“SAVE OUR CITY STREETS, WE WANT CITY PEACE!”
Passionate cries against violence rang in the streets of Chicago’s Far South side this past weekend, as an anti-violence march and a peacemaking rally gathered local residents to spread the message of peace and safety.
Unite Our City Children (UOCC), a nascent grassroots organization created by community members, led the march that took place along East 106th Street last Friday as well as the peace rally in the parking lot of the United Methodist Church on Sunday. UOCC is a not-for-profit organization solely put together by the efforts of local parents and community members who saw the violence that ravaged the city streets.
The anti-violence movement followed a deadly month, during which five people got shot within a five-mile radius of the community over the 4th of July weekend.
Under the scorching mid-July heat, dozens of parents and their kids gathered in the deserted parking lot of a closed Jewel-Osco store. The troupes of community members then marched down East 106th Street, holding handmade signs and chanting at the top of their lungs.
A bespectacled boy named Gabriel Corona led the march, holding a picket sign taller than him. At age ten, Gabriel is the youngest member of UOCC, but he takes on role of the official spokesperson for the organization. In fact, he came up with the signature slogan “Save our city streets, we want city peace” with his father Samuel Corona, a founding member of UOCC.
“The UOCC will try to stop violence in the community,” read Gabriel from the mission statement he wrote. “The reason why we started the organization was to make a better future for the city children and help put them in a safer community. The purple bracelets represent us. We do this for the children.”
Nancy Valencia, a mother of five- and two-year-olds, complained that the streets are becoming increasingly dangerous, with fewer resources to accommodate the needs of growing children.
“I have two younger ones who rarely go outside and when they do, there’s always something happening—I do live in a community of violence,” Valencia said. “If you go to the park you even have to pay to do certain things like play basketball. They take off the rims and it’s just not fair. I just want to help my kids get better things to do besides staying in the house and playing video games.”
The crime in the area has gotten so bad that sometimes the violence happens merely a few feet from the safety of her home, as Destiny Colon learned when she was shot in the abdomen at a CTA bus stop in front of her home in the South Deering neighborhood. An assailant shot her while she was waiting for the school bus after reportedly attempting to take away her cell phone.
“It happens a lot. Not necessarily with a gun, but a lot of my friends got beat up over their cell phones,” said Destiny, 17, who survived the assault and recently graduated from Epic Academy, a charter school in the neighborhood.
Destiny’s mother Leticia Colon lives in fear of the violence rampant on the streets, and hopes to make a change for the better.
“We walk out of our house every day, and we have to stare at the bus stop right where it happened every day,” Leticia said. “She was in hospital for about three weeks. She had a lot of surgical procedures done. And with prayers and God she survived and now we’re just trying to do our part in our community.”
Within such a broken community, the march down E. 106th was symbolic, as the battered street is notorious for being a battleground between two rival gangs, according to Cynthia Tobicoe, a community member participating in UOCC.
“When we were growing up we didn’t ever have to worry about getting shot at,” said Tobicoe, a lifelong resident of the community. “I used to sit on my porch till one o’clock without worrying about my safety. Our neighborhood can be beautiful, but we need better resources and we need to come together as one.”
This is only the second march held by UOCC, whose first march took place in the 118th street. However, organizers are planning on holding a march every week at a different street on the South side to spread awareness.
As the march progressed, purple ribbons and flyers decorated the street usually filled with garbage and broken beer bottles. The community welcomed the force for change as drivers honked in approval and shouted words of encouragement from their windows.
That afternoon, hopeful chants and giggles of children filled 106th Street instead of rattling guns and police sirens.
Two days after the march, the UOCC members gathered once more in the parking lot of the United Methodist Church on Sunday. The event took a much lighter tone than the march, as many more neighborhood kids came out to play tug-of-war and jump around in the bouncy castle. DJs played party tunes, and hot dogs and goodie bags kept the children busy as the parents gathered to talk about change.
Rev. Zaki, pastor at the United Methodist Church, said he believes that the UOCC’s events are a very worthwhile effort to open doors to, and that it is a right thing for his church to support.
For a grassroots organization to spring up out of a community is a thing to celebrate, Rev. Zaki added. As a fledgling organization, UOCC is striving to reach out to as many individuals and families in the community as possible. UOCC is already getting support from Rising In Social Equality (R.I.S.E.), another community group who helped promote and plan the march on Friday.
“Our kids, we don’t want them to survive the streets, but thrive in them,” said Samuel Corona, watching his son Gabriel the spokesperson play around with other neighborhood kids. “With an event like this, we want to bring the community together and show them we are available as resources. We want to be a new voice for this area.”
Corona fears that there is less and less place for the children to grow, as gangs recruit younger kids off the streets.
“We’re in a war for the youth,” he said.
Corona also said that events like the rally can help children find a place to be themselves in a safe environment and have fun, instead of staying home and fearing violence in the streets.
As the rally neared its end, Gabriel mounted the DJ booth and held the microphone firmly in his hand as he addressed the families, friends and attendants.
“We thank you for coming out and signing the slips to volunteer,” he said. “And the reason why we started this was to help the kids and community so that they can take the resources that we give them and hope for a better future. Once again, thank you for coming out.”
All photos by Sooahn Ko of the Chicago Bureau.