Alderman Michelle Harris.
LGBT-related issues concerning Chicago's South Side—including the 8th Ward, site of a devastating crime—were the focus of a brainstorming session and a youth collaborative that both took place on Jan. 18 at the Youth Pride Center, 637 S. Dearborn.
In the early-morning hours on Dec. 31, six Black males were shot at a party on the 7900 block of South Woodlawn. ( All were admitted to area hospitals and have been released. ) However, the crime—still unsolved—has set in motion a flurry of activity, including a Martin Luther King, Jr., Day march down 79th Street and several meetings, such as the events that occurred last Thursday.
A panel consisting of 8th Ward Ald. Michelle Harris; Anthony Scalise, commanding officer of the Chicago Police Department's civil-rights section; Lt. Regina Evans of the Chicago Police's Fourth District; and mayoral liaison Bill Greaves ( who also moderated the meeting ) listened as approximately 40 people—including 44th Ward Ald. Tom Tunney; Vernita Gray of the Cook County State's Attorney's Office; and community activists Earnest Hite, Keith Green, Tommy Avant-Garde Sampson, Marc Loveless and Darrell Gordon—passionately and clearly aired issues and ideas.
However, before people offered suggestions, Scalese discussed the shootings as well as a robbery that took place on Jan. 13 on 79th and Jeffrey. Scalese, part of the police's Civil Rights Unit ( which investigates suspected hate crimes such as the shootings ) , stressed that the department is assisting Area Two authorities. 'We're in a support mode with [ that ] division,' he said. 'We've helped canvas, we've done some interviews and we've helped uncover some leads, but the matter is still with area detectives because, at this point, it's very difficult to say that it's a hate crime.'
He added that 'when we investigate a hate crime, there are certain indicators that lead us in that direction. The presence of one or two indicators doesn't always mean it's a hate crime; things are not always what they appear to be—especially in police work. The indicator that we do have here is that it was a party attended by all gay men; we know that.
' [ What we also know ] is that two masked men entered, never said a word and opened fire. There's a lot we have to uncover here. ... We have to look for a hate motive but we also have to look for other motives.' He added that they have gone to Cook County Crimestoppers and that there's a flyer that offers a description of the crime as well as a $1,000 reward for relevant information that leads to the apprehension of the perpetrators.
Scalise also took some time to discuss the elements of the hate-crime statute. 'The state would have to be able to prove motive,' he said. 'The shooting is being handled as an aggravated battery, which is a Class 3 felony; the hate-crime charge is a Class 2 felony. If we get these [ shooters ] , the state will probably charge them with a Class 3 felony. The aggravated-battery charge is the more serious charge, even though the crime might be classified as a hate crime—so the judge will have leeway to sentence to the maximum because hate was the motivating factor in the case. With misdemeanors, a hate [ -related motive ] can enhance the crime to a felony [ which is more serious ] ; it's called a penalty-enhancing statute.'
Among the issues/ideas that were discussed were training for the police; assessing school curricula; continuing to investigate and provide updates on the treatment of the shooting victims; and starting community groups as well as public meetings. 'African Americans are the number one group most likely to be targeted, followed by Jews, who are followed by gays and lesbians,' said Gray. ' [ This ] means that African-American gays and lesbians are in two of the top three categories to be targeted for hate crimes. So we're targeted out in downtown Chicago, and then we're targeted in our communities. We're two-fers.'
Another idea came from Tunney, who suggested having the Lesbian and Gay Police Association involved. Safety, which one attendee described as 'paramount for everyone,' was also discussed.
Masculinity was another issue that was brought up, and it was also discussed that, in some people's eyes, being a gay male is not the same thing as being a masculine one. Natalie Bennett of DePaul University also suggested that this way of thinking is tied into sexism and the fact that, ultimately, some heterosexual males may be displaying enmity toward females in attacking males who 'not masculine.'
Yet another topic that came up concerned the emphasis on having allies support the 8th Ward LGBT community. Attendees said that the result would be more visibility regarding the demographic and its issues—plus, as one person said, 'it's harder for a straight person to tell another straight person 'no' about [ an issue ] .'
Several individuals volunteered to become part of a task force to look into issues that concern the 8th Ward's LGBT community. ( Greaves stated that the organization will hopefully include 'representation from the police and religious leaders' as well as residents from the ward. ) The nascent group will examine the issues discussed at this meeting.
During the meeting, Harris admitted that she did not understand many LGBT-related issues but added that she was willing to learn. 'That's why we're setting the task force with people from the community [ who ] can help me address the issues,' she said. 'I'm not gay; I don't know. In order to educate the community; I've got to be on target and understand the issues.'
Youths speak out
Later that evening, a large group of youths held its own forum. ( A few older adults [ 30+ ] also attended, but the focus of this meeting was on younger adults and teens. ) The youths were asked questions concerning their feelings about the South Side, masculinity and the New Year's Eve shootings, among other things. Some of the questions asked were:
—Do you feel safe on the South Side? One person said that he felt safe, but the others who responded said no, including one who said that he feels 'safe until 55th Street.' Another suggested that 'safety depends on yourself and how you carry yourself,' although another countered that people should be able to go anywhere regardless of who they are.
—Have you been a hate-crime victim and have you reported the crime to the police? Several youths said that they have been robbery victims, and that anti-gay slurs were uttered by the perpetrators. One said that it just 'comes down to protecting yourself. It's common sense; your life isn't worth five dollars or a cell phone.'
—What are the myths about the shootings at 79th and Woodlawn? One person said she had heard that people died, although all of the victims have recovered from their wounds. Another who spoke was one of the individuals who threw the party. 'It was just a house party, and it went off without a hitch,' he said. 'When the gunshots went off, we thought it was a joke [ at first ] .' The individual, who said that two bullets happen to miss him, added that 'there was no fight at the party' and that 'we have [ ideas about who the shooters are ] but we don't know [ exactly ] who it was. ... Before we throw another party, we'll make sure the space is safe.' When asked if he felt like the partygoers were targeted because of their sexual orientation, the individuals responded, 'Yes.'
The older individuals in the room also had their say. Power was one topic the older adults emphasized repeatedly. Whether it was Alicia Ozier of TaskForce Prevention & Community Services talking about self-defense and organizing activities; Sankofa Way's Rev. Deborah Lake stressing economic power; or activist Jerry Lightfoot discussing strength through unity and respect, power was a recurring theme that the more mature individuals hoped that the younger attendees took to heart.