Heaven and Hell in Crime-Torn Chicago

A girl named Heaven is one of the latest victims of the city's gang violence. When will it stop?

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(The Root) -- The other day, Ashake Banks was planning to go shopping for her 7-year-old daughter, Heaven. But it wasn't the usual trip for dolls, stuffed animals or games; it was for a dress to bury her in.

See, Heaven was killed when she was struck in the back on June 27 by a stray bullet on Chicago's West Side while selling Hot Tamales, Lemonheads, Gummi Bears and other candies with her mom outside her house in North Austin. The killing occurred when feuding gang members sprayed bullets into a crowd.

"I've been looking for something for Heaven to wear to heaven," Banks, 38, told The Root on Tuesday. "Pink was her favorite color. I think I will buy her a pink fluffy dress. I'll get her some cute earrings, something to put in her hair and a stuffed animal ... This has been hard. I can't believe I have to bury my baby. She was a beautiful baby. I'm not just saying that because she was my daughter."

Heaven, who will be buried on Friday at St. Mark International Church on the West Side, was the latest casualty in a surge of violence that has rocked the city and shocked the nation. The uptick began on Memorial Day weekend, when about 40 people were shot, including 10 who were fatally wounded. So far there have been more than 250 homicides this year, up 38 percent over the same period last year, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The violence has alarmed city leaders and law-enforcement officials, who say that up to 80 percent of the shootings and homicides are gang-related. To help combat the problem, Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy announced this week that he plans to hire 450 to 500 officers this year to maintain the department's current strength, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. So far 89 have been hired, including 46 who graduated in April and 43 who started training on Monday at the police academy. The latest crop of recruits includes cops from other jurisdictions and veterans of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the paper says.

McCarthy's goal is to maintain a force of 12,500 sworn employees, including 9,600 officers. The new hires are expected to replace retiring officers this year.

Some reports show that there are up to are up to 600 gangs or cliques in the Chicago metropolitan area, with a membership of up to 150,000, according to Tio Hardiman, executive director of CeaseFire Illinois, whose work was chronicled in the 2011 documentary The Interrupters and who recently signed a $1 million contract with the city's Department of Public Health to help stem the tide of gang violence. The group consists of ex-felons, also known as violence interrupters, who work to quell violence in the community.

Hardiman says that gang violence is so deeply entrenched in certain Chicago neighborhoods that it must be tackled as a public health problem. "That way we can change the behavior of the criminal," he told The Root. Part of the deep-seeded behaviors began with Al Capone in the 1920s -- and then there's notorious former Chicago gang leader Jeff Fort, who co-founded the Black P. Stone Nation in the 1960s and founded its El Rukn branch in the 1970s. Fort's daughter, Ameena Matthews, was featured in the film as one of the violence interrupters.

"You are talking about years of wrong behavior that has been condoned," Hardiman said. "As a result, violence has taken as many people off the Earth as some of the great plagues. We have to work to stop it. We just have to make the time to do it."

Changing behaviors involves teaching gang members and former gang members to resolve conflicts. Today, so many youths are quick to pick up a weapon rather than talk, Hardiman said.

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