The Great Fire of Chicago

During the past two weeks, I encountered two more teenagers who are victims of gang shootings in Chicago. Both bound and loyal to the “don’t snitch” code. Both not revealing any information about gang names, signs, streets, or members. Both lucky to be alive. Both children whose mothers got the call from the police that their child had been shot. Both have siblings and cousins who are fearful. Neither of them is aware of the other and probably never will be. Both aren’t even legally old enough to drive a car, and they may not live to be old enough to legally smoke cigarettes.

In both cases, the teenagers and their families were informed about CeaseFire Chicago, which is a national non-profit determined to put an end to violence and gangs, and make communities safer. In Chicago alone, there are 120 street-level violence prevention workers here on behalf of CeaseFire. Both mothers called immediately upon learning the information and said they don’t want this to happen to their children or anyone else’s children again. Both teens reluctantly took the information, but made no promises of further contact. One stated, “It sounds good, but I’m too scared.”

Too scared. The gangs and violence are so bad that, even after being shot, the fear of retaliation from one’s own gang for leaving is stronger than the fear of being shot again by the opposing gang. Too scared to put an end to it. Too scared to move to a different neighborhood. Too scared to sleep through the night because of nightmares. Too scared not to go to school for fear of others thinking they’ve snitched. Too scared.

In his book entitled How Children Fail, John Holt describes fear this way, “What I now see for the first time is the mechanism by which fear destroys intelligence, the way it affects a child’s whole way of thinking about, and dealing with life. So we have two problems, not one: to stop children from being afraid, and then to break them of the bad habits into which their fears have driven them.”

With this understanding of fear, the city of Chicago has two problems: to stop our children from being afraid and to break the cycle of drugs, gangs, poverty, and violence.

CeaseFire understands the complexity and layers of these problems, as unfortunately there is no simple or quick solution. Here is CeaseFire founder Dr. Gary Slutkin’s philosphy of how to treat communities who are ill from the epidemics of fear and violence.

CeaseFire’s motto captures the perspective of our children perfectly: “Don’t shoot. I want to grow up.”

It will no doubt take a village, but the violence has got to stop.

Our children deserve to grow up.


If you’re interested in learning more about the complexity of violence and gangs, watch the trailer of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival’s Interruptersand then see the movie in its entirety. It is based upon current Chicago gangs and violence with input from the CeaseFire workers in the city. Disclaimer: Contains explicit language.

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