so he could begin applying for jobs.”19
“He was trying to get his life straightened out,” his grandfather said.
“He was trying to find an alternative way,” said the parent, who then asked Erica’s readers to think twice before inflicting on others the pain they were now feeling. “You know, it could easily be your family,” said the parent. “So think about that before you do it to somebody else.” Then Erica was shown the door.
By all accounts, Tyshon had quite a bit of straightening out to do. Police told DNAinfo he was a “documented gang member” and speculated that the shooting may have been gang related. The “parent” confirmed he had been in “gang trouble in school,” and another family member pointed out he was no longer in school.
SURE ENOUGH, EVERY NOW and then Tyshon’s Facebook page showcases the brutal alongside the bacchanal. A picture from January 14, 2013, shows at least $400 laid out on a table, about $250 of which is splayed out in a fan with a gun beneath it. The caption reads, “A days work.” A few weeks earlier, he posted a picture of himself standing in a living room pointing a gun straight at the camera. In many pictures, he’s holding both hands out with the thumb reaching in across the palm to touch his ring finger and the rest of his fingers extended in what is most likely a gang sign. His Instagram account went by the name “Lakesidegangsta.” Just over a year before he died, he stood in a hallway with his left arm held outstretched with his fingers making like a gun while his right hand pointed to the floor with just one finger—like a single barrel. The caption says “Get popd.” His Facebook page is littered with RIP messages to fallen friends, shout-outs to others who are in jail, and posters indicating that he was in the Lakeside Gangster Disciples—a nationwide gang. Tyshon was not merely a victim of the media distortions of black pathologies; his actions actually provided the raw material for them.
“Tyshon was not an innocent boy,” says Regina, one of Tyshon’s mother’s best friends, who says she knew Tyshon “before he was even thought of.” “He did burglary, sold drugs, he killed people. He had power in the street. He really did. Especially for such a young kid. He had power. A lot of people were intimidated by him, and they were scared of him. I know he had bodies under his belt.” If I’d chosen another day, I could well have been reporting on one of Tyshon’s victims.
Tributes following his passing blend a sense of loss at his death with a moral ambivalence about his life. Like a soldier slain in combat, expressions of lament are framed with the understanding that such a tragic outcome was, at the very least, an occupational hazard. “You live by the sword, you die by the sword,” says Regina. “He lived by the guns and the gangs and the streets, and that’s how he died. It was sad to see him laying there at the funeral. I seen him grow up and I loved him and I know he could be a good kid. But there ain’t no point in sugarcoating it. He was a bad kid too.”
Many of the messages on his Facebook page took the form of elegies—literally poetic farewells. There’s one from his elder sister, Kiyana:
You’re not the devil you just went along with his game.
But an Angel I still pray to God you became.
Bad decisions everyone makes,
But never did I believe for them
Your life they’d take.
And one from his friend Chris:
It seem like just the other day we was chilling having fun
Now my Lil Homie gone from another with a gun
how many more can I take I tell you right now it’s none
the ones who did it I hope they die aint no biting my Damn tongue
GANGS ARE NEITHER NEW nor racially specific. From the Irish, Polish, Jewish, and Puerto Rican gangs of New York to the Mafia, various types of informal gatherings of mostly but not exclusively young men have long been part of Western life. They often connect the social, violent, entrepreneurial, and criminal. And although they involve a relatively small minority, it amounts to a significant number of people. According to the National Youth Gang Survey, in 2012 in the United States there were around thirty thousand gangs and over eight hundred thousand gang members20—roughly the population of Amsterdam. The terms of membership and rules of engagement differ, as do the perceived benefits, depending on the context. Some people join through fear; others to instill fear in others; some identify just enough to keep below the radar or, like Edwin, associate for the sake of social status. Many aren’t really clear why they join; like many teenagers they just blow with the winds that are guiding their friends. Some don’t join at all; as was pointed out earlier they are “gang-related” for the simple reason that in the neighborhoods where they live gangs are dominant and there’s no way to avoid them.
“Joining a gang is free,” says Bautista, the community organizer. “There are parks around here, but they’re underserved, understaffed, and under-resourced. They’re taking down a lot of the basketball courts. If you don’t have money there’s very few options to do something thrilling.”
What is new is that in recent years gangs have become more deadly than ever. According to the National Youth Gang Survey, between 2007 and 2012 gang membership rose 8 percent, and gang-related homicides leapt 20 percent.21 The principal reason why gang activity has become more deadly, it seems, is because of the availability of guns. Studies of Los Angeles County between 1979 and 1994 revealed that the proportion of gang incidents involving guns that ended in homicide leapt from 71 percent to 95 percent.22 “The contrast with the present is striking,” argued sociologist Malcolm Klein after reaching a similar conclusion in Philadelphia and East Los Angeles. “Firearms are now standard. They are easily purchased or borrowed and are more readily available than in the past.”23
But as brutal as they are, gangs can also offer a sense of community and purpose in a situation where neither seems attainable. “School failure, unemployment, and family dysfunction tear at the shreds of a young person’s self-esteem,” writes Deborah Prothrow-Stith, former Massachusetts Commissioner of Public Health and coauthor of Deadly Consequences: How Violence Is Destroying Our Teenage Population and a Plan to Begin Solving the Problem.24 “Gang membership balms these wounds.” Gangs, she argues, can be places where young men feel they are valued and where a willingness to fight to defend yourself and others compensates for your inability to find a job and mature into more traditional masculine roles.
They become like family, taking under their wing at a young age those who appear vulnerable and giving them a sense of camaraderie and an identity that might otherwise be lacking. “For many a poor boy the most perceptible difference between the streets and home is that home is danger and squalor with a blanket and a roof,” writes James Baldwin in The Evidence of Things Not Seen.25 Despite several attempts I could not reach Tyshon’s mother or anybody else in his house. But according to Regina, however rough the streets were, they offered Tyshon more than his home life ever could.
“Sometimes [his mother] never came out of her room for days,” she said. “And she kept having kids. And the kids had to fend for themselves. . . . So they had to get out in the streets. They had to find their own food to steal. They had to do whatever they had to do to survive. So those kids had a rough life.
“The older gangbangers, they saw that and they took advantage of that. They made him think that they loved him. They gave him $100 here and $100 there. And he thought, ‘Oh, these people love me. So I’m gonna follow these people in the street. I’m not gonna listen to her.’ So they used him. They knew that kids wouldn’t go to jail long. They knew they wouldn’t be tried as adults. The streets did that. He turned to the streets because he couldn’t go home and call it home. So he was basically a street kid.”
THE KEY TO CHALLENGING the fatal consequences of gang culture, Dr. Slutkin, from Cure Violence, tells me, lies in treating violent crime like a disease and changing the norms in the worst-affected neighborhoods to prevent its transmission. “We need to interrupt the spread, change the script, change the behavior, and change the norms,” he says.
Cure Violence does a great deal of public education, often in concert with local clergy, to organize communities against gun violence. It also has a team of “violence interrupters.” These are often ex-offenders and former gang members embedded in the community who try to broker truces or who will go to the emergency room when a victim is hospitalized and persuade family members not to retaliate.
I went out with the interrupters in Englewood, one of the neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side where gun violence has been most rampant. (They do not operate in South Chicago, where Tyshon lived and died.) It was early in the fall of 2014 and late in the afternoon, and as we patrolled the streets by car there were signs of life and death. The weather was good and people were out—sitting on the stoop, kids playing basketball, older folks playing cards and having cookouts. For an area renowned for gun crime, the mood was incredibly relaxed. But every few blocks, some graffiti or an arrangement of flowers and cards marked the spot where somebody had fallen. And since both of my chaperones had grown up in the area, on many blocks they, too, inevitably had stories about some drama involving a shooting.
Herein lies one of the paradoxes of high-crime areas. The communities are, in many senses, engaged and tight. It is the very nature of life in poor areas such as these that the residents have trouble escaping them. So those who remain know each other well, and over the summer months social life spills out onto the streets. Teens and adults gather on porches and stoops, kids run from house to house, and extended families, connected by endless permutations of baby mamas, baby daddies, and “uncles” and “aunts” who have no biological connection (informal family structures familiar to me from my Barbadian family), reach out to each other.
On the other hand, these areas are ripped apart by violence and poverty. Stray bullets aside, the shooters and the shot often know each other. And the boundaries of the community, like most boundaries, are arbitrary, heavily enforced, and inevitably porous. Make friends in school with someone who lives two blocks over, flirt with someone on a different street, or wear the wrong-color T-shirt on a walk to the store and, like Pedro in San Jose, you could be putting your life on the line.
JC (not his real name), one of the interrupters I was riding with, described the situation that weekend as “hot.” Nine people had been shot in Englewood the previous afternoon. One of them, Deandre Ellis, twenty-two, was sitting in the “first chair” of the Suitable Barber and Beauty Salon getting his hair cut when a man dressed all in black came in and sprayed the room with gunfire, killing him and wounding two others.26
“I found that this beef going on started behind a female,” he said. “These guys went to school together, and once upon a time they were cool together. It’s a touchy situation now because there’s bodies on the ground.”
So JC and Jamal (not his real name) drive the streets they grew up in, stopping occasionally to talk to family, people they know, and people they were in prison with. As we cruise around, young men look up just long enough to get a measure of the vehicle, in case it means trouble, and then return to their conversations on stoops and corners. The police are also cruising the neighborhood. At one point we see them line up several young men against a building; the officers make the men place their hands on the wall and spread their legs as they pat them down. Nobody knows where the next shot is coming from or whom it’ll be aimed at. But everybody knows it’s coming.
“We drive around critical hotspots,” says JC. “We see someone that’s connected to the block who can give us some details about what took place last night, and we put that together with a lot of other information and try and stop things before it starts. We go to talk to these high-risk guys one on one.”
Who’s high risk? “A high-risk guy would be a known weapon carrier who’s known for hurting somebody,” he continues. “A history of violence. Someone just released from prison. Nine times out of ten someone’s in war right now.” While we’re driving, Jamal gets a call from a woman whose “baby daddy” got killed the night before.
The transition from prison to civilian life is particularly hard—especially if you’ve been away for a long time. Keen to reassert their status, ex-cons emerge to find that they have been forgotten. “A lot of guys come home, and there’s no employment out here for ’em,” explains Jamal. “But if you’ve been gone for a long time, then the block done change. Brothers live in the past. And they think, ‘I was the man round here ten years ago. I’m still the man.’ So he out there showing everybody I’m still that guy. That’s where the conflict come in at. People say, ‘You can’t just come here ’cos we’re already established. Your name don’t hold no weight no more.’”
So how do they intervene in an environment as volatile and dangerous as this? It depends on the situation. Sometimes they can appeal to naked self-interest, pointing out to someone still raging over the death of a family member or gang member what is at stake for them if they act rashly. “He’s on parole,” explains Jamal. “He just got out. If he’s found with a weapon and he goes back, it’ll be ten years. And he don’t want no more of that.”
Sometimes the roots of the conflict are so deep that the protagonists have forgotten what the fighting was originally about. And sometimes there are people you just can’t reach. “There are brothers out there just wanna shoot,” says JC. “You can talk to ’em, but that don’t mean they’re gonna listen.”
In the past, they both agree, there was more structure and discipline to gang life than there is now. They don’t even call them gangs anymore but “cliques” (much like Stanley’s friends on Beatties Ford in Charlotte) that are loosely affiliated under the old gang labels. “Basically there ain’t no real whole blocks in Englewood no more,” they say, looking out over the vacant lots and boarded-up houses of an economically devastated community. “Just maybe five or six houses exist on one block. So it’s just cliques. They become friends, and when they get older they might do things like smoking and drinking, and that becomes your clique. A lot of the time they name themselves, sometimes after their dead homies. What’s your name?” asks Jamal. “Gary,” I say. “Say if you passed away and they might call their clique G-boy or Garyworld.”
As we pulled back up to the Cure Violence office, dusk had arrived. “Now they’re going to the liquor store and heading out with their crew to hatch their plans for tonight,” said JC. Four people were shot and injured in Englewood that night. None died.
TYSHON’S CLIQUE WAS CALLED Lolo World, after a fallen member who went by the name Lolo. Over the years, Tyshon graduated to a leadership position. His nemesis was Lil Herb, an accomplished rapper from neighboring South Shore from the NLMB (No Limit Muskegon Boys or Never Leave My Brothers)—a gang found on the East Side.
Lil Herb (who later wanted to be known as G Herbo) was the same age as Tyshon. He hit the big time in 2012 with “Kill Shit,” which he recorded with Lil Bibby, before going on to record with major artists like Nicki Minaj, Chance the Rapper, and Common. In one of his songs, “Chi-Raq,” he celebrates the violence that has blighted his hometown.
There is no evidence that Lil Herb had anything to do with Tyshon’s death. But in at least one song, RondoNumbaNine’s “Zeko Pack,” which came out six months after Tyshon was killed, he boasts about Tyshon (who also went by the name Posto) being shot. Tyshon’s clique is now called Postogang.
IF THE STREETS RAISED Tyshon, then for much of his teenage life the prison system housed him. He had only just been released from prison that Monday. Little more than six weeks earlier, he’d been arrested for a public-peace violation and for reckless conduct after police saw him in an alley where, they claimed, the Disciples regularly shoot. When they called for him to stop, he ran away, stopping traffic on South Marquette Road, only to be chased down by eight police officers and arrested next to his house. That time he only spent one night in a cell.
On hearing of his death, one of his Facebook friends expressed surprise, because the last time they’d seen each other, they’d been picked up by the police, and she assumed he must have been back in prison. “Last time i seen u we was together n the back of a cpd [Chicago Police Department] van the crazy part is i was going for talking shit to the police cause they was bout to try to play u they gave me a ticket n took u n i didnt even know u was out so when i got that call i wasnt even thinking of u. Then it hit me . . . u will be missed down here . . . prayers to all feeling hurt behind this . . . when will it end . . . feeling sad. . . . ”
The pathos in this account is in the assumption that had he been in prison he would still be alive. Herein lies the brutal reality of growing up poor and black in areas like Chicago’s South Side: that two of the most likely outcomes for a black male under the age of twenty-five is prison or death—and maybe, as was the case for Tyshon, both. These aren’t options—because no one in his or her right mind would choose them. They are simply the paths most readily available, in the same way that children of privilege approaching their final year of undergraduate study are generally destined to either go on to further study or start working. True, those young university students might end up unemployed or dropping out, but if they simply float with the tide of their race and class, that’s unlikely. From career counseling to peer and parental pressure, both system and circumstance are set up for that transition.
For black youth in low-income neighborhoods, system and circumstance are set up for an entirely different trajectory, and to escape that fate you have to both swim against the tide and hope for a lucky break. In this sense, as Regina tells it, Tyshon never really stood a chance.
Given the life he lived it’s amazing he reached the age of eighteen. A few years earlier, he was shot in the leg on 79th Street. The first day he came out of the hospital, Regina says, he was shot again, just a couple of blocks away from the site of the first shooting. When his mom went to the liquor store, one youth told her they weren’t going to stop until they killed him. “You his mama,” he told her. “We should kill you too.”
Regina begged her to move. Regina had once lived with Tyshon’s family—when she was younger and had a drug problem and had to leave to straighten herself out. She went first to Indiana, then to Wisconsin, and currently lives in Iowa. She tried to convince Tyshon’s mother that she could break the cycle if she left the area and that she could save her children from worse. When his mother refused to move, Regina pleaded with her to let Tyshon come and stay with her, arguing, “There’s so much more to see than Chicago and a liquor store. C’mon now.” But she wouldn’t let him go.
We’ve seen, in previous chapters, how the law of probabilities operates in terms of the criminal justice system, the job market, educational achievement, and so on. What is more difficult to quantify is the psychic load it brings to bear on those who are raised in such environments. “I think we need to recognize how fatalistic many teenagers, especially inner city teens, feel about violence—firearms, physical force, injury, and death are intimately known to these kids,” writes Prothrow-Stith. “Many poor, black, inner city kids are living surrounded by an amount of violence that even those of us who are experts in ‘intentional injury’ find astounding. What you and I read about in the headlines, hundreds of thousands of ordinary kids are living every day, often without protection or guidance of any adult.”27
Shortly after Tyshon’s killing a photographer for the picture agency Getty Images interviewed a mother who lived in the building where it happened. “She was happy that her 14-year-old son was locked up,” he said. “Because it was safer for him to be incarcerated than to live in the neighborhood.”28
This precarity pervades everything. In Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets, a gang leader, JT, explains to author and doctoral student Sudhir Venkatesh why he should always take a less lucrative deal now than the promise of a better one later. “You always take the sure bet in this game,” he says. “Nothing can be predicted—not supply, not anything. The nigger who tells you he’s going to have product a year from now is lying. He could be in jail or dead. So take your discount now.”29
A few years ago, Doriane Miller, the Chicago-based primary-care physician we met in a previous chapter, started noticing a growing number of young patients coming through with physical symptoms for which there was no obvious physical diagnosis. “They came in with complaints of headache or stomachache. Things you couldn’t quite put your finger on and that didn’t seem to be related to any diagnosable physical illness. But they were very sad. And sad in an angry way that you could tell they were very distressed,” she told me. In 2011 she wrote a play about youth violence and depression called It Shoudda Been Me after she kept noticing a certain type of tattoo appearing on many of the young people coming to her with psychosomatic illnesses. “They were not the typical tattoos of fantasy, like naked women, Mom, Dad, or a girlfriend or boyfriend’s name,” she says. “But it’d be a face or a broken heart with the initials of a loved one, RIP, and their year of birth and year of death. And most of those young people were born in the eighties and nineties. The ones that passed away.”
It didn’t take long for her to discover, while taking standard medical histories, that many of her patients had either been shot or had a close friend or family member who had been shot. Further probing into how that experience might be related to their ailments was met with stubborn resistance. “They were showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. But when I tried to help them tie the pieces between their personal experience around this life-changing event and why they were in the office to see me in primary care, they would say, ‘This is no big deal, this happens every day, please ask your next question.’ They wouldn’t normally say please. They’d say, ‘Move on.’ Because they wouldn’t want me to focus on that event. . . . I would stop to give them space and time and see if they want to explore it, and they’d say, ‘No.’”
Their refusal to delve into the source of their pain, both the physical one that had brought them to her and the psychological one they were actively denying, was not pigheadedness but a harsh, and arguably misguided, form of self-preservation. For her patients to discuss the effect of gun violence on their lives felt like an exercise in futility. Unconsciously laboring under the guidance of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer (which hung on my own mother’s bedroom wall)—“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”—they were not being obstinate but, given their limitations as they saw them, wise. Toughing it out was about accepting the things they could not change.
“I was willing to talk about it in the way that I’ve been trained to do in primary care,” says Dr. Miller. “It’s not just about physical health but what people bring to their doctors. Their life experiences. Their life circumstances. All of those things that make up who we are as individuals and can have a tremendous impact on improving health and health outcomes. And so knowledge of those things as a primary-care doctor matters, because that’s the way that I was trained. But my patients were not willing to share. Some of them did. But only up to a certain point. They’d say, ‘What are you going to do about it? Nothing is going to change what’s happened.’ There was also a lack of familiarity with the therapeutic process and being able to get counseling. But there was that sense that this is the way it is in my life and in my community. There is a learned hopelessness around this. And so you suck it up, you man up, and you move on.”
The proximity of so many young people to so many deaths prompts existential questions, even if they are not always articulated in the most sophisticated way. Confronted by their mortality in the full bloom of adolescence, the friends and siblings of those who die are forced to contemplate their own lives and, not unreasonably, to despair (similar to what Camilla, Edwin’s friend, did). “They think, ‘What’s the point? I don’t care. There’s nothing you can do about this. Many people I know at the age of twenty-five have passed on in my community, and the same thing might happen to me,’” explains Dr. Miller. “And so in that late-adolescent mind frame in which you tend to do more risk taking and tend not to think about the consequences of your behavior on your future, you think, ‘What the heck, I’m not going to be here anyhow. I might as well live fast, die young, and leave a pretty corpse.’”
In Britain during the World Wars, people would justify any range of impulsive acts—love affairs, hasty marriages, abandoning family, rash career choices—with the phrase “There was a war on.” The omnipresence of death and its constant reminder of mortality were not conducive to long-term planning. People lived for the day, never knowing if either they or their loved ones would see sunrise the following morning.
Many of the areas where these young people live, and die, look like war zones—empty lots, half-demolished houses, depleted infrastructure, militarized policing, potholed roads, boarded-up houses, abandoned churches. But more importantly, they are experienced as such. People (mostly young men) disappear—either to prison or to the grave—leaving a huge gender imbalance.30 In Tyshon’s census tract 55 percent of people aged between twenty-one and fifty are female; nationally the divide is even.31 In Chicago, more than 50 percent of the adult black male population and 80 percent of the adult black male workforce has a felony record.32 Times are hard, and the informal economy is rife, meaning there are hustlers everywhere making an ostentatious display of their wealth. The distinction between civilians and combatants is blurred; because the entire community has been criminalized, few trust the police any more than they trust the drug dealers. The one major difference is that whereas wars often cement communities as people band together against a “common enemy,” in these areas the enemy is everywhere and, potentially, anyone.
The outward pall that such a calculation—death or incarceration—casts over a neighborhood is clear: crime tape, bullet holes, police presence, RIP tributes by the roadside, rows of men lined up against walls with legs and arms spread, poverty, decay. But it’s obvious only to the few who make the journey there. These areas in cities are like open prisons. Few go in, and precious few make it out. Those who can flee usually do so. Such neighborhoods loom large in the popular imagination. Everybody in Chicago knows about the South Side. But very few who are not from there have been down there (apart from going to Hyde Park).
Moreover, precious few who live the life that Tyshon lived ever come out. “I bet you most of the kids who live in that neighborhood have never even been to the Loop, unless maybe if it was a school trip,” says Bautista, the community organizer. The handful who manage to make it out and who have the capacity and space to tell their stories are by definition atypical. Like “the runner” described by Mario Black, Stanley Taylor’s former teacher, they are the ones who got away.
For Tyshon, prison was probably as constant a feature in his teenage years as school. In one letter that Regina has kept, from 2012, he sounds like he could be having a bad time at camp. After dropping some heavy hints to Regina that he wanted her to send him money, he writes:
How have you been? I’ve been alright. Excluding the fact that I’m in the County for doing nothing more than trying to protect my life if them nigga’s tried to pull up on me. And the fact that I don’t think I’m going to get that probation because they never came to evaluate me for it. I mean I still got a whole month before I go to court but it’s not looking too good at this point. I might just have to take that year. I really want the probation because then it won’t be on my record. But I’m starting to get tired. Niggas starting to get on my nerves more and more every day. This food is so shitty and they don’t give you enough to get full at all. If you have to take a shit you gon be hungry all day so best thing is to hold it. LOL My hair is looking shitty. But hopefully I will be home soon . . . I’m about to get a cool cellie. And I ain’t had a fight the whole time. The only thing that keeps me from blanking up is writing these letters. So write me back fool. Lol. Love you and miss you.
But if prison was a constant, an early death felt to Regina like a certainty. “I hate the fact that he’s gone. But I look at it like now I don’t have to worry about him being out there killing nobody else or nobody else trying to kill him. It was sad to see him laying there. But I’m just glad it’s over, because now every day I have to live is a day when they’re not going to kill him. It’s a day when he’s not going to die. Because we knew it was coming, we just didn’t know when. We didn’t know it was going to come three days before Thanksgiving. We didn’t know it was going to come just when he was trying to get his life together. We knew it was going to come because of the stuff he was doing. So we tried to prepare ourselves. One day. And so one day, two o’clock in the morning, I get a phone call.”
Did he know it was coming? I asked. “I think he knew it,” she says. “He knew that a lot of people was after him. He put something on Facebook once that said something like, ‘If something happen to me who would cry for me?’ So I think he knew his time was coming. That’s why he wanted to change his life. But it was too late. He’d done hurt too many people. People had got killed because they were walking with Tyshon, and they tried to kill Tyshon and they got the wrong person. It was too late.”
On what would have been Tyshon’s twenty-first birthday, Bertha Rufus posted on his memorial Facebook wall. “Happy birthday tyshon its still hard to believe you are gone when your mom had you she was one of the first to have a baby in the student degree so we use to all take turns holding u n church it was like u were all our baby u are loved and truly missed R.I.P. nephew.”
His mother, meanwhile, continued to struggle through the bereavement. “We been talking every day,” says Regina. “She took it real hard. Real hard. To the point where she was telling me she wanted to die. She said, ‘Regina, I’m tired and I’m ready to go. But I can’t go because I’ve got three more.’ She used to be 190 pounds. She’s, like, 130 now.”
By that time, Tyshon’s mother had come around to the idea of letting his younger brother stay with Regina. But it was too late. “He got suspended from school. . . . He’s thirteen years old. It’s the same pattern. And then she want to give them to me. I said, ‘I can’t control him now. You should have given me him when I asked. I bring them to Iowa, and all these white folks gonna be scared of your kids. It’s too late for that. You should have given me him then, when I coulda set values and morals. But you didn’t.’ So now she got me sitting there waiting at the phone for another funeral.”