(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.
"Right now, shooting is the new fad," Hardiman said. "They get instant credibility. People go to sleep thinking who they are going to victimize the next day. It has to be addressed as a public health issue because you have younger people growing up with the same mindset.
"Eighty percent of the homicides in the city are black-on-black homicides," Hardiman continued. "People don't know how to get along. Some of them have low self-esteem. They resort to killing when they feel intimidated. We're teaching them to talk to one another, how to say, 'I didn't mean to look at you crazy.' "
Indeed, CeaseFire has worked closely with Heaven's family and within the community to prevent further violence, said Banks, who has three remaining children, ages 18, 15 and 11, all boys. Tensions ran so high after her daughter's death that there was a fear that someone would retaliate for the taking of such a young life, Carl Bell, the violence interrupter who has been with the Banks family since the shooting, told The Root.
"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."
On Monday, Jerrell Dorsey, a 26-year-old suspected gang member, was charged with first-degree murder and aggravated battery in Heaven's shooting, CBS News reports. According to the Chicago Tribune, Dorsey's lawyer, Eric Dunham, said that Dorsey was in the area when the girl was shot but was not the gunman.
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.
"I can't stay here," Banks said, her voice cracking. "She wanted to move before all of this happened, but we couldn't. I'm getting up out of here now. They can have this neighborhood."
Lynette Holloway is the Midwest bureau chief for The Root. The Chicago-based writer is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.