The Chicago Bureau

Erik Lopez holds a photo of his half-brother, 13-year-old Roberto Adrian Luna, who was killed outside of his home in April 2012. (Tribune file photo)

Erik Lopez holds a photo of his half-brother, 13-year-old Roberto Adrian Luna, who was killed outside of his home in April 2012. (Tribune file photo)

UPDATED: 5/9/14

By Yoona Ha
The Chicago Bureau

Roberto Adrian Luna, 13, died two years ago after being shot in front of his house by young gang members who mistook the boy as a rival gang member. He was among the 17 shot that same day, April 7, across the city, and his death catalyzed a ripple effect of anguish and fear among those who knew him.

For Barbara Cruz, Luna was neither friend nor family. But when her older sister told her that her boyfriend’s 13-year-old brother was shot in the head and slain, she became troubled and fearful that this wasn’t the first death that would impact her life.

“As a person of color and someone who lives on the West Side of Chicago, I guess you come to expect violence in Chicago like it’s just how life is and you don’t get to question it,” said the junior at John Hancock High School, located on the city’s Southwest Side.

Gang Violence Still a Problem

Despite Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s announcement that annual homicide rates have halved since 1992, figures compiled by Wesley Skogan, a crime and policing expert at Northwestern University, question whether there’s been any steady decline.

In a report titled “Reflections on Declining Crime in Chicago,” from 2007, Skogan noted that even though there had been a drop in non-gang-related homicides, “by 2005, gang killings made up 35 percent of all homicides, more than double their proportion a decade-and-a-half earlier.

“Because non-gang homicide had fallen more precipitously, the gang-related fraction became more visible,” wrote Skogan, who in an email also noted that he did not have updated numbers for the past several years.

In a 2011 annual report by the Chicago Police Department, gang-motivated crimes contributed to more than half of the shootings that year.

But Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project, an independent non-profit that analyzes criminal justice data, said labeling gun-related homicides as gang homicides can be seen more as political than accurate.

“There’s no evidence to know one way or the other on whether gang-related homicides are going up or down,” said Siska.

In fact, calling these homicides gang-related is a blanket statement, according to Siska, who has more than 20 years of experience researching criminal justice, because “there isn’t a credible way of knowing whether a homicide is gang-related or not because it isn’t so black and white.”

“It’s much easier for politicians and white male academics to call it a gang-related problem when in fact it’s a problem of interpersonal violence among marginalized people,” Siska said. “But they avoid calling it that because then the question becomes who is causing these people to become marginalized members of society?”

Gang member or not, bullet-fueled feuds among vulnerable community members show a pattern of taking one person down for taking out another–or retribution–creating a cycle that only dies off with time. In fact, so severe is the problem of retaliatory shootings and killings that whole groups and organizations–think Cure Violence and “The Interrupters” documentary–have cropped up to prevent them.

Special task forces exist within the Chicago police department to swarm areas after one shooting in hopes of heading off another. But gangs are wily, and the city is big, so getting the payback they want is too often just a matter of time.

Stopping The Cycle of Violence

With roughly 46 percent of homicides classified as gang-related, according to an annual police report from 2010, and the flood of headlines and viral videos of shootings, Chicago writer Miles Harvey decided that it was time to start listening to those who survived those downed by shootings.

After gathering and editing interviews with hundreds of Chicago youth, Harvey published “How Long Will I Cry? Voices of Youth Violence,” a collection of oral histories of youth affected by gun violence in Chicago.

During an event to promote his book on April 14, he said he was stunned when a moderator asked the hundreds of high school students in attendance to raise their hands if they knew someone who had been killed in a shooting.

“Virtually almost everyone raised their hand, and these kids think it’s normal to know someone who has been shot,” Harvey said. “It’s so tragic and bizarre.”

Gun violence hits harder in economically beaten neighborhoods than others, according to the “Gun Violence Among School-Age Youth in Chicago” report by the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab in 2009.

The study’s statement alludes to similar studies from Neighborhood Scout, a real estate online database, that reveal that neighborhoods with low income like Burnside, West Garfield Park and Englewood are prone to have higher rates of shootings and gang violence.

Restorative Justice as an Alternative to Zero-Tolerance

For Cruz, being constantly reminded of the guns that bloody her neighborhood have inspired her to go against “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” mentality that has dominated dialogue around retribution.

“Thinking about restorative justice motivates me to think not only just why this (Luna’s) specific incident happens but really what systems are in place to create an environment that stops shootings from recurring,” Cruz said.

Cruz said she believes that keeping teens like herself away from the lure of gangs stemmed from her joining with her parents and, importantly, her school.

But schools can blunt hope as well as give rise to it. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, backed by President Barack Obama, has made snapping the school-to-prison pipeline a top priority, and some writers have opined that success in this area could be Obama’s greatest civil rights legacy.

But it’s a stubborn cycle to break. According to some studies, police officers and even teachers, there’s a perception among teachers and administrators that suspending or kicking out a white student for committing crimes or violations at school would get in the way of his of her future opportunities, while referring youth of color to “the system” could be a way out from a life torn by poverty, crime and drugs.

“Expelling students who are gang members is not solving the problem but causing it, or at least adding to it,” Cruz said. “Young people feel the need for gangs because they feel like they are treated like criminals more than victims at their schools and this is what restorative justice needs to prevent.”

After high school, Cruz said she plans on attending college to further her community organizing and activist efforts.

“I want to help inspire young people that there’s more out there than violence and bad stuff, and that you need to and can step outside your own bubble to realize it,” Cruz said.

 

 

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