How One Group of Moms Is Keeping the Peace on One of Chicago’s Most Violent Street Corners

The group wants to make one thing clear: Young black men are not the enemy.

Lillian Osborne and Jessica Stites August 5, 2015

Englewood's "army of moms" hosts a street corner yoga class on July 28. (Spencer Bibbs)

On Mon­day, June 29, Moth­ers Against Sense­less Killings (MASK) took a nov­el approach to coun­ter­ing blood­shed in the South Side Chica­go neigh­bor­hood of Engle­wood, the set­ting of Spike Lee’s forth­com­ing film Chi­raq and an area the media calls vio­lent,” trou­bled” and mur­der­ous.”

Safety is what everyone we talk to in Englewood wants—safety and respect from the police. They are not willing to settle for a false choice of one or the other.

Six days ear­li­er, a shoot­ing on the cor­ner of 75th and Stew­art had killed one woman and injured two others.

Hop­ing to pre­vent retal­ia­to­ry vio­lence, the army of moms” plant­ed fold­ing chairs on the south­east cor­ner of the inter­sec­tion and spent the after­noon chat­ting with passers­by and dis­pens­ing hugs. The next day, they were there again. They plan to return dai­ly from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. until the pub­lic school year resumes after Labor Day. So far, there have been no shoot­ings on their watch. 

As a moth­er, you will do what­ev­er you can to pro­tect your kids,” says MASK founder Tamar Man­asseh, 37. A rab­bini­cal stu­dent, she was raised in Engle­wood and has a 16-year-old daugh­ter and a 19-year-old son. “[Even] if that means sit­ting out on the cor­ner for the entire summer.”

While some oth­er groups that use pos­i­tive loi­ter­ing” as a vio­lence-pre­ven­tion strat­e­gy aim to clear the streets, MASK affirms the right of youth to be on the corner.

They need a non-threat­en­ing kind of engage­ment. … It’s all just love,” says Damani Bow­den, 41, slap­ping the hand of a pass­ing teenag­er. A Ford assem­bly line work­er and father of three, he is one of sev­er­al men who par­tic­i­pate in MASK.

The vast major­i­ty of these guys aren’t doing noth­ing wrong — noth­ing ille­gal, noth­ing immoral, they’re just hang­ing out,” Bow­den says, pitch­ing his voice to include the teenag­er, who is nod­ding. But they have to suf­fer because of the per­cep­tion that every­body out here is on some B.S.”

A week after MASK set up their chairs, news­pa­pers report­ed some­thing unusu­al: There had been no shoot­ings in the neigh­bor­hood over the July Fourth week­end, a time when gun vio­lence usu­al­ly spikes. The pre­vi­ous year, there had been 10 shoot­ings in Engle­wood, two with­in sight of 75th and Stewart.

MASK wasn’t the only group try­ing to keep the peace that week­end. Police worked 12-hour shifts. Tar­get Area Devel­op­ment Corp, a local social-jus­tice orga­ni­za­tion, sent 150 neigh­bor­hood recruits on round-the-clock patrols.

It’s hard to say whether the pause is sig­nif­i­cant. It was the first peace­ful July 3 to 5 in Engle­wood since 2005. But Asi­a­ha But­ler, founder of the five-year-old Res­i­dent Asso­ci­a­tion of Greater Engle­wood (RAGE), points out that the media sen­sa­tion­al­ized the July 4 mir­a­cle” as though some­one is shot every day in Engle­wood, which is not true.”

In fact, there’s a mur­der in the neigh­bor­hood about once every nine days, and rough­ly once a year some­one is killed with­in eye­shot of 75th and Stew­art. Yet since the June 23 shoot­ing, the cor­ner has already wit­nessed anoth­er homi­cide. It was at 4:30 a.m. on Sat­ur­day, July 18, long after MASK mem­bers had gone home. The vic­tim, Jemel O’Brien, 29, lived on the block.

The neigh­bors, though fond of MASK, are skep­ti­cal that it has deterred crime. Most vio­lent crimes are not com­mit­ted in broad day­light. MASK mem­bers them­selves have dif­fer­ing views: As one says the cor­ner has grown calmer, anoth­er shakes his head.

It’s pos­si­ble MASK is mak­ing an impact in anoth­er way: on the police, who keep a tight grip on the cor­ner. Squad cars roll by every 5 to 10 min­utes. Man­asseh believes that police refrain from arrest­ing teenagers for minor offens­es when MASK is watch­ing, which in turn keeps the kids from get­ting the crim­i­nal records that lim­it future opportunities.

It’s still very much Alaba­ma in the 1960s,” says Manasseh.“It’s very much an over­seer, share­crop­per kind of deal out here. The police have no vest­ed inter­est in this com­mu­ni­ty. They don’t live here; they don’t have par­ents that live here, or nieces and nephews. They don’t care.”

Sev­er­al MASK mem­bers say the police have asked them to leave or told the cor­ner kids not to talk to them, with­out giv­ing a rea­son. The Chica­go Police Depart­ment did not respond to requests for comment.

MASK finds itself at the inter­sec­tion of two inter­re­lat­ed prob­lems: the vio­lence that fright­ens neigh­bor­hoods and imper­ils bystanders, and the polic­ing that pre­sumes criminality.

The Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment is work­ing at this inter­sec­tion as well. When activists shine a light on police killings of young black men, they are inevitably accused of over­look­ing the prob­lem of black-on-black crime.” While this charge often emanates from white defend­ers of police tac­tics, Black Lives Mat­ter orga­niz­ers acknowl­edge that in order to rein in the pow­er of law enforce­ment, the move­ment must offer a rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent vision of safe­ty, one that does not rely on police and prisons.

Safe­ty is what every­one we talk to in Engle­wood wants — safe­ty and respect from the police. They are not will­ing to set­tle for a false choice of one or the other.

In the field of crim­i­nol­o­gy, the jury is out on whether police pre­vent crime. Most research indi­cates that the threat of pun­ish­ment rarely deters crim­i­nals and that putting more police on patrol increas­es crime reports but does not decrease inci­dents. Stud­ies show that police spend 80 to 90 per­cent of their patrol time on non-crim­i­nal mat­ters, such as traf­fic violations.

We’ll know Black lives mat­ter when pub­lic safe­ty respons­es aren’t defined by arrests or prison admis­sions but by work to reduce con­tact with the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem in the first place,” wrote Nicole Porter of Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based prison-reform group the Sen­tenc­ing Project in a Huff­in­g­ton Post op-ed. She notes that pre­ven­tive com­mu­ni­ty pro­grams like urban farm­ing can reduce crime rates.

MASK’s work is in line with these inter­ven­tions, but this kind of change takes time. What’s clear is that it has momen­tum: Mem­ber­ship has dou­bled from 10 to 20, res­i­dents of the block are join­ing the effort, and about 15 kids (the MAS­Ke­teers”) return reg­u­lar­ly. The group has begun host­ing activ­i­ties like relay races and mar­tial arts class­es at 75th and Stew­art, and has expand­ed to anoth­er cor­ner, with plans for a third.

RAGE’s But­ler empha­sizes the need for long-term efforts. No one is going to have the mag­ic for­mu­la to solve all of the ills of Englewood.”

It’s about psy­chol­o­gy, about why [kids com­mit crimes] in the first place,” says Man­asseh. They’ll tell you, I have a record,’ and it just sounds so hope­less. And I hate to hear that in a 19-year-old kid. You have so long to live. … You want to find a job? We’re gonna go look for a job. You want to get some­thing off your record? Let’s find a way.”

Asked if this could be called street cor­ner social work, she laughs. That’s a mother’s job — we’re unpaid social workers.” 

Lil­lian Osborne is a for­mer In These Times edi­to­r­i­al intern whose writ­ing has appeared on Truthout and Mon­doweiss, and in the Loy­ola Phoenix. Jes­si­ca Stites is deputy edi­tor of In These Times.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH