Editor's note: For the past two weeks, The Root and the NAACP have partnered to present a series of reports on gun violence, its causes and potential solutions. To highlight the urgent nature of the problem, The Root is updating cases we have previously reported, including this Chicago story from 2012.
A few days from now, on Nov. 25, Jerrell Dorsey will attend a court hearing in Cook County, Ill., where he is awaiting trial for first-degree murder. The 27-year-old is charged with killing 7-year-old Heaven Sutton a year ago. A small measure of solace for Heaven’s mother, Ashake Banks, and her family was the swift arrest of Heaven’s alleged shooter. Few of Chicago’s shootings end in arrest.
Banks lost her daughter in a spray of gunfire on a hot summer’s night—June 27, 2012—as they sat on the porch on the city’s West Side. The child was struck in the back by a stray bullet while selling Hot Tamales, Lemonheads, Gummi Bears and other candies with her mom on a street pockmarked by violence. The shooting occurred during a feud between rival gang members.
“She’s grieving,” Carl Bell, the violence “interrupter” who has worked with the Banks family since the shooting, told The Root. The interrupters are part of CeaseFire Illinois, a local branch of the organization Cure Violence whose work was chronicled in the 2011 documentary The Interrupters. The group consists of ex-felons who work to counter violence in the community. The anti-violence group received widespread attention last year when Mayor Rahm Emanuel awarded CeaseFire $1 million to help reduce violence on the city’s South and West sides. But several offices have closed this year after grant funds were exhausted, according to CBS Chicago.
When The Root asked to speak to Banks for this report, Bell explained that she’s tired of talking, reliving the pain. “She doesn’t want to talk about it anymore.”
Banks’ story of loss is emblematic of those of mothers and families across the city, particularly on the South and West sides, where spasms of violence have garnered national attention and drawn plenty of criticism for the mayor, police commissioner and President Barack Obama, whose family hails from the crime-racked city.
Heaven left earth during a year when Chicago tallied more homicides than any other city in the nation, outstripping New York City—although Chicago has only a third as many people.
In September the Federal Bureau of Investigation released numbers showing that there were 500 murders in Chicago in 2012, up from 431 in 2011. New York City reported 419 murders in 2012, compared with 515 in 2011.
So far this year, Chicago’s murder rate has fallen. An estimated 354 people were murdered in the city through the first 10 months of 2013—a 20 percent decline from the 443 people murdered through October 2012, according to Homicide Watch Chicago, a Chicago Sun-Times publication.
Numbers aside, no one should have to shop for funeral clothes for a 7-year-old. But Banks did.
“I’ve been looking for something for Heaven to wear to heaven,” Banks told The Root after the shooting last summer. “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 was memorialized at St. Mark International Church on the West Side, wanted to leave the West Side, her mother told The Root at the time. Banks said back then that she had planned to move after she took Heaven on a trip to Disney World. But her daughter’s life was cut short before she could make the trip. The grieving mother still hasn’t left the block.
Of the candy stand where Heaven was working when she was shot, Banks said that she wrongly assumed it would help deter gangbangers from entering the block. Her daughter had been urging Banks to move because of the violence, but Banks, who works as a hairstylist, said that she was unable to afford it at the time. Now she is scraping her dollars together to make it happen.
Much of the violence has been attributed to gangs. Some reports show that at the time of the shooting, there were up to 600 gangs or cliques in the Chicago metropolitan area, with a membership of up to 150,000, according to CeaseFire. The group says that gang violence is so deeply entrenched in certain Chicago neighborhoods that it must be tackled as a public health problem.
CeaseFire is working to change the behavior of the criminal. Part of the deep-seated behavior 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. 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, CeaseFire officials say.
To be sure, CeaseFire has worked closely with Heaven’s family and within the community to prevent further violence, said Banks, who has three remaining children: boys ages 11, 15 and 18. Tensions ran so high after Banks’ daughter’s death, Bell told The Root in 2012, that there was a fear that someone would retaliate for the taking of such a young life.
“We kept a presence there,” he said. “It was a calming of sorts. It’s a tragedy. I don’t usually advocate jail, but this guy needs to go to jail. He killed a baby. The hardest thing was hearing Ashake say she was going shopping for a dress to bury her baby in.”
Lynette Holloway is a contributing editor at The Root. The Chicago-based writer is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.