Credit: House Industries

Tony Wade has always been surrounded by violence. He was raised by his grandfather in Greater Grand Crossing on Chicago’s south side, a working-class area that began losing businesses, jobs, and people in the 1970s. By the time Wade was a kid, in the 1990s and early 2000s, very few weeks passed without an armed robbery or burst of gunfire in the blocks circling his home.

Wade’s grandfather did what he could to keep his grandson out of trouble—he sent Wade to Catholic schools, pushed him to excel in his studies, required him to attend church on Sundays, and taught him to work in his carpet business. Wade became a talented basketball player and spent as much time as he could on the court. “I didn’t really have time to run the streets,” Wade says.

But it was impossible to ignore what was happening in them. Divisions and allegiances started forming even before the kids in the neighborhood around Cottage Grove and 75th hit their teens. “It was like, they was on that side of Cottage Grove, we was on this side of Cottage Grove,” Wade says. “It was like a turning point when they joined a gang and they was an opposite gang to us. It started from there.”

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His future dimmed in 2008, near the end of his senior year. Wade says he always looked out for his friends, and when a group of them stole a car, Wade refused to give them up. “I was more loyal to them than I was to my family,” he says. Though he received his diploma, Wade wasn’t allowed to participate in graduation.

Once his days were no longer filled with school or basketball, Wade started hanging out with old friends on the block. After being so disciplined all his life, it was fun to drink, smoke pot, do some ecstasy, and make a little money selling drugs.

On the street, old alliances were shifting. Wade and his friends associated with the Gangster Disciples, in a faction they called the Evans Mob, after a neighborhood street. But some of their buddies were Vice Lords; the gang names meant less than the block where they hung out. As fights broke out over drug profits and territory, the physical space that Wade and his friends could safely occupy grew smaller and smaller. There were dozens of shootings and assaults in the blocks around his home that summer and fall. At least nine people were killed there by the end of the year.

“Certain beefs we couldn’t let go,” Wade recalls. “These guys come over here, you come over there, we can’t go to the park, the park is on their side. So we pretty much was left to hanging on our block.”

Even that wasn’t always secure. “At the end of the day, I’ve got to protect myself. It’s nothing nobody else is going to do. I’ve got to protect myself and mine.”

Wade started carrying a gun. Despite strict city regulations, the .38 Colt revolver was easy to get from friends. It gave him a thrilling sense of power. “Basically I got addicted to the violence,” he says. “Guns are very addictive, once you get in contact with them.”

In parts of the city, it’s far too common for lives to be shaped by the persistent threat of conflicts and the culture of resolving them with firearms. In fact, gun violence has come to seem as much a part of Chicago as the seasons. In the last 20 years, more than 12,000 people have been murdered in the city, more than 9,000 of them with firearms. Tens of thousands of others have survived being shot.

According to the numbers, progress has been made. In the early 90s crime totals in Chicago and other American cities soared, then began to drop. In 1992, Chicago logged 943 murders; 20 years later, the total dropped to 506.

Yet last year the city claimed the tragic title of the most murders in the country, for the third time in 11 years. It was little consolation that the murder rate was actually higher in a number of smaller cities—especially since the death toll in Chicago could have been much worse. On average, 47 people were wounded by shootings each week.

And then another flare-up of violence opened the new year, taking more innocent lives, generating more headlines around the world, and raising more questions about why this keeps happening—and if there’s anything more that can be done to stop it.

Over the years, police, politicians, and community leaders have proposed all kinds of solutions, from banning high-powered squirt guns to bringing in the National Guard. Along with the weather—violence tends to spike during the warm months and mild stretches of winter—the size and deployment of the police force is always at the center of the discussion.

But others argue that it’s time to focus on the circumstances that produce violent offenders in the first place: desperation, poverty, fear, addiction to drugs, addiction to guns. In many ways the issue boils down to whether we can afford to take the time to fight such long-standing ills, or whether we can afford not to.

CeaseFire’s Frederick Seaton aims to interrupt conflicts before they become crimes.Credit: John Sturdy

Interruption: Stopping conflicts before they become crimes

Frederick Seaton has the body and passion of a linebacker, and he’s blunt in sharing his views. For one, he doesn’t think much of the police explanation that most of Chicago’s violence results from gang conflicts. “It’s an easy out,” says Seaton, a professional violence interrupter.

His colleague Marilyn Pitchford agrees: “It makes people get scared, so they can give them a 50-year sentence. They’re always introducing laws, tougher sentences, but the guys doing the shootings and killings, they don’t even know about them.”

We’re sitting in the storefront that serves as the West Humboldt Park neighborhood office for CeaseFire, a nonprofit that views violence as an epidemic that needs to be halted through networking and intervention. Like most of the frontline workers at CeaseFire, their commitment is deeply personal. After serving time for illegal gun possession and other offenses, Seaton decided to repay his community by assuring others that they don’t want to spend their lives in a cell. Pitchford is moved by a painful understanding of how street conflicts can end up ripping holes in families.

For most of her childhood, Pitchford and her five siblings were lucky—by focusing on school and sports, they managed to avoid the gang conflicts that broke out regularly in their west-side neighborhoods. That changed for her youngest brother, Michael Davis. “He’d just finished football practice one day and he got robbed, stuck up, right on the corner,” Pitchford says. “And cars were driving by, and people watching and seeing it, and I think that was a turning point that made him say, ‘That’s not going to happen again.'”

Davis “got into that street life,” Pitchford says. He started using drugs. On three occasions he was wounded in shootings. Each time, he went back to his crew.

CeaseFire’s Marilyn Pitchford: “It needs to get to where you pull a gun and everybody’s like, ‘Really, dude?’ It’s got to be frowned upon that every time someone disagrees we’ve got to fight.”Credit: John Sturdy
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