Jonathan Watkins and his daughter, Jonylah
Jonathan Watkins and his daughter, Jonylah

“There’s very strong gang overtones to this particular event,” police superintendent Garry McCarthy said at a news conference last week.

“This particular event” was the killing of Jonylah Watkins, the six-month-old who was shot in Woodlawn on March 11. Jonylah and her father, Jonathan Watkins, 29, were in the front seat of a minivan parked on the 6500 block of South Maryland when a gunman emerged from a gangway and opened fire. Bullets shattered the driver’s-side window. Jonathan was shot several times, and Jonylah was struck in her left shoulder. That bullet tore through her body, exiting her right buttocks. The shooter, who McCarthy said was a black man in dark clothing, ran through a vacant lot and fled in a blue minivan. He’s still at large.

Her father was released from the hospital Thursday.

Earlier reports said Jonathan was changing Jonylah’s diaper at the time of the shooting. But yesterday McCarthy said those reports were wrong; Jonathan was in the driver’s seat and Jonylah was in his lap when they were shot.

Jonathan Watkins has a long arrest record, and police maintain he’s also a Gangster Disciple. He clearly was the gunman’s target, McCarthy told reporters at the news conference last week. “This is another tragedy,” he said, “because no child, certainly not an infant, should be the victim of gang violence.”

And so, before the killer is caught, we already have our explanation for the crime. Gang related.

But how good an explanation is it?

Watkins met with police shortly after his release from the hospital, and he also talked with the state’s attorney’s office, but police sources have suggested he hasn’t been fully cooperative. Reverend Corey Brooks, the pastor of a south-side church who’s been acting as Watkins’s spokesperson, said that’s untrue. “Every question that he’s been asked, he has answered fully and completely,” Brooks told Dorothy Tucker of CBS 2 Chicago, adding that Watkins hasn’t been in a gang since 2007. “If he knew who shot his daughter, and who shot him, he would have given them that name immediately.”

Watkins has been arrested 30 times, the vast majority for misdemeanors. He’s been busted repeatedly for trespass, marijuana possession, gambling, and drinking alcohol on the public way, and has also been charged with two assaults and two batteries. As is often true with misdemeanors, most of the charges have been dropped. He has two felony convictions: possession of a controlled substance, for which he received one year of probation, and possession of a gun by a felon, for which he got a three-year prison term.

He has two tattoos on his right arm: on the inside, “I Feel”, and on the outside, “No Pain.”

When he was arrested for trespass in 2009—after he and several others allegedly refused to leave a laundromat on Cottage Grove—police said on the arrest report that he was affiliated with the “Young Money Boys.” In 2010, when he was busted for gambling in a vacant building, police described him as a “self-admitted Gangster Disciple”.

On February 23, Watkins did something that may be less common in Woodlawn than gangbanging: he married the mother of his child. The 19-year-old works at a McDonald’s.

So the jury’s still out on whether the shooting was gang related. But even if it proves to have been, is that all we need to know?

The perpetual focus on whether a crime is gang related ignores another common-denominator that’s an even greater factor in Chicago’s violence. Woodlawn is poor and black and has been for ages. Jonylah may or may not have died because of gang-related violence. She definitely was a victim of segregation-related violence.

Woodlawn’s segregation wasn’t chosen by its residents; it was foisted on them in the middle of the 20th Century by the neighborhood to the north, Hyde Park, with the essential help of the University of Chicago. Assaults on the first blacks to move to Woodlawn early in the century, and the burning and bombing of their homes, only kept blacks at bay so long. Restrictive covenants then were used to try to contain blacks in certain parts of Woodlawn and keep them out of Hyde Park. The covenants forbade white property owners from selling or renting to blacks. After the covenants were declared unconstitutional in 1948, U. of C. used federal urban renewal money for projects that insulated itself from Woodlawn.

Segregation combined with other forms of discrimination to concentrate the poverty in Woodlawn, and its residents continue to suffer from the legacy. The neighborhood’s poverty rate is almost twice the national rate. It’s even worse in Woodlawn’s western two-thirds, from Woodlawn Avenue to King Drive. In the census tract that includes the block where Jonylah and Jonathan were shot, the poverty rate is more than two and a half times the national rate.

It’s not surprising that police point to gangs as the chief problem in segregated neighborhoods, since they struggle with them constantly. And gangs are certainly a key element in the violence. But if we want to have fewer of these tragedies, we have to probe beyond this symptom. Why are gangs so prevalent in poor, black neighborhoods? Why are so many young men there drawn to them? And why are men in these neighborhoods often inclined to settle grievances with lethal violence?

I’ve been writing about Chicago’s segregated neighborhoods for three decades, which means I’ve written a lot about crime. I’ve learned, not surprisingly, that violent offenders usually come from violent, chaotic homes—and that such homes are common in poor, black neighborhoods. Some African-Americans don’t want to hear about this because they think it’s blaming African-Americans. Some white people don’t want to hear it because it’s “making excuses.” We tell ourselves instead that lethal violence is simply the individual choice of evil people—a choice that by a remarkable coincidence is made often in impoverished Woodlawn, and almost never in affluent Winnetka. We ignore the social and historical roots of segregation violence, and instead zoom in on the incident that preceded the lethal reaction—the petty argument, the drug theft. We settle for pat explanations like “gang related” that only explain a little.

I exchange letters periodically with a man named DeAngelo Harris, who’s serving a sentence for a gang-related murder, and whose case I covered when writing a book about Chicago’s criminal courthouse. Like last week’s killing of Jonylah, this one involved a shooting into a car that claimed an innocent victim.

Harris, who turned 35 this week, grew up in East Garfield Park, a neighborhood much like Woodlawn. When he was born in 1978, most families there were headed by single mothers living in poverty.

Harris’s mother got pregnant with him at age 14. She relied mostly on welfare in raising him and her three subsequent children. Harris’s father was never around. His mother had a string of misdemeanor arrests when the kids were young—assaults, batteries, disorderly conducts—but the alleged victims usually wouldn’t show in court and the cases were dismissed. Harris told me matter-of-factly that his mother punished him for transgressions by hitting him in the head or punching him in the chest—”wasn’t nothing way unexpected.”

He was 11 when he first caught his mother sucking on a crack pipe. Even at that age, Harris knew this wasn’t good for the child his mother was then pregnant with, so he made her promise to quit. He thinks she did for a while, but she was later sentenced to a year of court supervision for neglecting her kids, and then to probation for dealing cocaine.

Harris did well in school at first. But he soon was running away from home, and before he reached his teens he ended up living with a friend of his mother’s in the Rockwell Gardens housing project near Western and Van Buren. Like his mother, this woman, who Harris came to consider his stepmother, had an arrest record for assaults and batteries.

The Gangster Disciples controlled the Rockwell high-rise that Harris was living in, and he joined them when he was 12. Soon he was selling pot in a breezeway of the building. Harris’s stepmother knew what he was doing and counseled him. “Don’t get caught,” she said.

On a spring afternoon in 1995, when Harris was 17, the GDs got in an argument with some Traveling Vice Lords. That evening, Harris spotted a young man wearing a T-emblazoned cap in a car parked on Western. Harris shot three times into the car. Two of the bullets struck the man, 20-year-old Bennie Williams, in the back; one of them pierced his aorta. Williams wasn’t a TVL or member of any gang; he was a Texas Rangers fan. He was home from college for the summer, staying with his parents in Oak Park. He’d come to the neighborhood to visit his baby daughter.

Harris ultimately pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 38 years.

“I was him once,” Harris wrote me from prison. “I was Bennie! I was that child with dreams who love to make his family proud of me.” He wanted me to let Williams’s mother know “that I apologize for the pain that I’ve caused their family.”

For the two assistant state’s attorneys who prosecuted Harris, this was just another gang-related crime by another brutal thug. “I’m not sure that we can ever figure out why these people do the things they do,” one of them told me. The other shrugged and said, “Some people are just violent.”

There are no simple cures for the violence and tragedies plaguing Chicago’s poor, black neighborhoods. But we can start by thinking more deeply about their causes.