Mothers fighting Chicago gun violence one block at a time

Tamar Manasseh started a mothers' community group to combat gun violence in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood. A year later, there hasn't been one shooting on the block where the group is active. (Photo used with permission from Andrew Gill/WBEZ)

Tamar Manasseh started a mothers’ community group to combat gun violence in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. A year later, there hasn’t been one shooting on the block where the group is active. (Photo used with permission from Andrew Gill/WBEZ)

It’s no secret that gun violence on Chicago’s South and West sides has reached horrific proportions. This is the story of how one mother organized a group to fight back.

The neighborhood of Englewood on the South Side, where Tamar Manasseh grew up, has high crime rates. A year ago, a friend trying to break up a fight was shot and killed on the 7500 block of South Stewart Avenue. So Manasseh decided to take action. She founded the group Mothers Against Senseless Killings, or MASK. The words “Moms On Patrol” are printed on the hot pink T-shirts the women wear.

With school out during the summer, the moms set up a safe place for kids in front of a courtyard of an apartment building near the corner of 75th and Stewart. They grill hot dogs or chicken and distribute bottled water. Sometimes the moms have fixings for ice cream sundaes. People sit on lawn chairs, kids play games, and music comes out of nearby speakers.

The moms from MASK are on duty every day. And there hasn’t been a shooting on the block all summer.

Several groups keep a daily running total of shootings in Chicago. As of this writing, there have been slightly more than 2,700 shootings since Jan. 1; the number is bound to grow by the weekend. The number of shootings is on pace to surpass last year’s already-high total of 2,988.

The reasons for the high number of shootings are varied and complex. There aren’t enough nearby jobs for residents, so too many people turn to gangs. Chicago police, wary of repercussions of actions caught on body cameras, are making fewer arrests (going “fetal,” as Mayor Rahm Emanuel put it). When gang leaders are arrested, it leaves gangs without anyone in charge so that other members are free to create more violence with less ability for the police to track it. Threats of violence spread on social media. And there’s still a huge influx of illegal weapons from neighboring states. The claim by Donald Trump that he could end violence “in a week” because a “top” Chicago police official told him “tough police tactics” were what it takes—a claim denied by the Chicago Police Department—is beyond laughable.

The MASK website describes the philosophy behind the organization:

I have a son and I do not want him to be killed. However, I do not know how to stop it from happening. In the very famous Bible story of the Exodus, we learn about Jochebed. She put her newborn son, Moses, into a basket and sent him down the river to find safety in the arms of Pharaoh’s daughter. I am certain her heart and her arms ached when her child left them. However, that ache would’ve been nothing more than a minor discomfort if her son would’ve been found and killed by the Egyptians. A piece of her would have surely been murdered along with her son. This is the pain that every black mother feels and sadly too many others as well.

There are no baskets or rivers for us. There is no one waiting and wishing to take care of our sons. There is nothing but cautious optimism, constant worry, and an abundance of prayer. That is all we have. We need more. We need a collaborative effort of mothers of every race, religion, color, creed, and of every educational, economic, and social background to help amplify the voices of those mothers whose wails, moans, and cries for help don’t seem to be loud enough for those that can affect change to hear them.

We believe the tragedies of Aurora, Colorado, and Sandy Hook Elementary School have done a great deal to show our society that senseless gun violence is not just the problem of poor people of color in the inner cities. This is an AMERICAN  problem. We are hoping that with the creation of M.A.S.K. we can start on a grass roots level to begin to come together and organize parents with an emphasis on mothers and the power of the mother, to become a presence in the fight against the violence. My hope is that we will become a support mechanism for one another.

In a way, the MASK organization is an outgrowth of Chicago’s long history of block clubs. A new book, Chicago’s Block Clubs: How Neighbors Shape the City by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Amanda Seligman, describes how the Chicago Urban League created block clubs in the early 1900s during the Great Migration—the vast wave of African Americans moving to the city from the South. The block clubs originally were started as a way for blacks to avoid racial stereotyping and evolved into ways of keeping blocks safe. “When neighbors work together in block clubs, playgrounds get built, local crime is monitored, streets are cleaned up, and every summer is marked by the festivities of day-long block parties,” according to publicity material for the book, due out Sept. 12. If you drive through neighborhoods on the South and West sides, you’ll often see block club signs announcing rules such as “No drug selling,” “No gambling,” and “No drinking.”

Chicago’s public radio station, WBEZ, recently did a story on Manasseh and MASK.

“This is the most uplifting thing going on in the city right now because you see all this negative stuff over and over again every day,” Manasseh said. “And I see it and I say I left 75th and Stewart and none of that was happening. I was in Englewood and none of that was happening. It really restores your hope in humanity.”

Manasseh said you can measure the success: first, by the crowds, which vary day to day but can number in the dozens. But there’s something else, too.

“This is not a dangerous corner to be on. It’s not like that anymore. [This was] one of the most dangerous corners in Englewood.”

There’s still crime in Englewood. There were 3.0 violent crimes per 1,000 people in July. Its unemployment rate hovers around 19 percent, and the average income per capita is less than $11,500 a year. Keeping crime off one block might just move it to another block, but it keeps at least part of the neighborhood—and the children—safe.

In any case, there are no shootings at 75th and Stewart, and Manasseh plans to keep it that way. As she told WBEZ:

“This isn’t just about stopping violence. It’s about building community,” she said. “You want to know your neighbors. When you know your neighbors people don’t die. That’s how that works.”

At the beginning, the moms bought all of the food and supplies for the nightly cookouts themselves. Now MASK is receiving help from around the city and suburbs in the form of food, money, and manpower. The MASK website offers a way to make donations and volunteer. MASK also organized a school supplies drive for kids in Englewood and nearby neighborhoods. The group holds weekly planning and strategy sessions and support group meetings for those who have lost loved ones to gun violence.

Another project is inspired by the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat. It’s the Abel Project, which offers families who have lost someone to gun or street violence a chance to plant a tree in that victim’s honor.

Members of MASK are recruiting people in other parts of the city, so moms on other blocks can keep kids safe. The more safe blocks, the less gun violence. Some new chapters of MASK also are spreading to different parts of the country. The website lists the latest chapters in Evansville, Indiana, and Staten Island, New York. A related MASK group, Men Against Senseless Killings, also is active with community patrols.

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MASK recently hit a snag with the use of the courtyard building. The building’s owner wants the group to move, and Manasseh was called in by the Chicago Police Department to discuss the matter. According to the WBEZ story:

Chicago police brokered a compromise: They said the moms could finish out this summer season on the sidewalk, but next year they would have to move their summer festivities across the street, to a lot which they could purchase.

Manasseh said she had to promise the city, police department, and the building owners she would never ever set up again in front of the 75th and Stewart courtyard building.

What will happen to MASK next summer? The suggested land is actually two lots, half owned by the city and half owned by a land trust that has not paid taxes on the property for five years. We’ll have to wait and see.

Oh, one other thing offered on the MASK website: Online voter registration.

This video about MASK is by Digital Producer Andrew Gill of WBEZ.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on Aug. 28, 2016.

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