Updated: May 17, 2014 6:40AM
It rose to 80 degrees in Chicago on Saturday, the warmest day of the year so far, and a spasm of gunfire quickly followed.
Over 36 hours, at least 36 people were shot.
The Chicago Sun-Times noted that “shootings each weekend for the last four weeks have risen steadily: 17, 19, 25” and now had set a record in the 30s.
Beyond the shock of the sheer numbers involved, the individual stories are heart-wrenching.
Jasmine Martinez, 24, “was shot twice in the head early Sunday while driving on the West Side,” the Sun-Times reported. “She was clinging to life at Stroger Hospital on Sunday, but doctors told her mother, Myrna Flores, that her daughter was brain-dead and there was not much hope.”
“How are we going to tell her kids?” her mother said. “She has a son who is 1 and a daughter who is 9.”
I am living near the University of Chicago on the city’s South Side this spring, and if you thought the weekend shootings would dominate conversation on Monday, you were wrong.
Many people now scan such stories to see whether the shootings took place near where they live, and if they did not, well, life moves on. For some.
The university and the surrounding area are patrolled by a vast armed private security force, as well as the Chicago Police Department. There is a university cop standing on my street corner most nights.
It costs more than $65,000 per year for a student to attend the University of Chicago, and parents, quite reasonably, expect their kids to come out of the experience not only intellectually enriched, but also alive.
The city does not have a private army, but it does have considerable resources devoted to the Chicago Police Department. The Chicago Justice Project, a nonprofit research organization, says “that as of 2010, the City of Chicago has more police officers per 100,000 residents than any of the top four largest cities in the country.”
The study also notes, however, that though homicides have dropped significantly in each of the four largest cities from 1995 to 2010, “Chicago had the highest rate at [the] beginning of the time period and sadly, despite the significant drop in homicides, Chicago maintains a homicide rate greater than the other cities.”
Almost all criminal justice statistics are controversial and open to interpretation. The Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents patrol officers in Chicago, has argued for years that the city needs more police officers to fight crime.
In the meantime, after the bloodiest weekend of the year, the Chicago Police Department issued a statement that in part blamed gun laws for the violence.
“While Chicago continues to see reductions in crime and violence, there’s obviously much more work to be done, and we continue to be challenged by lax state and federal gun laws,” the statement said.
Bernard E. Harcourt, the Julius Kreeger professor of law and political science at the University of Chicago, who is also currently the Stephen and Barbara Friedman visiting professor of law at Columbia Law School, senses that a “disruption of the old gang structure” may be responsible for the current surge of violence in Chicago.
The Chicago Police Department, he says, has been successful in arresting existing gang leaders, but this has had a “destabilizing” effect on gang structures at the street level. Former gang leaders are in prison, and new ones are battling for power.
Another trend also may be contributing to the violence: Chicago has closed more than 50 schools, and “younger people now have to walk through blocks that are not on their turf,” Harcourt said.
There may be more than 600 gangs in Chicago, some controlling territory limited to a single block. “Young kids no longer have a choice about entering gangs,” Harcourt said. “They are automatically affiliated by living on a block.”
Harcourt believes there is some indication that Chicago is in a transitional period with regard to gangs. The police have done a good job, he says, in getting rid of drug rings, but that has produced an unintended consequence: chaos within the gangs and paroxysms of violence.
“Youths these days cannot not be in a gang,” he said. “And that immediately produces more micro-level conflicts.”
Myrna Flores, whose 24-year-old daughter lies brain-dead, asks a question of the gangs: “If you want to kill each other, why don’t you all go into a corral and do it and leave us alone?”
If only it were that simple.