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Mitchell: Neighborhood invites gang members to cookout

Kofi Maalik Ph.D. attending barbecue corner Lemoyne LunJuly 2 says 'We have reach out' young people. | Alex Wroblewski~Sun-Times

Kofi Maalik, Ph.D., attending the barbecue at the corner of Lemoyne and Luna on July 2, says, "We have to reach out" to young people. | Alex Wroblewski~Sun-Times

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Updated: August 8, 2013 7:05AM



It is not often that gang members are invited to a neighborhood cookout.

But some of the organizers involved in a “smokeout” on the corner of Lemoyne and Luna last Tuesday afternoon did just that.

“A lot of people don’t like compromising with gang members or trying to bring them on board,” said Isaac Jones, publisher of the “Austin Voice” community newspapers.

“You have to. Somebody has to talk to them. If nobody talks to them, they are going to continue to create havoc in our community.”

Although most would agree there is a correlation between the ongoing violence and the staggering unemployment rate for young black males (more than half of black male dropouts are unemployed, according to a recent online survey), reaching out to gang members remains a political taboo.

Politicians, like Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) and state Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-Chicago), don’t want to be perceived as coddling gang members.

“As far as I know it’s a cookout. I assumed it was organized to try and help the kids that are hanging out with nothing to do, to try and get some summer jobs,” Mitts allowed.

She also acknowledged that “there is a lot of shooting in the area.”

In fact, later than evening, two teens were shot blocks apart in the Austin community.

Ashley Hardmon, 19, was killed in the 4800 block of West Potomac Ave. A few hours later, a 14-year-old boy, Damani Henard, was shot in the 5000 block of West North Avenue.

Ford blamed much of the gun violence on “renters” and “homeless people who are still living with their mothers.”

“To have safe neighborhoods, you’ve got to go block by block and take over each vacant lot,” he said.

The realization that without intervention, some of the youth who were standing around watching as volunteers grilled hot dogs and hamburgers would likely end up either a victim of or a perpetrator of violence rattled me.

In January, Marshall Hall, 21, was shot while he sat in a nearby Popeye’s Chicken in the 1500 block of North Luna.

The smokeout was held in a large vacant lot next to Hall’s parents’ home.

At first, a group of young men, all of them wearing black, stood across the street and watched as community residents gathered. Slowly, one by one, they drifted across the street to get a plate of food. After eating, the young men made their way back across the street.

Demonte Jones, 24, said he was unemployed and would be interested in hearing about a job. But like the rest of the young men in his group, Jones kept his distance.

Aaron Ferguson, 18, however, alternated between the corner and the food line.

“This is something very nice for the young ones,” he noted. “Some young kids might be starving, might wake up one day and there isn’t any food. This shows that there are other people who care about them.”

None of the young men claimed to be Maniac Insane Gangster Disciples, the main menace in the area. But when a uniformed police officer pulled up in a squad car, the group headed for the next block.

Jones, who has published the “Austin Voice” newspapers for nearly 30 years, knows how much control the gang has in this particular area.

Earlier in the year, gang members allegedly attacked his associate editor, Brad Cummings, firing five shots into a van.

“They took issue with the kids we had in the car delivering newspapers,” Jones told me. “They said we couldn’t deliver past Latrobe.”

A detective in the area suggested the gang members were actually “jealous” because of the jobs, Jones told me.

The Chicago Police Department has been in touch with Cummings regarding the incident and is continuing to investigate, according to a spokesman for the department.

Meanwhile, Jones and other community leaders set up a meeting with gang leaders to see if a compromise could be reached.

“That is how this [smokeout] came about,” he told me. “We are trying to hire Maniac Insane gang members to deliver papers and also give them some of the jobs.”

Midway through the event, about a half-dozen young people had registered for the jobs being offered. It wasn’t clear if any of them were gang members.

But Kofi Maalik, Ph.D., founder of RETRO Current, a community organization that seeks to educate and empower young people, wasn’t discouraged.

“Our kids are not so damaged that they can’t step up to the plate,” he said.

“We have to reach out to them.”



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